Reward and Benefit: Fit for purpose

Come the New Year return-to-work, many employees are keen to purge the excess mince pies and plum pudding they consumed over Christmas and get fit and healthy. Now may be the time for employers to assess ways of providing fitness incentives to staff as part of an overall reward package.

With an increasing awareness about the importance of health and fitness in society, employees genuinely see gym membership or other employer-led fitness initiatives as a desirable perk. Of course, going to the gym is not going to appeal to everyone, but it’s a safe bet that a substantial proportion of staff will appreciate some form of fitness provision.

In many firms, a subsidised gym membership is popular, where a company strikes a deal with a local gym provider for discounted staff membership, to which it makes a contribution. But what are the alternatives?

In-house fitness

If you have the resources to make the initial capital investment, you could set up and run your own in-house gym. Such bold moves tend to be restricted to large corporates, which often run their facilities in partnership with third parties that specialise in corporate fitness management.
One example is supermarket chain Sainsbury’s, which provides an in-house gym for the 2,000 staff at its headquarters in Holborn, London, and runs six other gyms at its UK distribution centres.

The London gym was set up four years ago when Sainsbury’s moved from its former site at Blackfriars. The Blackfriars offices had a gym in the basement dating back to 1981, when gym chains were few and far between, but the office move provided an opportunity to offer a new facility. “We had a clean slate to meet the growing interest in membership from staff and to redesign the facilities from scratch,” says Guy Bellamy, gym manager.

The health and fitness centre now incorporates a gym, a separate studio for classes, shower and changing facilities, and physiotherapy and beauty treatment rooms. It employs three full-time gym instructors, a full-time physiotherapist and a beauty therapist, who works twice a week. A member of Sainsbury’s staff also provides self-defence and martial arts sessions at the gym.

Run by BodyWise UK, of which Bellamy is an employee, the gym has 700 members. Staff pay 16 per month – deducted every four weeks from their salary – which works out cheaper than the average subsidised gym membership, particularly in London.

Bellamy says that staff love the convenience and flexibility of having a gym on site. “Time is precious for Sainsbury’s employees,” he says. “Even though the nearest gym is only five minutes away, it takes time to get there, change and shower. With the in-house gym, staff can just walk downstairs. They can also use the facility at any time of the day [junior staff tend to agree gym sessions outside lunchtime with their managers], which gives them greater flexibility.”

Sainsbury’s also believes that offering its own gym facility helps to create a feeling of community and belonging among staff. “At a large gym chain, you are Joe Nobody,” says Bellamy. “Here, we know all the members, they know each other and it makes for a more personable and convivial atmosphere.”

However, not every company will have the space – or money – to invest in an in-house facility. And if yours is a small company, it may be difficult to negotiate a suitable membership deal with one of the larger chains.

This was certainly the experience at advertising agency Grey London, which employs 200 staff. “We looked into gym membership last year, but the large gym chains weren’t interested,” says Liz Nottingham, HR director at the agency. “A bulk corporate deal only seems to be possible if you have a large volume of members and are prepared to contribute towards membership.”

Despite this, the HR department at Grey London encourages physical activity through its ‘Feeling Good’ initiative, which includes team sports such as football, netball and softball, a running club and ‘grey matter’ days, in which people are invited in to talk about a health or personal development issue.

A running start

The running club started early last year when HR introduced a personal trainer to take staff out running at lunchtimes and in the evenings in Regent’s Park. Under the banner of ‘Look Good Naked’, the club attracted around 30 employees – mainly account and project managers – who initially paid the trainer for her services out of their annual 100 personal learning and development allowance. Once these funds ran out, Lucy Solomon, a global account manager, took up the mantle and continued to take people running on a regular basis.

Solomon says the running club has had a positive effect on productivity and is more convenient than visiting an external gym. “After a frantic morning in the office, I tend to eat my lunch and then get very lethargic in the afternoon,” she says. “But if I get some fresh air and go running at lunchtime, I find I’m more focused in the afternoon.”

The running club costs the company nothing to run and HR welcomes it. Solomon believes this support comes not from a will to increase staff productivity, but from a genuine belief in the power of exercise to combat stress. “Advertising is a very stressful industry,” she says. “The company wants to encourage us to spend time out of the office each day to help us to cope with stress.”

Any company’s approach to fitness will depend on staff needs and working patterns, as well as space constraints and resources. Sainsbury’s uses a mixed approach to fitness, operating its own gyms at head office and distribution centres, while offering staff in its retail operations subsidised gym membership through the Sainsbury’s Staff Association. With multiple locations and a large employee base working different shifts, it is essential for the company to take a flexible approach and negotiate fitness deals based on local circumstances.

Whatever approach a company takes, fitness perks are always popular with employees and evidence continues to grow of the link between investments in workplace fitness and productivity.

Reasons for keeping staff fit

Research by gym chain Cannons at its City of London club found that:

  • 61% of members agree that they are more confident as a result of participating in regular exercise.
  • 67% feel more motivated at work.
  • 65% feel they can take on more at home and at work.
  • Employer-facilitated exercise could generate a 300% return on investment for business.

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