Business of Well-being

Hip to be Fit - A 'How-To' Guide for Developing Corporate Fitness Programs

"According to a survey by Fidelity Investments' and the National Business Group on Health, employers plan to spend an average of $594 per employee on wellness-based incentives within their healthcare programs this year; marking an increase of 15 percent from  the average of $521 reported for 2013, and more than double the average of $260 reported five years ago. The largest increase was among companies with fewer than 5,000 employees, where the per employee average climbed to $595, one-third higher than the average of $444 per employee in 2013."

Corporate fitness programs are on the rise. Not only do they save millions of corporate dollars every year by improving the health of workers, but they benefit employers by lowering healthcare costs, absenteeism, and injuries while improving employee productivity, morale and loyalty.Researchers estimate the annual cost attributable to obesity among full-time employees may be as high as $73.1 billion, counting medical expenditures, lost productivity, and absences from work (Yang & Nichols, 2011).

Another study published by the American Journal of Health confirmed that healthcare costs rose at a 15 percent slower rate among employees who utilized a wellness program when one was consistently offered (SHRM Online Staff, 2011). Companies are searching for long-term solutions. While a corporate fitness program for an international company with multisite operations will vary greatly from a smaller operation, the building blocks to create a successful program are standard.

Identifying employer and employee needs, strong leadership support, worksite policies and environments that encourage healthy behaviors, programming and proper evaluation are key factors to consider when developing a corporate fitness program. The single most important step is to conduct a needs assessment, which identifies information about health knowledge, perceptions, attitudes, motivation, and current health practices of a targeted population (Grim, 2010).

This process provides the data that will determine if a program is justifiable and help to gain vital C-Suite support. The needs assessment identifies and measures gaps between what is, and what should be. By first understanding purpose, the right program can be built.

Needs assessments are approached in several ways depending on factors, such as time and money. In a corporate setting, demographic data, employee health records, healthcare claims and costs, workers' compensation claims and costs, types of accidents, severity of injuries, and absenteeism should all be examined (Grim, 2010).

Factors that influence health behaviors, as well as those that enhance or compromise employee health need to be identified, analyzed and validated before continuing the planning process. Once the needs assessment is completed, a presentation can be made to management, outlining the benefits and costs of a fitness program.

Communicate the need for the fitness program and develop collaborative efforts among priority populations and C-Suite support. What are the goals and objectives? Is the program aimed at decreasing on-the-job injuries? Is employee participation on group walks a priority? The breadth and scope of goals and objectives are entirely up to the program design.

Creating a Health Management Task Force including representatives from all levels of the organization can create goals and focus on employee needs and interests, and the workplace culture and that might affect healthy behaviors. By involving employees from each department in the planning process, interest can be generated about the program. Involvement gives employees ownership to the program and greatly increases the chance that they will stick to it.

Depending on the size and scope of the company, create a program where employees wear a pedometer to track their steps. For larger, multisite companies, establish an onsite fitness center staffed with personal trainers. Anything and everything in-between can make for successful corporate fitness if the program remains true to the needs and the interests of the employees. Start with goals and objectives.

Take analyzed data from the needs assessment and the input provided from the C-suite and Health Management Task Force to budget a program. While everyone would love an onsite fitness center, sometimes it isn't feasible. Start small and work up. Success with a smaller fitness program can lead to a greater chance the C-suite will support efforts the following year with a larger budget.

Smaller companies have started their corporate fitness programs despite department challenges. Utilizing pedometers enables employees to cheer for each other and compete against one another to determine who can accumulate miles fastest. Other groups create "Biggest Loser" contests in which employees are responsible for diet and exercise, but weigh in each week to determine the ultimate prize-winning participant.

Other  ideas are walking and jogging clubs, Weight Watchers at Work groups, organized yoga or boot camp classes. Larger companies, like SAS, an international software company located in North Carolina, staff an onsite recreation and fitness centers.

Employees receive health checks, smoking cessation programs and rewards for fitness accomplishments and participation in leisure-time activities, and completion of the six-month, "Your Way to Wellness" program. Verizon's health and wellness program consists of 47 centers nationwide, fully staffed by 24 coordinators.

Employees can work out, sign up for personal training, take group exercise classes, receive nutritional counseling, attend smoking cessation programs, complete biometric screenings, and receive onsite flu shots or mammography screenings. Whatever the  scope,  continuous  evaluation  of  the  success  of a corporate fitness program is essential.

If the original goal was for employees to lose weight, why not know that it is actually happening! More in-depth goals, such as decreasing healthcare costs related to lower back injury, need to be collaborated with the benefits team and statistically analyzed.

Draw on various measures to establish what impact a program had on employees, and the bottom line. Translate this into lay language, making the corporate fitness program more credible. If not all aspects of the program succeed, take the information and make ongoing changes. In this industry, flexibility to make adjustments is integral to program success.

As time passes, more and more corporations will be looking to health and wellness professionals to create and implement corporate fitness programs of all shapes and sizes. As  the cost of healthcare rises, companies will need to provide solutions to the obesity epidemic, on-the-job injuries and absenteeism.

Completing an in-depth needs assessment, leadership support and aligning a fitness program with corporate culture are critical to a successful fitness program. It will take time, but the rewards are well worth the effort.

About the Author

Erica A. Rooney, M.S., MCHES, is a Master Certified Health Education Specialist, Certified Personal Trainer, and holds a Master of Science degree from the University of Florida. She serves as co-senior health and wellness coordinator at Verizon, where she directs athletic and wellness programs and assists in oversight of 12 health and wellness centers.

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