Should your employer care how much sleep you’re getting?

Whoop offers its employees a bonus for getting enough sleep, but employees should think twice before handing over biometric data.

Whoop is a fitness wearable company based in Boston, MA. Their main product is a wristband that tracks, among other things, the wearer’s length and quality of sleep. It also calculates the wearer’s sleep needs each night based on historical data, amount of activity, and performance level desired for the following day.

Leveraging their own product, Whoop instituted a program wherein their employees can opt-in to receive a $100/month “sleep bonus” when they hit certain sleep targets according to their Whoop strap. The program also includes a public leaderboard where teams can keep track of each other. The premise is that sleep is a key factor in health and work performance. While on its surface this seems similar to other wellness programs offered as company benefits, a major difference here is the collection and usage of biometric data. While this is an opt-in benefit program and not a required people analytics program, one can imagine this type of data being used more regularly in the future.

One concern I have with this example of an employer leveraging biometric data is around employee privacy for those who opt-in to the program. Imagine seeing on the leaderboard that one of your coworkers has only averaged 50% of their sleep needs for the month. If you care about your coworkers, your instinct might be to ask them if everything is ok. Depending what is going on in that person’s life, they might now find themselves in an awkward position that they did not anticipate when they signed up to be eligible for a $100 monthly bonus. Perhaps that person is experiencing trouble in a relationship at home, or has been stressed out and putting in extra hours looking for a new job. Most people aren’t thinking about those possibilities when deciding whether to join one of these wellness programs, especially if everyone else on the team is signing up. The lack of privacy only becomes apparent when something comes up that you’d rather not share.

I am also concerned for the privacy of employees who opt-out. Because of the leaderboard, their absence from the program is apparent and not really a private choice. Thus, those who chose to opt-out are likely to be put in a situation where they have to explain their decision to their coworkers. Do employees have to defend their usage of health insurance benefits or family planning resources? Typically not. So why should the choice of whether to opt-in to the sleep bonus program automatically be public? Both of my concerns around privacy could be largely mitigated by doing away with the leaderboard and keeping both participation and results of the program private.

My overarching concern with this type of biometric data collection in general is that it removes agency from the employee. Just because I had a bad night’s sleep (or slept well!) does not necessarily mean I want my coworkers or my manager to know that. It also does not mean I will or won’t perform well at work that day. As an employee, I should be able to decide what parts of my life I share with my colleagues. While I appreciate that my manager might take an interest in my well-being, I’d rather he or she gets their answers from whatever I choose to share in conversation rather than from biometric data.

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9 thoughts on “Should your employer care how much sleep you’re getting?

  1. What an interesting example of an employee’s “illusion of choice”. We’ve discussed before how power differential between employer and employee can make these programs with opt-out mechanisms de facto mandatory for employees, but even in a seemingly-innocent case as this, conflicting design choices (i.e., having a leaderboard) still reduce this choice to be little more than an illusion. Yet another reminder to explicitly lay out and war-game the design choices when establishing these privacy-related programs.

  2. I fully agree that initiatives like this one have the potential to do more harm to employee well-being than the benefit they create – even with the best intentions.

    Tracking and rewarding good sleep habits seems like an innocent initiative; yet without understanding potential externalities and the workplace social dynamics that could be impacted, it would be dangerous to collect and openly publish personal data.

    To add to your points, having employees voluntarily give away sensitive data could become a slippery slope that could, in the future, “justify” more questionable practices around tracking employees both during and outside of the workplace, without their knowledge.

    In addition, the Covid pandemic has created a significant blur between people’s personal and professional lives, creating an “always on” culture for many workplaces. Initiatives like these have the potential to further exacerbate this phenomenon, and the issues arising from it.

  3. There is definitely a strong argument around the privacy issues behind Whoop’s sleep tracking program. However, I believe that this program has the potential to be a win-win for employers and employees, creating both more productive employees and happier individuals.

    Employers have been running company-sponsored wellness programs (either directly or through health insurance providers) ranging from smoking cessation to weight loss for a long time, and many employees (who would potentially not take any action otherwise) have been leveraging them to improve their overall well-being.

    While there are possible risks around personal privacy and unwanted conversations, I think they can easily be solved by establishing ground rules and being more flexible around participation (e.g. being able to opt-in, yet remaining anonymous on the public leaderboards).

    These practices are only in their infancy and we clearly don’t know how positive or negative the outcomes will be. However, as data collection and analysis capabilities improve over time, it is becoming increasingly important to start testing such programs and understand what’s working well and what isn’t.

  4. I totally agree with your concerns regarding privacy issues, and potential harms that could arise as a consequence of opting-in (and even opting-out) to the program. Personally, I feel like the program was created out of good intentions to promote ‘better’ wellbeing of individuals which is correlated with how much sleep they get. However, the way that the program was executed concerns me, especially, the leaderboard, as the goal of the program is to get people to their personal goal, not a collective goal. I would not feel motivated to sleep more if I’m content with the hours I got, yet the position on the leaderboard could nudge some competitive nature in people such they sleep more than the amount needed to function well for the day.

    One way I thought would make this better would be to just have email reports on a 2-3 days basis updating the participants progress, and have some way of saying that x% of people in the team are reaching their goals, such that they don’t feel pressured all the time with a live scoreboard.

  5. I agree with your points around the leaderboard and public availability of biometric data being risky. Even with the best of intentions at play, one can envision a number of dangerous outcomes when publicly gamifying wellness. At diverse organizations, the lives of individuals will inherently vary substantially, and it is not always a fair comparison to compare biometric data apples-to-apples.

    I like Korn’s suggestion around anonymizing data and looking at trends from groups and teams rather than individual scores. For me personally, I would find it more valuable to know if I am falling behind 80% of my office in terms of sleep targets than to know that XYZ person has slept 8 hours every day. By utilizing trend data, you can better anonymize personal information while also offering potentially more valuable benchmarks against which I can compare my own wellness targets and improvements.

  6. Wow! It’s troubling that Whoop is using sleep data to incentivize employees. Whether employees opt-in or out, sleep data crosses the privacy line. While sleep can influence work performance, it should not be information that your employer collects. An employee’s sleep pattern is dependent on multiple factors, and employees might not feel comfortable explaining why their sleep patterns vary. I think Whoop should discontinue its sleep tracking and allow employees to share the data they are comfortable disclosing to their colleagues.

  7. I agree with Kamal, Jamie, Korn, and Berten on privacy concerns! Even if it was designed with good intentions, collecting sleep data (or really, any biometrics) is creepy. What if companies focus benefits on subsidy/access to services like Calm/Headspace, nutrition apps/programs, and fitness programs (such as discounts on Peleton-type classes, fitbits)? Instead of tracking biometrics, you could track app participation and usage at the aggregate level. As “people analysts,” we could evaluate participation and engagement in these benefits with sentiment, engagement, and other outcomes at work but without collecting sensitive information. It also empowers people to take action without feeling watched.

  8. I completely agree with the privacy concerns, but I am intrigued about the idea of distributing bonuses to employees based on behaviors outside of work that benefits employers. I think this an example of that idea “gone too far,” but I do think benefits based on regular exercise or hours spent away from a laptop could be a less invasive way of rewarding behavior that is ultimately good for the employer.

  9. Interesting post.. thank you for sharing!
    I believe that to what extent does the corporations’ fiduciary duty extend: thinking of the trend oof the “S” of ESG, it certainly can extend to monitoring and caring about employee’s well being. But question of privacy is certainly an important point to note. So I agree that the employees should have the discretion to not to disclose their information, but otherwise, I think it is ok for company (or a third party) to know the information to track and ensure their well-being.

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