A Corporate Culture of Wellness

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In this period of economic uncertainty every company, whether large or small, private or public, faces tough economic decisions. Every dollar is sacred and every cost must be justified beyond all doubts. Regrettably, programs thought of as "luxuries" by many executives have become endangered species. For those of you who are responsible for employee wellness programs, employee benefits or health promotions, you find yourself under even more scrutiny than usual. How do you approach the CFO of the company and convince him/her that what you are doing is fiscally responsible?

Before you can lobby for funding of your programs, it is an absolute essential that you first understand how your program relates to the culture (a particular set of attitudes that defines you) of the company itself. You must be able to define what the corporate culture is and how that culture was established. You must also be able to decide if the culture differs from the identity (how society perceives you) of the company. If your program is seen as an opposing influence to the direction of the company, then the writing is on the wall.

Does this corporate culture reflect the attitudes and values of the employees or is it coming from the top and "trickling down" into the workforce? The answer to that are both - culture flows up the corporate hill, but a well informed CEO will be able to recognize social tendencies and economic realities and guide his/her organization accordingly. Does your corporate culture embrace employee wellness or is it a value only accepted by a few associates?  Will the remainder of the workforce accept any changes or will it be met with scorn, contempt or just plain ignored?

These are questions you must ask yourself before you attempt any changes or introduce any programs that might be considered "rocking the boat." For the sake of brevity, let us assume for this article that you are actively seeking ways of changing the corporate culture and trying to bring more employees into accepting health and fitness as a way of life. You understand the benefits involved financially when more employees embrace a healthier lifestyle, but that is not going to get anyone in the workforce excited about changing their old habits. Below are some thoughts and ideas that you can explore that will help you get the ball rolling.

There is no single cookie cutter method that works for every company and every situation, but there are certainly tried and true ideas that have merit and can be explored with little or no capital expense - and that is something you can take to the CFO. What about the corporate culture needs to be changed? Are you focusing on the general health of your employees such as the standard fitness measurements of obesity, blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar? I am leaving out smoking for now as that subject by itself would require the full magazine to cover.

Let us begin by focusing on obesity. What do you offer that encourages your co-workers to make healthier choices that can influence this epidemic? Are there fresh fruits available in the break rooms or do the snack bowls contain simple sugars and "comfort foods?" Do you regularly order pizza and Chinese food for meetings and parties when there is healthier food choices conveniently located near your office?  Have you looked in the beverage vending machine lately? There is a good chance that it is chock full of sodas and high fructose juices and even diet sodas which have different yet equally sinister effects on the human body as their sugar laden counterparts. Nothing beats a fresh, cold bottle of water.

Now, move three feet to your left and look at all of the chips, candy bars and fat-engorged treats in the food vending machine. Sure, those products are relatively cheap (a huge factor for many people when deciding what and where to eat) but they offer little if anything in terms of useful calories and generally wind up being stored on someone's hips or belly. There is a imple and free solution staring you right in the face. It just takes a simple phone call to the vending contractor to rectify these temptations and it can be phased in over a few months so that there isn't a riot in front of your office at 3 pm when blood sugar levels reach rock bottom.

Consider the idea of making the healthier snacks cost less than the typical snacks. You will be amazed at how many people will try the air popped popcorn over the potato chips if they save $.50. What can you offer your people to help with the blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol issues? Certainly, of all the programs you can make available to them, medical screenings are the costliest - but also the most important. The first symptom of heart disease is often a heart attack and a large majority of people do not get regular physical exams, or even have a physician that they would call their own. It takes money and time to train an employee and create an efficient cog in the system.

Makes sense to keep that cog operating smoothly, doesn't it? Every company is going to have a few so called "fitness fanatics" in its ranks. These are the individuals that will never miss that 6 am workout, regardless if they worked on a project until 4 am. Use these individuals to help generate excitement for fitness with some of the less than active colleagues among you. Exercise programs are easier to maintain when there is a shared sense of accountability. There is also the encouragement factor and the proud feeling of accomplishment that is gained from reaching even small goals. You can certainly investigate the rewards system for encouraging regular exercise as we all enjoy extrinsic rewards.

However, there is nothing extrinsic that I am aware of that can beat the intrinsic satisfaction when a much desired goal is reached, unless of course you are offering something with leather interior, turbo charging and hand built in Europe. Not every company has space available for dedicated exercise rooms and workout facilities (if you build it, will they come?). That is understandable, but there should be every effort to encourage employees to seek exercise on their own time - including lunch breaks and before work. Adding bike racks to encourage cycling to work and then having a locker room/shower facility available for workers to freshen up after indulging is inexpensive and very appealing in attracting and retaining top talent for your organization.

Company sponsored running teams or triathlon teams and even the semi-annual corporate fitness challenge teams bolster corporate pride and provide inexpensive advertising in the community (corporate identity) - especially if your company goes one step further and sponsors or organizes the event. Many companies reimburse their employees a percentage or even the full dollar amount for health club dues. The problem with this plan is that many health clubs actually love when members don't show up even when they are paying dues. The club stays cleaner; there are fewer crowds to annoy the regular club users and the equipment lasts longer with less wear and tear.

So, it is in their interest to not push for your employees to be regular 3 times per week customers. Unless some form of fitness testing is performed on a regular basis by this club for your employees, you will find that this particular method of introducing exercise is one of the least effective (and I am a former club owner so I can speak from years of experience!) especially in the long term.

So, the potential for ROI is great, but in reality it often falls short of expectations.This column has sought to answer a few of your questions or concerns about establishing/ changing a corporate culture to reflect more health and wellness. It has also probably opened a can of worms as many issues and complications will need to be addressed. This is a good thing for as long as you are questioning the direction of your culture, you will be able to keep it from steering too far off course.

About the Author

Phil A. Lalli; BA/APFS, a native of East Northport, New York, is a Fitness Consultant and Professional Fitness Trainer. He currently resides in Tampa, Florida with his wife Bonnie and their 2 whippets who are part time pet therapy dogs and full time 38 mph couch potatoes.Questions, comments or suggestions? Phil can be reached at  fitnessprofessional4@gmail.com