UK: SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST. - Employers who offer health facilities don't do it out of pure altruism. Fit employees mean fewer absences, possibly higher productivity, and a healthier bottom line.

by Malcolm Brown.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Employers who offer health facilities don't do it out of pure altruism. Fit employees mean fewer absences, possibly higher productivity, and a healthier bottom line.

When lawyers at the City firm of Freshfields feel stressed, they don't, as their predecessors used to do, repair to the Wig and Pen or El Vinos for a restorative bottle of Chablis, they go downstairs and work out in the firm's fitness centre. Rivals Clifford Chance, just around the corner, go one better than their neighbour: they have a swimming pool in the office as well.

Freshfields and Chance are just two of the estimated 1,000 companies in the UK now offering employees on-site fitness facilities. These can be anything from a couple of exercise bikes in the basement to luxurious complexes like the Lean Machine, a £1 million private health club at Cowley where automotive components company Unipart pampers its employees with everything from aerobics and physiotherapy to relaxation treatments like reflexology and aromatherapy.

The boom in corporate fitness facilities is part of a broadly-based drive in British business for what occupational health experts have come to call, with scant regard for the English language, 'wellness'. The central tenet of the wellness philosophy is that a healthy workforce brings with it a healthy business.

'There are two health issues in the workplace,' says Dr Robert Smith, chairman of the Wellness Forum, a discussion group made up of representatives from more than 50 large companies and a variety of other organisations. 'On the one hand there is the effect of work on health, and on the other the effect of health on work. The first is a statutory duty - we're obliged to protect health. The latter is a voluntary thing - the idea being to promote health in the workplace.'

There are three principal elements in most wellness programmes: provision of fitness facilities (or easy access to them); health screening; and education, which covers everything from providing information on healthy diets to propaganda (and policies) on such things as smoking and alcohol.

The precise mix will depend on the individual company, but the kind of organisations which belong to the Wellness Forum (blue-chip companies like Glaxo, the Pru and W H Smith) would, by and large, think that investing in all three is a good thing.

Advocates of the wellness approach do not expect companies to invest in making their workforces healthier out of sheer altruism. They appeal to corporate pockets. If employees are fitter, the argument runs, the number of working days lost because of absence will be cut, work performance may be improved, and both developments will be reflected in the bottom line.

Cutting absence isn't a marginal thing. Figures from the Confederation of British Industry suggest that absence resulting from sickness or stress costs employers more than £10 billion a year. In 1994, the latest year for which figures are available, an extraordinary 175 million working days were lost through sickness absence, 630 times more than the days lost due to industrial action. Overall an average of nearly eight working days was lost for every worker, representing 3.4% of working time. It doesn't take a mathematical genius to work out that if, for a modest outlay, a company can cut down on its absence rates, it will save quite a lot of money.

The other suggestion, that fit workers will actually be more productive and therefore help make more money, is more speculative, although research by the American space agency, NASA, appears to suggest there may be something to it. The NASA study showed that participants in an exercise programme worked better and had greater concentration and decision-making powers than non-participants. The ordinary office worker who didn't exercise found his or her efficiency dropping by half in the last two hours of the working day, while those who exercised maintained their level of efficiency throughout the day. The overall result, says the agency, was a 12.5% increase in productivity.

While this sort of economic argument is persuasive as a post hoc justification, many firms claim their real reasons for making big investments in wellness programmes are much more down-to-earth. They do it to instil a greater sense of community in the company (like the old sports and social clubs), to boost morale, and, increasingly, as a practical way of dealing with stress. Unipart says its decision to put £1 million into a private health club for its workers had nothing to do with absenteeism or productivity, it was simply a response by the board to its collective concern that stress was becoming a real problem in industry. The company recognised that the need for employees to embrace new technology could be stressful but couldn't be avoided: given that, what its employees needed was a practical way to counter the effects.

Another frequently cited reason for investing is to help companies attract and retain staff. When news agency Reuters built a major new technical facility in London's Docklands five years ago, it included a gymnasium, swimming pool and two squash courts as a lure to the 300 to 400 men and women it wanted to attract (and hold on to) down there.

Industrial gases company Air Products had the same thing in mind when it opened a new office in Basingstoke. 'It was a brand new office and we wanted to come up with a benefits package which differentiated us from other employers in the area,' says AP's director of industrial relations, compensation and benefits Alan Carver. 'We felt employees would be motivated by an in-house fitness facility, particularly as it was an area where there were no real leisure centres locally. The response to the Basingstoke centre was so positive that Air Products soon opened another, at its Walton-on-Thames headquarters. Carver says that 75% of the Basingstoke staff are now members of the fitness centre and more than 60% of its Walton-on-Thames personnel.

He and his colleagues have measured the extent to which the fitness facilities are improving the general health of employees. They have found that, comparing people's first and most recent fitness assessments, 92% of women and 87.5% of men have shown an improvement in their so-called VO2 score (a measure of general aerobic fitness), while 77% of women and 63% of men have reduced their percentage of body fat. 'We know that the people who regularly use these facilities do have a genuine improvement in their level of health,' says Carver.

Smith of the Wellness Forum believes that objective, medical measures like these are important, but now wants to see the whole idea taken a step further by measuring how people feel as a result of exercise and the general benefits they get through things like health screening. The $64,000 question isn't whether people have lower blood pressure or less body fat but whether they have a greater sense of wellbeing. 'The important thing is to assess the individuals own perception of their health, their well-being, because those are the things that are likely to motivate people.

If there's a perception and it's measurable and it's shown that overall within the workforce there is a benefit from the programme then we'll be able to sell the idea to other managers, and more importantly they'll be able to sell it to the workforce.' Of course, measuring the final link in the causal chain - from feelings of wellbeing to improved working - also needs to be quantified, most evidence to date, the NASA study notwithstanding, being largely anecdotal.

The push for corporate fitness looks as though it will continue. One indicator is the emergence and growth of specialist providers to help companies set up and run their facilities. It is estimated that more than 120 of the 1,000 corporate fitness centres in the UK are now managed by specialists. The largest of them, Fitness for Industry (FFI), currently looks after 40 clients, including such organisations as American Express, J Sainsbury and the Prudential. FFI's marketing manager, Peter Nixon, says another growing trend among companies is to run their fitness centres on a semi-commercial basis. 'Employees are charged a usage fee of, perhaps, £10 a month. The company puts up the capital expenditure but the operating costs are covered by this nominal usage fee.'

Will wellness remain the preserve of the big companies? Propagandists like Robert Smith of the Wellness Forum hope not. He is actively working with other groups to spread the gospel to medium and small companies.

One of his allies, the Health Education Authority (HEA), has just been appointed to manage the Government's Workplace Health Advisory Team (WHAT), one of whose main jobs will be to encourage health at work schemes among small companies.

'The saying that staff are a company's most valuable asset is particularly true of small businesses in which staff absence and ill-health can have a major impact,' says Jane Huntley, manager of the HEA's workplace programmes.

Part of what the authority will be doing over the next two years, she says, will be trying to forge alliances where the smaller fry can learn from, and lean on, the big companies. 'A small company might not build a gym,' says Huntley, 'but it might use the big company next door's, or it might be able to get together with another nine or 10 small companies and get a better deal for its employees at the local sports facilities.'

At the end of the day, of course, it is the customers - the employees - who will determine the success or failure of wellness projects. Corporate lawyer Simon Neill, for example, puts in three or four one-hour sessions a week at Freshfields' fitness centre and thinks it helps him physically and mentally. 'If I don't go to the gym regularly I start feeling more lethargic and run out of energy and I don't feel quite so alert. The gym may leave you physically tired, but mentally you're alert and in the longer run you have much more energy.'

The real issue, however, is whether apart from enthusiasts like Neill, who would probably work out anyway whether or not the firm provided the facilities, companies will be able to persuade those who really need a change in lifestyle, the corporate couch potatoes, to join in. That would be a real result.

Health Screening - Treading on NHS toes?

The Wellness Forum's members don't agree on everything. There are differing views, for instance, on how deeply companies should become involved in health screening and such things as drugs policies. Marks & Spencer, for instance, offers all its employees breast and cervical screening and fitness assessments. By contrast BT feels it may actually be counter-productive to become involved in breast and cervical screening. The National Health Service already provides screening services for these, says BT's chief medical officer, Dr Derek White (left), along with a recall programme. 'If you have companies acting independently of the NHS, doing women in between, that may make the woman decline to go to the NHS appointment and muck up the system. There's no real way of getting good liaison between the workplace screening and the NHS one. The results aren't shared and the workplace results aren't fed into NHS computers, so the whole thing is ripe for confusion.'

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