“You hit your sales targets. But you’re behind on your yoga”

Companies are taking more of an interest in employee fitness to boost engagement and trim costs

 
Group of runners in a city
(Edwin Jimenez/Cultura/Getty)

Happy new year! Now that you’ve declared your sales targets for 2015, identified three new markets you’re aiming to move into, and signed up for that time-management training course you’ve been avoiding, have you thought about setting some personal fitness goals and sharing them with all your office colleagues?

You would if you worked at Vancouver-based public relations firm Jive Communications. In fact, you’d do that every Friday.
Staff at the 15-member firm declare “healthy lifestyle objectives” for each week at a regular group meeting (where they also discuss more mundane details like the work they do for clients). And as they commit to plans to run 10 kilometres each morning or do a daily three-minute plank, they also own up to whether they met their “fitness accountabilities” for the previous week.

Employees who come up short aren’t publicly shamed—but they do see a summary of the results in a group email, say partners Almira Bardai and Lindsay Nahmiache. The office also has a leaderboard that tracks individual results (two employees used it recently to see who could drink the most water in a week), and each month, staff receive a scorecard—part of a regular assessment of work performance — that assigns them a mark out of five for health accountability.

If it all sounds a little obsessive, the two partners say that the emphasis on sweat-inducing feats is more flexible than it sounds. Staff members who don’t want to pursue physical activity (or don’t want to pursue it in such a public way) can set other personal development goals, like music classes or anything else that helps them de-stress and work toward holistic health.

“But it seems to be fitness that just about everybody wants to focus on,” says Bardai, a trained yoga instructor who committed to doing two running sessions last week—a goal she met—and has upped the ante for this week to three runs and a yoga class. “We really believe in holistic health and personal growth, and these are the values we try to live by. That really appeals to a lot of people—younger workers, especially. That’s what they value.”

Bardai and Nahmiache don’t put a price tag on employee fitness, but a recent study out of the University of Michigan Health Management Research Center does: It showed that even 10 to 20 minutes of daily exercise could produce significant health benefits and lower the cost of employee healthcare. One cohort of workers who exercised five times a week and who had a cluster of risk factors that can lead to diabetes and heart disease had average medical expenses of $2,770 annually, compared with $3,855 for employees with similar conditions who didn’t work out.

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Jive isn’t alone in encouraging staff to live healthy lifestyles. Companies that operate in the health and fitness sector often have similar initiatives. Sports drink producer Gatorade, for instance, introduced a program last year that encouraged employees to sign up for one of three health-related streams: endurance, strength training and fitness. The brand also introduced a daily athletic challenge, called the G-Feat:60, a non-mandatory competition that might involve doing jumping jacks or planks.

And then there’s Mountain Equipment Co-op, a company with staff who are already so focused on physical activity, spokesman Andrew Sutherland has a hard time naming everything they do on site at MEC’s new corporate headquarters. There’s a cross-fit gym and a multi-use room where staff do pilates, aerobics and other things, and a rooftop garden where employees can do yoga in warmer weather. “Oh, and I forgot,” he adds. “We have a bouldering room.” Just, you know, another day at the office.

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