Virgin on the extreme: businesses use wearable tech to spy on employees

Employers are making use of firms such as Virgin Pulse to monitor the health of their workers. While presented as a benefit to employees, these services raise a number of concerns

It’s hardly revelatory to say that the collection of consumer data is big business. Facebook, Google and many other tech companies reap vast amounts of personal data from their users, often to be stored in the cloud. E-commerce giants make use of our search histories for targeted advertising while private companies sell algorithms to law enforcement agencies to track crime data and enable them to better predict and target crime patterns. Supermarkets, meanwhile, use loyalty cards to determine spending habits. Yet, despite all the hand-wringing, this data is often collected with the consent of customers, in a quid pro quo exchange where personal data is traded for the free use of services such as Gmail and social media membership.

Increasingly, employers are looking to do much the same with their employees, with an eye to monitoring and hopefully improving their health and productivity. Such concerns are not new, and date back to at least the early 20th century. Henry Ford campaigned against the consumption of alcohol, believing it impeded workers and reduced efficiency on the factory lines. The rise of health tracking, however, takes this further: rather than trying to prevent public access to a certain substance, as Ford did, health tracking concerns itself with small, seemingly unimportant elements of employees’ lives.


New funding announced for Virgin Pulse


Are willing to wear a health-tracking device for their employer

Virgin Pulse
Over the last few years, firms such as Fitbit, Jawbone, Nike and Misfit have begun offering companies systems that allow employers to monitor employee’s health. One firm, Kronos, counts Apple, Starbucks and IKEA among its clients and pulls in $1bn of revenue a year. Virgin Pulse, meanwhile, (part of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group) is set to become an even bigger player in the market.

In May it was announced Virgin Pulse was to receive a boost in funding, with Insight Venture Partners and Virgin Group together injecting Virgin Pulse with $92m in new funding. The company describes itself as a “habits-focused well-being company” that has “revolutionised how businesses create healthier, more productive workforces while also building great places to work”.

In practice, it allows employers to track and make use of health data relating to their employees. Virgin Pulse offers companies a variety of personal fitness tracking systems, which can be synched with wearables and other electronic devices such as smartphones. Firms can track and record the eating, sleeping and exercise habits of their workers and promote a so-called healthy lifestyle. Employees are given a personal wearable device known as ‘the Max’, which records data such as daily steps taken and the number of calories burned. Through a linked online portal, users can enter data concerning meal nutrition, weights lifted and hours of sleep per night.

The idea that your boss might know when you’re asleep is a bit creepy, but the raw data is not accessible to employers. Rather, it is turned into points. As The Boston Globe reported: “An employer cannot see how many calories a worker burns or how often she cheats on her diet. All the company knows is how many points she collects over the course of a month. Since there are many ways to amass points, the total doesn’t reveal much detail about what she’s been up to.” These points are then used to determine which incentives and rewards will be given to employees, such as insurance rebates.

Worn with problems
Harikesh Nair, Associate Professor of Marketing at Stanford University Graduate School of Business, told Fast Company the rise of health tracking through wearables and other technology is “definitely an incredible revolution… in workplace measurement”. He noted firms already recorded data from transactions – think of Amazon’s customer profiling or coffee shop points – to entice sales and stoke customer loyalty. Employers tracking employees’ health, he says, is merely an extension of this.

The comparison, however, has one clear flaw: while firms using health tracking say it is a voluntary scheme, it is not the same as choosing whether or not to shop at certain data-hungry retail giants. Where people shop is essentially a choice, with no compulsion involved; it might be inconvenient to stop shopping at large stores and e-commerce websites, but it is possible without penalisation.

Daniel Cooper, head of the data privacy team at law firm Covington, told the Financial Times there is a risk employees in a workplace where health tracking is used on a voluntary basis will still feel implicit coercion to take part. “Historically, European regulators in the data protection area have been very sceptical you can ever get a valid employee consent – they feel that, for existing employees, [the relationship] is almost inherently coercive”, he said.

Other than the fear of compulsion, there also remains the issue of employers intruding into their employees’ private lives. The line between the work and private sphere – already blurred by email on smartphones – is further degraded. From what a worker eats to when they sleep and what they do in their spare time is turned into a concern of employers, meaning vast parts of an employee’s life are colonised by their place of work, to be subjected to analysis and assessment.

The use of health monitoring is often framed in altruistic terms: Virgin Pulse claims to make employees “happier human beings”, while one of its clients, Ascend, insists “employees know we care about them”. Underlying this concern, however, is the view that such initiatives will improve employee productivity and reduce costs. Wearable and health-tracking providers pitch their services to prospective customers on the basis of either healthy workers being more productive and engaged in the work place, or (particularly in the US) as a way of lowering employee insurance premiums.

Despite these concerns, data (gathered through traditional surveys, not 24-hour wearable surveillance) suggests a large number of people are more than comfortable with their employers tracking their health. According to PwC research released in April, 40 percent of working UK adults would happily wear a health-tracking device for their employer. When it was specified information gathered would be used to “improve their wellbeing at work”, the number prepared to allow bosses to monitor their health rose to 56 percent.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote: “To be efficient and productive workers, biopolitics is deployed [by the state] to manage population; for example, to ensure a healthy workforce.” A similar idea is at work with health-monitoring wearables, but with the political part of “biopolitics” removed. Let’s call it ‘bio-HR’.

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