Is your employees' BMI your business?

Research shows employee fitness initiatives work, but where's the line between helpful and invasive?

China’s rapid industrialization has been good for the economy, but the sedentary lifestyle and diet changes that come with it have been bad for big-city waistlines. Last month, in response to research suggesting that more than 25% of Chinese adults are overweight or obese, and that the rate of increase is faster than the U.S., Beijing reinstated mandatory calisthenics to help combat the inactivity that comes from being “too busy” to work out.

The city’s calisthenics program, which began in 1951 as a radio broadcast designed to keep the population strong and ready to defend itself, ran until 2007 when the airtime was needed for the Beijing Olympic broadcasts. But now this simple set of eight-minute gymnastic exercises is back, and the government expects participation to be encouraged by managers across the city. In the short term, they hope to involve 60% of workplaces and 70% of government departments. By next year, they expect all state-owned businesses to adopt the routine.

Of course, in North America, state-enforced jumping jacks are not a likely solution to our own growing obesity crisis. But it does raise interesting question: in Canada, where 36% of the population is classified as overweight, and 23% as obese, do employers have an ethical obligation to facilitate physical activity among their sedentary staff?

Serigraph, a Wisconsin-based graphics company thinks so, and its employees have seriously benefited. The company charted its fitness program’s participants over a 10-year period and found cholesterol levels dropped from an average of 209 to 197, and blood pressure was down three points. The employees have also lost a combined 1,000 pounds. Long-term research now shows that, if executed properly, these fitness initiatives work.

Responsibility aside, the Public Health Agency of Canada’s research shows that there’s also a solid business case for promoting active living. Companies who do see reduced absenteeism and workplace accidents, increased productivity, and have higher employee retention rates.

Sarah Long, CEO of Calgary Corporate Fitness, says that many firms, while they often don’t know what they’re looking for, are paying attention. “Health concerns are becoming more of a motivation with employees getting older,” she says. “But I find [firms are still] more willing to invest time and money in creating awareness — whether through seminars or health expos — than in actual facilities.”

One of the challenges companies face when introducing health programs is walking the delicate line between being helpful and being invasive. Or worse, paternalistic. In January, when high-end grocer Whole Foods tried offering product discounts of up to 30% to employees with low blood pressure, cholesterol and body mass indexes (BMI) — with no regard for ethnic background or health issues — employees were outraged. The company’s aim was to encourage wellness and trim the $150 million they paid out in health benefits in 2009, but the public saw it as discrimination. The company was not helped by stories of breast-feeding mothers with high (but healthy) BMIs being excluded from the program.

Janet Young, vice-president of Buffet & Co. Workplace Wellness in Whitby, Ont., says her company has had good success with competitive fitness challenges that keep employees motivated to reach their goals. But these can also prove tricky. One workplace experiment that has received mixed reviews in the U.S. is the Biggest Loser-style weight-loss challenge, which encourages employees to weigh themselves each week and sometimes pay into a pot if they put on pounds (the prize money is split among the top losers at the end). Participation can’t be forced, but critics of these competitions say they can be embarrassing or shaming, especially for employees who value privacy.

According to Young, many of these new fitness initiatives reflect the demands and expectations of Generation Y staff who, she says, tend to see health facilities at work as more of a right than a privilege. “Gen Ys really don’t think about subsidies for fitness memberships or facilities in their workplace as frills,” she says. “They see them as standards of employment, and employers will continue to see that expectation grow as the boomers retire.”

Young also says companies need wellness plans that have upper management support so that employees can hit the gym without their BlackBerrys. “Canada lags behind the U.S. in terms of incorporating health strategies in the workplace,” she says, “but we’ve come a long way, even in the past two years.”