Employee Benefits Wellbeing Supplement 2005 – Feature: Workplace fitness programmes

More and more organisations are recognising serious benefits of having a fit and healthy workforce. Victoria Furness asks if there are real gains to offering the facilities on-site.

Case Study: Unilever

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We have all heard the old wives’ tale that eating an apple a day keeps the doctor away, but nowadays the role of exercise is recognised as being as important as good nutrition in keeping sickness at bay and employees at work. Although research into the link between the fitness of a company’s workforce and factors such as absenteeism, productivity and staff turnover is still nascent in the UK, increasing numbers of organisations are examining ways of promoting physical activity in the workplace.

It is a trend that Nuffield Proactive Health, which runs on-site gyms and health services such as physiotherapists and health screening, hopes to build on. It claims its portfolio of on-site gym facilities has grown by 10% over the past year. There are several drivers behind this surge of interest in employee fitness. On a macro level, Clive Pinder, managing director of Vielife, a health and wellbeing consultancy, says: “We have an aging workforce and by definition, older people are less healthy.” Statistics from the British Heart Foundation (BHF) support this. Of the 2.8 million people between 50 years old and retirement age who were not at work in 2000, 1.25 million were signed off as long-term sick or disabled.

Another factor is the rising cost of healthcare, an issue that is troubling the government in particular. Dr John Cooper, chief medical officer at Unilever, warns: “We will see an increase in the state pushing the cost to the employer.” The thought of further costs is likely to provide the spur for change within many organisations. But most employers are already paying the price of having an unhealthy workforce. The David Lloyd health and fitness chain of clubs estimates that employee absenteeism costs UK organisations £10 billion per year. Its research has also found that exercise can reduce absenteeism by 23.5% and staff turnover can be reduced by up to 16%. Another driver behind this increased investment in people’s fitness is the more general need to recruit and retain highly-skilled employees.

Offering health-related benefits may help. Becky Tarry, national corporate sales and partnership manager at David Lloyd, says: “Everyone talks about staff absence, but one of the most important benefits [of offering some sort of fitness scheme or facilities] is loyalty.” With the country’s economy and ability to compete effectively apparently under threat, it is little surprise that the government has shown increasing interest in the health and fitness of the nation. In November 2004, it published a White Paper called Choosing Health, which featured a chapter on health in the workplace. One programme that has arisen from the White Paper is the Well@Work campaign, which is being developed with £1.5 million in funding by Sport England, the BHF, Business in the Community and the Big Lottery Fund.

The programme features nine pilot projects based in different types of workplace in England, all of which are looking at physical activity, nutrition, smoking cessation, alcohol levels, and reducing stress. Exeter City Council, for example, is looking at creating a bicycle pool system – it already has a car pool system – while others have identified cycle lanes for staff as a priority. Nicki Cooper, head of education at the BHF, says: “There is limited research in the UK on using the workplace as a health promotion intervention tool, so our intention is to demonstrate what works, what doesn’t and learn from the pilots.” In a separate initiative, the Fitness Industry Association (FIA), the trade association for health and fitness firms, is involved in a Sport England-funded programme called Active at Work bringing together local businesses and health clubs, initially in the Cambridgeshire and Berkshire areas.

Each week, an instructor from one of the FIA’s member clubs comes into the workplace to teach an exercise class or lead a supervised walk if there are no rooms available. Employees that participate in the programme also receive a complimentary three-month membership at a nearby club and a supervised training session with an adviser each week. Andre Deane, communications director at the FIA, says: “Across organisations, take-up of the programme by employees has been 60% on average.” Some organisations consider it their responsibility to encourage health and fitness, but there is only so far they can go.

Steve Haynes, a consultant at Towers Perrin, says: “On the one hand, it is an employer’s role [to encourage fitness] because we spend up to 60% of our waking hours in the work environment. But at the end of the day, you cannot tell an employer to eat healthily or exercise, only promote and actively encourage it with support.” But for those who remember the sale of corporate sports grounds some years ago, today’s zeal for fitness-related projects could whiff of hypocrisy. British Gas, for instance, sold a large number of sports grounds when it was privatised. Jane Sheddon, HR director at British Gas Business, does not believe, however, that it negatively impacted on employee fitness levels. “In my opinion, a lot of the social and sports clubs that were running then were more about playing football and going for a pint, so I do not think it had a huge detrimental effect on fitness when they were sold. Now we have replaced them with third-party relationships and a better understanding of healthy eating and fitness.”

So what exactly are employers doing to promote fitness in the workplace? Initiatives range from the almost farcical, such as slowing down the lift, to the fun, like sports days for staff. But when it comes to fitness-focused benefits, most are incorporated into voluntary benefits packages. British Gas Business, for example, encourages employees to suggest classes they would like the company to subsidise, such as yoga or kick-boxing. Discounted gym membership for employees is another long-established voluntary benefit, but with drop-out rates notoriously high, not everyone is convinced that it is one of the most successful ways of encouraging staff to exercise.

The FIA, however, is lobbying the Treasury to extend tax exemptions to health club membership for employees. Some organisations, such as Goldman Sachs, have instead resorted to providing an in-house gym, a benefit which fits naturally in an organisation where the average age is 25 to 35-years-old and employees work in a high-pressurised environment. Onsite gyms have the added benefit of not being subjected to benefit-in-kind tax. Rick Haslam, director for client relations at Nuffield Proactive Health, sees on-site provision as time-saving: “If you have someone on-site visiting a physiotherapist, he or she does not have to take the morning off work,” he claims. He also thinks it encourages teambuilding across divisions.

Other services available to employers include online advice on wellbeing. Standard Life Healthcare provides staff with access to the online services of wellbeing consultancy, Vielife, when they join the company. David Furness, public affairs executive for Standard Life Healthcare, says: “It gives them access to a confidential health and wellbeing assessment, which asks questions about their lifestyle and gives them a detailed health programme.”

Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council is another organisation that has worked with Vielife, this time with the aim of tackling staff absenteeism. Mick Forrest, deputy head of HR at the council, says: “Over the 1999-2000 period, staff absence was 13.6 days per annum per employee. We didn’t think this was good enough and needed to improve.” After combining a health and wellbeing strategy with a campaign to raise awareness about absenteeism, staff absence fell to ten days for the year 2004-2005, and to 9.35 days for the first quarter of 2005-2006. Some employers offer fitness-related benefits in their flexible benefits or salary sacrifice schemes. Tax exempt bicycle loans are a new addition to some portfolios, for example.

However, take-up of such benefits has been minimal. “If an employee is working for a company outside London with adequate parking, you will not find many offering bicycles in their benefits package. But perhaps if you offer adequate locking facilities, showers and are based in central London, it might be more popular,” says Towers Perrins’ Haynes. Elsewhere, employers are hoping that fitness programmes will deliver other money-saving initiatives for their employees.

Unilever, for example, is currently investigating with insurers whether there is a way of reducing premiums for employees that can show they go to the gym. Whatever fitness strategy employers choose, everyone agrees that organisations have to communicate their message effectively to staff. Employees need to know why the policy is in place, – to reduce absenteeism, for example – and what it may mean for them. Ben Willmott, employee relations adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says: “There is no point in having positive health initiatives in the workplace if people dread coming in to work because of the way they are managed. It should be part of a holistic strategy of ensuring people have support, training and recognition to do their job.”

Where to begin

Several organisations offer help to employers that are unsure where to begin in promoting fitness among their workforce. The British Heart Foundation, for example, offers a pack to organisations – in return for a donation – called ThinkFit, which outlines the health and productivity benefits of having more active employees and suggests ways of introducing fitness into the work environment, for example, by offering flexible working or cycle storage. In Scotland, a partnership between Scottish Athletics, the Health Education Board for Scotland and Sportscotland, has created ‘jogscotland’ schemes within the workplace to encourage teams of employees to form a walking or jogging club.

Case Study: Unilever

Unilever bases its health and wellbeing model on several modules: a health risk assessment, exercise, nutrition, stress management and a scorecard measuring the outcomes. Dr John Cooper, chief medical officer at Unilever, says: “We have an in-house fitness trainer in the UK, who coaches employees individually, free of charge.” This was initially only for senior leaders in its London office, but has been extended to include other staff. The company also has an on-site gym at its London office. The initiative came about a few years ago after seeking staff feedback on ways to help them improve their health. “We thought it would be more health scans, and so on, but it was energy,” Cooper reveals. Since then, there has been a significant improvement in the performance and health of the company’s senior managers.