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Are You Willing To Share Your Wearables Data With Your Boss?


A lot of people like to carefully track how many steps they take or how much stress they're feeling with wearable technology like a Fitbit or an Apple Watch. Now some employers want that data. They think it could help them control costs by making sure employees stay healthy and happy. This was interesting to Sarah O'Connor because she covers employment for the Financial Times. Last week, she strapped on some of these gadgets and then shared the data with her boss.

FINANCIAL TIMES SARAH O'CONNOR: I had a heart rate monitor, a sleep monitor and activity tracker. I also wore something called a Moodmetric ring, which purports to tell you your mood in real time in terms of how stressed or relaxed you are. And we also had a sort of headband, which looked very much like a kind of cyborg thing, which you wore and it measured your brain waves. One other thing was a research device called a GENEActiv. It looks like a big, chunky watch, and I'm not entirely sure what it was measuring. But I have to give that back to the researchers now, and they're going to tell me some very deep insights, like some kind of biometric profile about the kind of person I am and the life I lead. So I'm slightly daunted about getting those results.

MONTAGNE: Breakdown for us what the data then told you about yourself.

O'CONNOR: Because I was aware that I was wearing all this stuff and I was going to give the data to my boss - and also to the world - I sort of wanted to impress people. So I made sure that I slept for eight hours a night. I ran to work on the first day. My stress levels seemed to be reasonably good, particularly on the first couple of days, although I became more anxious as the week wore on. The one that I did really badly, though, was the headband that measured my brain waves. I was meant to try and settle my brain into a Zen-like state. I managed to do that for 4 percent of the time, which I think was a slightly damning indictment of my mental state last week.

MONTAGNE: (Laughter). Well, when it came to turning this over to your editor, how did you feel about knowing you are going to share this information with someone who essentially is your boss?

O'CONNOR: It felt very weird, and actually, I really didn't like the feeling at all. It just felt as if my job was suddenly leaking into every area of my life. Like on the Thursday night, a good friend and colleague had a 30th birthday party, and I went along. And it got to sort of 1 o'clock, and I realized I was panicking about my sleep monitor and what it was going to look like the next day. And also interestingly, I think I misjudged how he would interpret the data. I think I thought he'd be really impressed to see that I was sleeping eight hours at the start of the week. And actually I think he looked at that, and he thought I was sleeping a bit too much, and I could've done with being slightly more energetic and rushing into work a bit earlier. So it just goes to show you never quite know what your boss wants from you.

MONTAGNE: (Laughter). You know, I gather you asked colleagues what they thought of the idea.

O'CONNOR: I did. And most of them, as you might expect, were firmly negative. So my colleague, Rob (ph), just said, this is terrible. What an awful infringement of your civil liberties and your privacy and your dignity. You know, the employment relationship is like this - I give you the work, and you give me the money. Anything else and you can go to hell. You know, that was - that was his feeling.

Then on the other hand, some of the younger people I asked were more open to it, although with caveats. But some of them said, well, you know, if they actually use this data to figure out how to improve our working lives in some way. But it was anonymized, and it didn't feel as if they were using it to shape our individual careers, then maybe I would be open to it. And some of the companies that are trying to work out how to measure employees' activity levels and stress levels are realizing that actually if you put in some kind of anonymization function, that that actually makes employees a lot more willing to go along with it.

MONTAGNE: So is that it then for you with these devices?

O'CONNOR: I took them all off on Friday night. It was an incredibly good feeling. I really grew to sort of hate them by the end, actually. So I felt an awful lot lighter, and my back was straighter when I took them off.

MONTAGNE: Sarah O'Connor writes for the Financial Times. Thank you very much.

O'CONNOR: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.