Most people agree that a fit and healthy workforce is desirable – it should even bring positive business benefits. But support for investment in fitness facilities seems to wane during times of economic hardship.
Some see fitness facilities as a perk – to be trimmed like other bonuses to fit a shrinking budget. Others argue that fitness is to be encouraged, but the responsibility lies with the individual, not the employer. Yet others act as if fitness was something to be bought rather than created or maintained – a vital consideration when recruiting staff but, once the fittest have been selected, they are expected to stay that way.
For organisations taking these perspectives, spending on fitness is often highly vulnerable in a shrinking or stable business climate.
But what if the very real business benefits of health and fitness could be demonstrated? Facilities managers could present a stronger case by showing how corporate fitness is linked to, and benefits, other functions – such as human resources.
Is there hard evidence?
There is plenty of well-researched evidence that exercise is good. But it tends to fall into two camps: rigorous but artificial laboratory studies and realistic but woollier workplace studies.
Research conducted under laboratory conditions – assessing benefits against statistically appropriate control groups who do not take exercise – is scientifically respectable, but has limited relevance
to the average business environment because the experimental conditions are so unlike a work environment.
Workplace studies are mostly from the US and address factors such as reduced absenteeism and improved performance or morale during a fitness programme lasting several years. These results are
far more relevant, but inevitably less ‘scientific’.
Fortunately, there is also a third category of more pragmatic research – the ‘metastudy’ that takes an overview of these less controlled studies and looks for repeated patterns that add up to make a more solid case.
Specific benefits from fitness programmes
The following are just a selection of examples of the findings of workplace studies during the 1990s.
DuPont in the US reported 14 per cent fewer disability days, saving a total of 11,726 man-days for the company in a study of 29,315 blue collar workers enrolled in a fitness programme at four sites over six years.
In a joint study, several US companies found that amongst employees tested and rated on their levels of cardiovascular fitness, the fittest group averaged 1.72 days absence per year, the next group 2.09 days, the ‘fairly’ fit groups 2.32 days and the least fit group 2.72 days absence.
The Canada Life Assurance Company reported an average staff turnover of 18 per cent per year, compared with an average of just 1.8 per cent for those participating in their fitness programme (according to “The Economic Benefits of Regular Exercise”, IRHSA, 1996). Toronto Life reported similar figures (15 per cent and 1.5 per cent), while British Columbian Hydroelectric recorded 10.3 per cent per annum falling to 3.5 per cent for those participating.
Plenty of studies show improved productivity especially with higher-level executive skills such as communication and decision-making – although it has to be said that these studies tend to be more subjective.
The Canada Life Assurance Company reported that 47 per cent of participants in a fitness programme were more alert and enjoyed work more than those who did not participate. 63 per cent of participants also indicated that they were more relaxed, more patient and less tired during the workday.
NASA found that participants in an exercise control program showed improved performance, concentration, stamina and decision-making powers. Compared to the average office worker whose efficiency decreases 50 per cent for the final two hours of the working day, the exercisers worked at full efficiency all day. This amounted to a 12.5 per cent increase in productivity.
Specific health benefits
Statistics on the benefits of exercise for weight loss, heart disease, backache etc. are much more reliable because these factors are likely to be tested under stricter conditions, and the statistics are usually easier to collect. Combine these results with figures on loss of industrial output due to bad health and the business case is clear.
Stress is a topical example – fitter people have been shown to be less stressed, more satisfied with their jobs and have fewer absentee days. One UK study of 293 subjects who were members and non-members of a corporate health and fitness club showed that club members had better psychological mood states and physical wellbeing, were more satisfied with their jobs and took fewer days absent than non-members (AJ Daley, G Parfitt, “Good health – is it worth it?”, Journal of Occupational & Organizational Psychology, 1996).
Link that finding to the CBI claim that in a typical year 80 million workdays are lost as a result of stress-related illness, and the message is clear. Stress may also be on the increase: a 1998 study showed that 31 per cent of workers reported significant levels of stress and 54 per cent felt it had increased in the last five years.
How relevant are these statistics in the UK?
It is generally recognised that the US has a stronger fitness culture than the UK, but this might be another example of the UK lagging behind the US in a business trend – there are certainly signs of growing fitness awareness in the UK media.
The figures quoted above need careful consideration because of the significance of the costs of medical services in the US and in the UK, but it is an impressive way of demonstrating the value of corporate health and fitness facilities.
In the UK, there are fewer hard statistics, but there is a growing body of experience. My own company Bladerunner, the UK’s largest dedicated corporate fitness provider, designs and manages health and fitness facilities, and our experience strongly supports the North American results. We may not have the same Californian fitness fever in the UK, but membership at our 3Com facility in Hertfordshire is actually higher than it is at the company’s Silicon Valley headquarters!
Although lower absenteeism, improved productivity and reduced turnover are important factors to our clients, they also put a high value on less easily measured benefits. They value improved atmosphere, recruitment incentives, reinforced company culture and other ‘higher level’ benefits that raise fitness provision from a humble ‘preventative medicine’ role to a corporate branding issue.
Presenting the case for corporate fitness facilities
These value-added social, cultural and branding benefits should not be underestimated. The less tangible factors such as improved executive decision-making and better working environment can move the argument into a totally different budget arena.
It’s a question of raising the profile of corporate fitness facilities – they should be seen as more than just a basement room where younger staff members go to work off their aggression and reduce the likelihood of illness. The benefits must be clear for all ages and levels – once you start talking about ‘executive fitness facilities’ it’s a different ball game! This is where the HR department can support the case – much of the positive feedback we receive from our clients is in terms of improved atmosphere and stronger company culture driven by our staff’s wider involvement in social and sporting events. Bladerunner supports such involvement with a results-driven approach to increase staff incentive.
Then there is the marketing case – our more progressive clients see the company gym as part of their brand. At 3Com the facility is on the ground floor by reception and clearly visible to visitors. In the case of major structural change – such as company merger – a strong case could be made for using an enhanced fitness programme to build or reinforce the new company culture.
There is also a broader health and safety argument that goes beyond reduced accidents and fewer backaches. Bladerunner’s staff includes an occupational health doctor with special interest in broader environmental issues such as sick building syndrome.
A reasoned case can be made for maintaining fitness facilities on the basis of measurable cost benefits, reduced absenteeism and other productivity benefits, but it addresses only a part of the positive impact of fitness provision. It is only when broader, and less quantifiable, issues such as company image, executive potential and worker satisfaction are brought into the equation that the real benefits can be seen.
Summary of benefits from corporate fitness facilities
Benefits confirmed by scientific research:
- Stress management;
- Reduced backaches and injuries;
- Less heart disease.
Business benefits supported by statistics:
- Reduced absenteeism;
- Better staff retention;
- Productivity increase;
- Lower healthcare costs.
Less quantifiable, yet significant, benefits noted:
- Improved atmosphere and company culture;
- Better decision-making;
- Good corporate image;
- Better recruitment.