December 14, 2019

Bentley University professor warns about potential misuse of employee health data - The Bentley University Newsroom

She cites blood pressure as one example. While chronically high blood pressure can lead to heart attacks, strokes and other debilitating cardiac diseases, intermittent spikes can occur when someone experiences anxiety or stress. If employers have access to such data, they may make assumptions about an individual’s health: “Employers could decide that workers with higher stress levels are likely to be less productive and less desirable,” and consider them first in line to be (or preemptively) fired or demoted.

For women tracking their reproductive cycles, the stakes are even higher. “For most women, periods are a private matter,” Brown notes, “in part because of all the offensive stereotypes that can go along with them. Employers who consciously or unconsciously believe that women who are menstruating are distracted or incompetent, or that women who are trying to conceive are poor candidates for investment or promotion, or that mothers are less committed to their work than fathers, could use this data to bolster those prejudices.”

What’s more, employees discriminated against on the basis of biometrics have no legal recourse. Most people assume they’re protected by the strict privacy laws established in the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), Brown explains. However, “HIPAA was written before the rise of this kind of extensive data collection”; wearable technology manufacturers not only aren’t covered entities, they’re also legally able to share health information they collect with third parties.

So how can we ensure bosses aren’t basing business decisions on biometrics? First and foremost, Brown says, we need to close HIPAA’s data privacy loopholes and enact legislation to regulate monitoring devices. But she also offers a more radical alternative: Remove health insurance from the workplace entirely. “If employers no longer had to shoulder so much of the cost of health insurance,” she reasons, “they’d likely lose the incentive to track the health of their employees.” Which would ultimately lead to healthier relationships between workers and bosses, Brown notes: “We should be evaluated on our performance, not our biology.”

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