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Fitbit Captivate Conference: Behavioral Economics, HIPAA and More

Here are some major takeaways from the wearable wellness company’s recent conference, which explored how to impact employee behavior and how to deal with employee privacy concerns.

Fitbit has its annual Captivate 2017 conference in Chicago at Revel Motor Row, a beautiful Chicago landmark.

This Sept. 19 wellness-centric event provided many opportunities to listen to speakers and talk with HR professionals about well-being at their companies. Also, plenty of opportunities to have the best conference food I’ve ever consumed, including green smoothies, piles of arugula salad and what looked like homemade granola bars. A Healthiest Employers Wellness Awards ceremony capped the evening, with the top 100 companies being recognized and the best of the best getting the coveted No. 1 spot. I’ll dig more into the awards ceremony and panel of finalists, who shared their experiences of what makes a good wellness program, in a future blog post.

Here are some other highlights:

Behavioral Economics: I like writing about wellness, but I’m also critical of commonly accepted practices, namely financial incentives and penalties, which I feel can border on coercion and make the “voluntary” part of a voluntary wellness program meaningless. That’s why a presentation by research scientist Jeffrey Kullgren was especially enlightening.

Kullgren, from the Center for Clinical Management, VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System, introduced two schools of thought in behavioral economics. Either people are intrinsically motivated toward a certain behavior or externally motivated. Incentives and penalties fall under extrinsic, or outside, motivation. Unfortunately, these are more short-term than long-term solutions.

In general, people will resort to the old behavior when the incentive is taken away. Intrinsic motivation, doing something just for the sake of doing it, “is the holy grail of behavior change,” said Kullgren. Unfortunately, there’s not necessarily a way to change people’s intrinsic motivations.

His suggested solution is something that has not been researched or considered much before: integrate the two models. The general attitude toward these theories is that they are opposites and cannot align. Kullgren disagrees. We can take the best of both worlds, he said, by viewing foreign behaviors as being constant with our long-term goals.

For example, a person may not be internally motivated to be healthy but be very motivated to be a good parent. If they realize they can’t be the parent they want to be if they’re not feeling well, that could lead them to adopt healthier behaviors.

In this situation, an outside force/desire is making the person healthier. Also important to note from this researcher: “Not all extrinsic motivation is created equal.” Amen.

While simple carrots and sticks will not motivate a person in the long term, the desire to be a good parent could have a stronger impact on a behavior change.

Because measurement and data are always on the minds of employers with wellness programs, I will add this: One audience member asked Kullgren how to measure extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. He recommended the Treatment Self-Regulation Questionnaire.

HIPAA: Caroline Budde, global chief compliance and privacy officer at Walgreens Boots Alliance, Lauren Krasnodembski, senior counsel regulatory at Cardinal Health, and Lisa Acevedo, shareholder at Polsinelli Law, spoke at a panel about HIPAA and how it applied to wellness programs. Especially interesting was the conversation about data, privacy and employee concerns. Equifax was still fresh on their minds. Employees won’t participate in a wellness program if they don’t think their data is safe.

Krasnodembski asked, how would you feel if you did a health risk assessment, and it was spread around the company that you had a certain condition? Data breaches in wellness programs have happened, only none of them have been big enough to be covered in the media or garner a lot of attention, she said.

Employers may be frustrated with employee privacy concerns because they know they can’t access the data and wouldn’t want to. But put yourself in employees’ shoes. This has happened before, and it’s not ridiculous for people to be concerned about their data in a time where data breaches often happen.

Benefits Beat blogger Jennfier Benz recently touched upon this topic as well:

“As technology gets more sophisticated, employers can’t do enough to educate employees about their privacy and protections. Employees need to understand the considerable effort their companies take to offer programs and resources that help them improve their health and their lives — why you make that effort, how the programs work, and how employees are protected.” 

Back to the panel. One panelist suggested that employers have FAQs easily available to employees, with questions regarding their health data, how it will be used and who could access it. Transparency is key here, especially since this involves sensitive information. Also, give employees enough information that they feel empowered but not overwhelmed, advised Budde.

As a privacy-sensitive employee, I found much of this conversation reassuring (maybe other employees would, too?). First, the higher-ups have their sensitive health data in the system, too. They are not going to want a data breach to happen, either. Therefore, they’ll do everything in their power to make sure personal data is as safe as possible.

Second, look at Equifax. After the data breach, their reputation has taken a serious hit.

Third, even if one worker’s data was accidentally released, that would be an unfortunate situation for both the employer and employee. The employee is worried that people will know their sensitive information and that it could have a negative impact on their lives. Employers are worried that, even if a legitimate reason came up to fire the employee, they could not do so because of how that would look.

Mental and Emotional Health: I spoke with a wellness professional at happy hour. She explained a challenge in her company’s wellness program is expanding it holistically, to emotional, mental or financial wellness. I threw out an idea: Much like companies may subsidize a gym membership, couldn’t they subsidize another activity linked to emotional and mental health? It could be personalized to whatever brings the employee joy. One employee could use it toward an art class, another a cooking class, etc.

The way she explained it, that would be a regulatory nightmare. The money would have to go to something specific, otherwise administrators would have to keep track of where the money’s going to for each individual, and how would they know it’s going to something legitimate?

What do you think? Is there a way to facilitate mental health in employees as simple as subsidizing a gym membership? Is there a way to personalize the experience toward what an individual employee finds joy in? Would that even help with any emotional/mental health initiatives in the workplace?

Andie Burjek is a Workforce associate editorComment below, or email at editors@workforce.com. Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.