Promoting health and fitness in the workplace

According to recent reports on obesity, that old Disney song is wrong: it’s not a small world after all. The fact is, we’re getting larger. The latest numbers from Statistics Canada show obesity in Canada is getting worse, with more than 20 per cent of Canadians identified as obese in 2014. That’s up from 15 per cent in 2003.

Why should employers be concerned? Because the implications of this growing trend (pun intended) can have a serious impact on your business. The many health issues associated with obesity—including diabetes, heart disease and a greater risk of certain cancers—create costs for businesses through increased absenteeism and higher health care spending.

On the other hand, when employees are fit and healthy, everybody wins. According to the Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia:

  • Healthier employees are less likely to call in sick or use vacation time due to illness.
  • Companies that support workplace health have a greater percentage of employees at work every day.
  • Healthy employees are more productive. People who are sick but choose to stay at work are most often adversely affected by their ill health symptoms and their productivity suffers.

Other, less measurable benefits include employees who have more energy, more focus and increased confidence. As well, employees who know how to set fitness goals and stick to them tend to also be goal-oriented at work.

So how does an employer promote health and fitness in the workplace? A number of factors, including the size of your business and your budget can dictate your approach. If you decide to introduce an formal wellness program, here are some suggestions:

Find a program that meets your employees’ needs. Employees have different fitness levels, and any wellness program must take this into consideration. Employees need to feel comfortable, not intimidated.

Education should be part of the program. An effective wellness program will guide employees into fitness, teach them goal-setting, nutrition, exercise and how to create a road map for success. Employees should be able to take that education into their home life, helping to create an actual lifestyle change.

Instill commitment. Whether the company wellness plan is paid for by the employer, employee or they share the cost, there needs to be some kind of accountability that encourages commitment. If a wellness program or fitness membership is completely free with no guidelines, it may be viewed as not being valuable, and may fail in the long term.

A formal workplace fitness program may not be the right fit for your business, but there are simpler steps you can take on your own to improve your employees’ health and fitness:

  • Offer secure bicycle storage and showers for employees who actively commute.
  • Implement flexible scheduling where feasible —making it easier for employees to find time for exercise while juggling work and home responsibilities.
  • Encourage workers to take brief, 2-3 minute fitness breaks throughout the day for brisk walking, stretching, or stair climbing.
  • Offer free or reduced-cost pedometers to employees. Invite employees or teams of employees to compete with each other to accumulate the greatest number of daily or weekly steps.
  • Sponsor or promote employee participation in community events like 5K or 10K runs, basketball leagues, or charity walk-a-thons.
  • Organize lunchtime walking, running, bicycling, or yoga groups.

Creating a culture of fitness in the workplace can lead to happier – and more productive — employees, not to mention a healthier bottom line for employers. Your fitness incentives can be as simple or involved as you want them to be, so get started now. After all, what have you got to lose…well, except for maybe a few pounds!