The wearable technology company Fitbit, known for its ubiquitous fitness-tracking bracelets, announced on Tuesday that it was acquiring Twine Health, a cloud-based health coaching platform designed to help employers manage chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension in the workplace and aid employees in lifestyle changes such as weight loss and smoking cessation. The company describes the move as an expansion into the workplace wellness space:
With this acquisition, Fitbit further extends its reach into healthcare and lays the foundation to expand its offerings to health plans, health systems and self-insured employers, while creating opportunities to increase subscription-based revenue. The acquisition will combine the power of the Fitbit platform to drive lasting behavior change with Twine Health’s clinical expertise and proven ability to help patients better manage their care through a highly scalable platform and coaching model. In the longer term, Fitbit will have the opportunity to extend the benefits of the Twine platform to its more than 25 million users and expand into new condition areas.
As the leading manufacturer of fitness tracking devices, Fitbit was already a significant figure in the growing drive to incorporate these technologies into workplace wellness programs by collecting employee health and fitness data and using it to target interventions. The company has been sharpening its focus on this market for some time now, Paul Sawers observes at VentureBeat:
The US is currently suffering through the worst flu season since 2009, with the highly virulent H3N2 strain, which first emerged in the deadly “Hong Kong flu” pandemic of 1968-69, sending Americans to the hospital in great numbers. Making matters worse is that the flu vaccine this year is only about 30 percent effective against the H3N2 virus, though doctors still recommend that adults get themselves vaccinated.
Between employee absences, lost productivity, and the risk of the disease spreading in the workplace, a harsh flu season is extraordinarily costly to employers. The outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas, which tallies the economic impact of the flu each year, originally estimated that this year’s virus would cost the US $9.4 billion in lost productivity; in a press release issued on Wednesday, Challenger more than doubled that projection to $21.4 billion, based on updated information from the Centers for Disease Control suggesting that approximately 25 million American workers will have caught the flu by the time the season is over.
Challenger also ventured the theory that the open-plan offices adopted by many US organizations in the past decade could be exacerbating the impact of this particularly virulent flu in the workplace:
“The flu season is still going strong and workers continue to fall ill. One potential driver of the spread of the flu could be the open office trend that so many companies implemented in the last decade,” said Andrew Challenger, Vice President of global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. “When you take away walls, workers are in near constant contact with one another. During an aggressive flu season, this could affect entire companies, especially for the small and mid-size firms and start-ups that so often utilize this concept,” said Challenger.
Challenger recommends that organizations treat common spaces “as gyms treat exercise equipment”: clean them daily with disinfectant and make sure to keep a steady supply of soap and hand sanitizer available.
In the US, the 2017-2018 flu season is not even over, but it’s already the worst in nearly a decade, the New York Times reported last week:
Nationally, the number of people falling ill with flu is increasing. More worrying, the hospitalization rate — a predictor of the death rate — has just jumped. It is now on track to equal or surpass that of the 2014-2015 flu season. In that year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates, 34 million Americans got the flu, 710,000 were hospitalized and about 56,000 died.
While the 2009 pandemic of the H1N1 strain of influenza (known as “swine flu”) caused more people to fall ill, Dr. Daniel B. Jernigan, director of the CDC’s influenza division, told the Times, the dominant virus this year is the H3N2 strain, which first emerged in the deadly “Hong Kong flu” pandemic of 1968-69 and was also responsible for the high numbers of flu victims in the 1997-1998 and 2003-2004 seasons. A disconcerting feature of this year’s flu is that an unusual number of hospitalizations are occurring among middle-aged patients:
As is typical, people over 65 are the most likely to be hospitalized. But in an unusual twist, those aged 50 to 64 — rather than infants — are the age cohort right behind the elderly. … Hospitalizations and deaths among people in that age group can hurt the economy more than deaths of the elderly, he noted, since they are in their peak earning years and often in supervisory positions.
Business in the Community, a nonprofit organization in the UK, and Public Health England, a government agency, have launched a toolkit for employers to use in their efforts to reduce the impact of sleep deprivation on their workforce, Ashleigh Wight reported last week at Personnel Today:
Their Sleep and Recovery Toolkit encourages employers to create the right sleep culture in the workplace. This includes measures such as providing access to natural light, introducing flexitime for employees who travel or work across different time zones, and avoiding or reducing the frequency of emails sent outside of working hours
The toolkit also provides steps for early intervention before sleep deprivation becomes a problem. These include signposting information that may help employees get a better night’s sleep, redesigning individual workers’ jobs if it becomes apparent they could be tired, and encouraging staff to speak up about issues with sleep. A number of measures to aid with recovery are also suggested, such as making sure employees stay hydrated, take screen breaks and use all of their annual leave entitlement.
While sleep deprivation has been a workplace problem at least since the dawn of the modern era and the advent of shift work, advances in neuroscience have enabled researchers in recent years to pinpoint exactly how not getting enough rest makes us worse at our jobs. In addition to diminishing cognitive function and performance, sleep deprivation can harm emotional intelligence, making us more prone to interpersonal conflicts, while leaders who neglect sleep are less charismatic and have a harder time inspiring their teams.
Drug use among US employees has been increasing in recent years, with marijuana accounting for about half of the American workforce’s illegal drug habits. With a tight talent market, greater mainstream acceptance, and state-level legalization of marijuana, some employers have begun relaxing their drug testing policies, abandoning the zero-tolerance approach in favor of case-by-case judgments. The biggest substance abuse problems in the US, however, are not illegal drugs but rather alcohol and prescription opioid painkillers. Opioid addiction, as well as the underlying physical health issues that lead to these drugs being prescribed, has been persuasively identified as a significant driver of the decline in American workforce participation rates, particularly among men in what ought to be their prime working years.
Even more disconcerting is that the number of US employees dying from drug- or alcohol-related causes while at work has also risen sharply in recent years. While in absolute terms, those numbers remain very small, the rapid rate of increase is cause for concern, Gillian B. White warned at the Atlantic last month:
Last year alone, the number of workers who died at work because of drug- or alcohol-abuse-related incidents increased by more than 30 percent, to more than 200. While that number may seem small, it’s evidence of how rapidly the problem is growing—less than five years ago, fewer than 70 people died from overdoses at work. Since 2012, the number of people dying from drug or alcohol related causes while on the job has been growing by at least 25 percent each year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. …
A tight market for qualified workers is making some US employers rethink their approaches to employee drug use, relaxing zero-tolerance policies for jobs that are not safety-sensitive, Steve Bates reports at SHRM:
Low unemployment and increasing use of illegal drugs are narrowing the pool of qualified workers in many regions and industries. State laws allowing medical and recreational use of marijuana are complicating recruiters’ efforts to find drug-free employees, as is the continued abuse of prescription opioids.
There are no indications that employers are relaxing standards for jobs that are safety-critical. Some such positions, including airline pilots and truck drivers, are regulated by the federal government and have strict prohibitions against drug use. However, HR and drug testing industry leaders say some employers are taking a new look at—and in some cases relaxing—their drug policies for positions that entail relatively low risk of injury or error, such as clerical and knowledge economy jobs.
What many of these employers are doing, it seems, is replacing the zero-tolerance approach with a more flexible standard that allows for case-by-case judgments about individual candidates or employees. Softer drug policies can also be a part of employers’ efforts to help address the crisis of addiction to opioid pain medication in the US. One Indiana company, for example, began testing its employees for opioids as well as training managers to identify signs of painkiller abuse, so that employees who are using these drugs can be directed to treatment if needed and moved out of safety-sensitive roles.
The UK’s Fit for Work program was established as a free, national service to offer work-related health advice and information to employees, employers, doctors, and the public. With a view to helping Britons get back to work sooner after a serious illness or injury, the scheme also enables general practitioners to refer patients who have been, or who are likely to be, off sick for four weeks or more to an occupational health professional to assess the obstacles preventing them from returning to work and create a unique Return to Work Plan for them. In 2015, the scheme was expanded to allow employers to also refer employees who have not yet been referred by their GP after four weeks of absence.
“However,” Marianne Calnan writes at People Management, “the scheme has been beset by poor take-up and complaints from employers that felt it either replicated their own occupational health efforts or was too poorly publicised to have a significant impact on long-term illness,” and so the government is phasing out the referral scheme in favor of new approaches to occupational health policy:
A new paper, Improving lives: the future of work, health and disability, states that Fit for Work’s assessment services will end in England and Wales on 31 March 2018 and 31 May in Scotland, following “low” referral rates. Employers, employees and GPs will still have access to its helpline, website and web chat service, which offer general health and work advice, as well as sickness absence support. …