UK: HEALTH IS A CORE CONCERN. - Are health and fitness clubs a substitute for sports grounds?

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Are health and fitness clubs a substitute for sports grounds?

Major employers have for generations past reserved an area of their premises for the exercise and relaxation of employees. But times are changing. Sports grounds occupy a lot of space - which is at a premium-and they are not everywhere fully used. In the more recent past health and fitness clubs have been springing up all over the place. What's more they are targeting employers as a potential source of business, offering corporate memberships which allow employees to use their equipment at subsidised rates. But are they a suitable substitute for the football pitch?

The Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD) evidently thinks so.

Last year the IPD published a 'Guide on occupational health and organisational effectiveness' analysing new approaches to workplace fitness. 'Some theories suggest that the paternalistic style of provision can stifle individual development,' points out a spokesman, adding that 'anyway not all staff like active sport'.

Many do though, and a lot of employers still think that the traditional facilities bring mutual benefit to employer and employee. Pharmaceuticals group Rhone-Poulenc Rorer, for example, offers the 1,100 employees on its Dagenham site facilities which range from soccer pitches to squash courts. 'It promotes a healthier workforce and better employee relations and, as part of an overall package, it gives a competitive edge in attracting staff,' argues human resources director Paul Davies.

NatWest likewise has its conventional sports fields. 'We have various facilities throughout the country, including three sports pitches in South London,' says group property portfolio manager Richard Moore. But Moore agrees that the traditional type of facility is being used less, while gymnasiums and sailing clubs are increasingly popular - exactly the trend that the private clubs are attempting to cash in on. At Whitbread, too, there are sports grounds at some of the breweries, but the company also offers subsidised membership of local fitness clubs to City-bound personnel.

However membership of private clubs can be costly. 'We considered business membership packages, but they were too expensive,' says Rob Ball, general manager responsible for 'learning and development' at Rover Group. Instead the company hit upon an innovative solution that should cost it very little. A disused building at Longbridge is being equipped free by the leisure services group Hawtin. Rover staff can pay a monthly subscription to a private management company which will run the facility on their behalf. 'Membership is being offered to all our 16,000 associates (Rover's term for employees) from production staff to those of us who drive the proverbial desk,' says Ball. 'Our medical department can also refer people for physiotherapy after illness or injury.'

The healthcare aspect is one that is not catered for by the company football ground - and not necessarily by the private club. In addition to club membership, Whitbread offers its employees regular health appraisal using computerised equipment, while trained staff will devise individual fitness programmes. 'It's a far better method than annual medicals, and people feel that the company is taking an interest in their well-being,' says occupational health manager Colin Williams. Recreation, it seems, is becoming as focused as any other corporate activity.

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