Professor Stephen Bevan: Can data and technology supplement the human touch?

In the last decade the proportion of employers who now recognise the benefits of having an engaged and healthy workforce and act upon this principle has increased dramatically. It is now mainstream to consider employee engagement and health as assets to the organisation and, in many cases, a source of competitive advantage.

Vintage medicine bottles on shelf

A positive psychosocial work environment

Nor is there a mysterious alchemy to optimising these assets. Giving people good quality jobs to do, with some autonomy, voice and control, can both harness discretionary effort and provide what psychologists call a positive psychosocial work environment, where employees exhibit both agility and resilience.

Parts of the compensation and benefits community have always struggled to see these ‘soft’ aspects of management as being part of their remit. This can mean that the focus is mainly on the value employees attach to health benefits such as employee assistance programmes, private medical insurance or dental cover, and whether these help attract and retain talent.

A new model

Of course, this somewhat more ‘transactional’ approach to benefits has a part to play, but my sense is that things are now moving well beyond a model which emphasises cost over value and ‘take-up’ of benefits over the health and productivity impact they have. One reason for this shift is more imaginative use of data and technology.

With employee engagement, I am now seeing more businesses making intelligent uses of survey and other data to help diagnose organisational performance issues and even to develop what are called ‘predictive analytics’. This approach can identify, for example, which employees are most likely to resign, or which have a combination of health risks which might make them vulnerable to extended periods of sickness absence.


With technology, there has been an explosion in the use of smartphone apps and now wearable devices which help employees – and their employers – monitor things like mood, activity levels, sleep quality and duration.

I have had the opportunity, as a judge at the Global Healthy Workplace Awards, to see the innovations being used by some of the world’s most tech-savvy companies.  They use these tools to develop employee health ‘dashboards’ which allow them to monitor smoking rates, BMI, cholesterol levels, rates of physical activity and self-reported stress both across the business and over time. This allows them to identify risks but also to intervene early with support, counselling or a referral to a health provider if necessary.


One major benefit here is the ability to focus on what are called ‘modifiable’ health risks – areas where action can be taken to adapt or adjust one’s lifestyle, with employer support. The use of apps and devices put the employee at the centre of decision-making about their health. This can be both empowering and scary, but I see it as a welcome improvement over the more paternalistic approaches of the recent past where sickness absence was often regarded as a behavioural or attitude problem to be ‘managed’.

So, if better data and smarter use of tech can empower employees to take the lead in their health at work, I think innovation in this space can improve outcomes for both individuals and their employers.

This article is written by Stephen Bevan, head of HR Research Development at the Institute for Employment Studies

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