Wellbeing in focus: no-sweat staff incentives

Gym membership is decreasing, so what rewarding alternatives can employers offer to boost staff wellbeing, asks Sally O’Reilly?

Five years ago, 8.7 million people in the UK were members of a gym. Now, statistics from accountancy firm Deloitte show that 54,000 fewer people took out a gym membership in 2007 than they had in the 18 months previously. In some parts of the country, including Northern Ireland, the Midlands and the North East, the drop-out rate has risen to 8%.

Consequently, subsidised corporate gym membership – once a familiar feature in staff benefits packages – is not the incentive it used to be. It therefore makes sense for employers to look at alternatives to subsidising gym membership, and encouraging staff to make healthier life choices by paying towards other activities, such as cycling to work, or contributing to treatments that boost mental wellbeing, such as alternative health therapies and cognitive behavioural therapy.

One way to encourage staff to improve fitness levels is to weight insurance payments more heavily for employees who are unfit than for those with healthy lifestyles. Since 2004, insurance provider Pru Health has offered lower premiums to staff who can demonstrate they are healthy than to their overweight or unhealthy colleagues. Policy holders are assessed on an annual basis for signs of improved health, and earn “vitality points” for regular gym visits, giving up smoking, going for regular health screenings and healthy eating.

Linking workplace health to green issues can also help boost interest among staff. The 1999 Finance Act introduced a tax exemption that allows employers to provide employees with bicycles and accessories as a tax-free benefit. The exemption applies as long as the bicycles are used, at least in part, for journeys made between the employee’s home and the workplace. The Cycle to Work scheme is part of the government’s Green Transport Plan, promoting healthier journeys to work and reducing environmental pollution.

Employees taking advantage of the scheme will enjoy savings of up to 50% of the retail price of their chosen bicycle. Operating via salary sacrifice, payment for the bicycle by the employee is taken out of gross pay. This means tax and national insurance savings for the employee as well as national insurance savings for the employer.

Boosting employees’ ability to handle stress is another potential cost-saver in the long-term. The government is now pushing the use of computer-based packages offering cognitive behavioural therapy to staff. These interactive programmes can help staff unlock their negative thought patterns and pre-empt future psychological problems. Bristol Primary Care Trust, for example, has launched its Beating the Blues programme, which helps staff learn practical lifelong skills to cope with anxiety and depression through eight weekly sessions. There are also an increasing number of online services available to enable employees to assess their wellbeing and develop an action plan to address any problems.

More and more employers are taking an holistic view of staff wellbeing, combining physical wellbeing services with alternative therapies. Ailon Free is the founder and director of workplace consultancy The Lotus Exchange, which oversees a network of around 100 practitioners specialising in everything from smoking cessation to tai chi – with drumming workshops a particularly popular option with staff. His client base includes Barclays, BT and the English National Opera.

“Organisations can buy our services on a one-off basis, and then take it from there,” says Free. “For instance, they can buy a 10-week yoga course, or buy in regular massage sessions on a quarterly, twice-monthly or monthly basis. We offer every sort of massage that can be legally carried out in an office.”

Another holistic alternative is the Healing Hands Workplace consultancy, based in north London, which offers corporate clients courses in yoga, meditation and goal setting, starting at £120 per class or £720 per course. Other treatments include chair massage, reflexology and reiki.

“Our entire approach is based on the concept that we must not just restore but also increase our prana or ‘life force’ energy,” says director Daksha Paternott. “But it’s also about offering staff something that makes them feel really good. These are treatments that anyone can enjoy.”

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