Firms reaping benefits of fitness schemes for their employees, writes Val Leveson
The field of corporate wellness has just started to gain momentum.
In the past few years, some of New Zealand's leading companies have been setting up fitness and wellness programmes for employees - and they are finding the benefits outweigh the costs.
Mars NZ started its Believe well-being programme last year, which included medical checks, information on nutrition, fitness and financial management, and flu injections.
The company's people and organisation director, Michael Lynch, says: "A lot of our people [work] in the field and we saw this programme as a way of getting them further engaged in the wider context of the company."
Through Believe, he says, Mars NZ got involved in the Kiwi Workplace Challenge, a big success for the firm.
"We track things online and compare teams around the country. Our people have embraced the 10-week challenge and it fits with our safety focus. Our general manager is involved, [so] it is being led by example."
Vitality Works is a private company that helps organisations set up fitness and wellness programmes.
Director Dr Louise Schofield, who is experienced in public health and workplace health and wellness, says Vitality Works is one of about 15 companies in the field. She also chairs Hapinz, the Health and Productivity Institute of New Zealand.
She says the field of corporate wellness is fairly new. Vitality Works was established in 2003.
"It used to be just about gyms in the workplace. In the 1980s there was a lot of hype around it - but it's only just really growing in momentum."
Schofield says helping to improve employees' health and well-being has an effect on productivity.
"There is a lot of science and common sense behind this - healthy people tend to be more engaged and productive in their work."
She says that when her company is hired, they first do an overview of the particular needs of an organisation.
"A company with a younger workplace will have more issues with headaches, hangovers and hay fever than, say, heart problems and diabetes - but all these things cost the employer in productivity. As far as a health plan goes, there is no one-size-fits-all."
Vitality Works takes its accountability seriously and gives a report to its client company on where it was a year ago and where it is now.
"It's showing the return of investment. And we've calculated that these programmes tend to give a ratio of two- or three-to-one return."
Schofield says that if a company has poor leadership and no career path for employees, a fitness and wellness programme won't solve things.
"We don't want to overstate things, but what we have found is a marked reduction of absenteeism with our programmes and also a reduction in what's called presenteeism - employees who are at work but not functioning. This is often health-related. If someone has sinus problems, a headache or back pain, their productivity goes down."
A lot of the measuring is done through self-reporting questionnaires developed at Harvard University.
"Through it, we can see how productivity and engagement improves. The key thing for companies to realise is having these programmes is not just a 'nice thing to do'. It's common sense that if you look after your staff, they'll feel valued, want to remain working for you and increase productivity."
With one blue-collar company, Schofield says, a big change occurred when staff were given breakfast - productivity rose and the accident rate fell. She says it's also not just about education. "The wellness industry does a lot of seminars - and most people understand about good nutrition, but they need real help and support in order to do it."
Schofield says buy-in from management is the "holy grail" in all of this, but it "can be hard".
Many top managers see the health and fitness of employees as matters of personal responsibility. They expect staff to be healthy - and don't see they have a role in helping with this.
"In reality there are the hidden costs - if your workforce is not healthy, they're not being productive."
She suggests that if there is no buy-in from clients, pilot projects can be effective in demonstrating how such programmes work. Either work out a health initiative just for the senior executive team, so they can see the benefits first-hand; or, with a small sum of money, do a pilot of about 50 people and feed the results back.
"This process can take about two years to really show the difference."
Schofield says employee resistance can also be a challenge, particularly with blue-collar workers, who can be suspicious of the motives behind health questions. "Many think the boss wants to know their heart attack risk in order to fire them."
This is why an outside provider keeps all personal information confidential. The boss gets the stats and overview, not personal health details.
Director of HR at Vodafone New Zealand, Michael Stanley, says his company's health and wellness programmes are important for the company's employer brand.
"We want to attract and keep the best - we see our programmes as ways of attracting and retaining employees. We value our reputation as a good employer and enjoy a high level of engagement - our wellness programme is a key component of [this]."
Schofield says Hapinz is pushing for Government funding for healthcare in the workplace. "At the moment there is a $13 billion to $16 billion spend on healthcare. The workplace is the perfect setting for health checks, for helping create changes in behaviour and assessing risk."