Sue Pridham – Published in Benefits & Pensions Monitor, October 2013

In today’s competitive work environment, employers are looking for strategies to attract and retain skilled employees, boost engagement, and be viewed as an employer of choice. Many leading organizations believe that the physical environment can have a big impact on employee health, vitality, and sense of community. This means corporate gyms have become a popular amenity for employers and employees alike. Up to 43 per cent of Canadian companies have on-site fitness facilities with another nine per cent looking to add this amenity in the next two to five years.

Canada Life Assurance Company was one of the first companies in Canada to sponsor a fitness facility at its headquarters in downtown Toronto, ON. In 1978, it was part of a federally funded research study to determine the bottom line benefits. Participants in the study experienced higher productivity, greater job satisfaction, and lower turnover. They also experienced lower healthcare costs. The research showed a return on investment of $500 to $700 per employee per year.

Received Much More
Tom O’Sullivan, general manager and actuary, says the company has received much more than it put in with increased productivity due to happier and healthier employees. “In the end, there is no doubt in my mind that over the last 30 years the fitness centre has played a major role in putting the ‘Life’ in Canada Life!”

The perpetual debate amongst employers committed to employee health is fitness subsidy versus on-site gym. A fitness subsidy provides an equitable and relatively low cost solution with minimal administration. The problem with subsidy programs is that they are ‘out of sight and out of mind’ for most employees, and only the most committed take advantage.

The main advantage of an exclusive employee fitness centre is the convenience factor and the sense of community it fosters. With two income families and longer work days, employees will value having an affordable fitness centre at work. Employees who might not join a commercial gym will be more likely to participate in a well-equipped and professionally managed corporate gym.

An in-house facility with employees exercising together has a number of ‘soft benefits’ including enhanced engagement, communication, and teamwork. The fitness centre becomes a ‘hub’ of activity within the organization where employees come together to socialize, workout, and have fun. It also provides a constant reminder that the company cares about employee well-being.

Participation Rates
Participation in an on-site facility is likely to be three to four times greater than use of external facilities. Participation rates for fitness subsidy programs are typically eight to 10 per cent. A subsidy program usually attracts employees who would join a health club whether a subsidy program was provided or not. Participation in an on-site fitness centre ranges from 25 per cent up to 60 per cent.

Some top employers offer both on-site facilities and a fitness subsidy program to eliminate any barriers to helping employees get fit and stay fit. This also provides a more equitable solution for employees working in decentralized offices.

Most organizations consider the feasibility of a fitness facility when they are moving their headquarters or undergoing a renovation. Fitness facilities should be considered early on in the design process. Before building a fitness facility, organizations must put together a business case that demonstrates its value. But to do so, companies should address common questions and issues around facility size, costs, liability, and management.

The first step is to assess employee needs, and interests. This is best accomplished through an employee fitness survey. The purpose of the survey is to assess interest in an on-site fitness facility, types of fitness and wellness programs employees are interested in, how and when they will participate, and how much they are prepared to contribute. Administering a survey also has the added benefit of fostering a sense of employee ownership to the program. A word of caution though ‒ an employee survey should only be conducted if the company is prepared to go ahead.

Optimal Location
If you are looking to have the fitness facility be part of your employment brand, think about a central location, in close proximity to the building entrance, cafeteria, or lunch room. Facilities with natural light and a view to the outdoors will have the greatest appeal.

While there is no exact science for calculating size, there are some general guidelines to follow based on the size of your population and projected usage. The average size for a corporate fitness facility is between 3,000 and 6,000 square feet.

The types of facilities will depend on whether or not your facility is professionally managed, the demographics of your workplace, space availability, and employee needs and interests. The space allocation (Figure 2) assumes your facility will be professionally supervised on at least a part -time basis.

Your equipment should include a variety of cardio and strength equipment to provide a well rounded exercise program suitable for all fitness levels. Equipment selection will depend on the level of supervision in the facility. For example if the facility is not supervised, free weights are not recommended. Equipment may include:

  • Cardio equipment (treadmills, elliptical cross trainers, stationary bikes)
  • Strength equipment – a variety of selectorized machines to work all the major muscle groups
  • Free weights – benches, dumbbells, bars/plates
  • Core conditioning/stretching – stability balls, medicine balls, kettle bells, wobble boards, foam rollers, TRX, tubing, dumbbells, mats
  • If group classes are offered, provide a variety of equipment for different types of classes including steps, spin bikes, body bars, dumbbells, mats, and stability balls.
  • Audio-visual equipment should also be considered to enhance the overall employee experience.
  • Select commercial grade equipment, designed for heavy use. Consult with a reputable fitness equipment vendor in the selection of your equipment.

Operating Model
The operating model will depend on the overall vision and mission for your facility and program, your tolerance for risk, the number of employees, and the scope and size of your facility.

Many companies outsource the management of their fitness facility to a professional management company with the experience and resources to provide a customized and integrated program. Other options include hiring from within or hiring contract instructors and personal trainers.

The most successful workplace fitness facilities are professionally managed either on a part-time or full-time basis. This ensures there is appropriate supervision and programming to maximize participation and minimize liability. Dynamic, experienced, and qualified staff will be able to meet the needs of all employees ‒ beginners and avid fitness enthusiasts alike. Staff should have post-secondary education in kinesiology, health promotion, or a related field and be certified in personal training, fitness assessment, group exercise, First Aid, and CPR.

Trained employee volunteers can also play a leadership role in the ongoing operations of the fitness facility. Employee volunteers may get involved on a fitness advisory committee or be trained to teach fitness classes or lead stretch breaks. Others may step forward to lead the walking or running club or help with special events such as a health fair or Wacky Olympics Day. Employee volunteers become ambassadors for the fitness centre and help to promote a culture of health.

Stream Of Programs
One of the common questions when considering a corporate gym is how do we maintain participation over time? A supervised facility with a variety of health and fitness programs geared to all employees will provide a continuous stream of programs to promote participation and healthy lifestyle choices.

A professional and experienced management company will provide ongoing marketing and communication to inform, involve, and inspire employees to take care of their health. The following programs will be well-received by your employees, promote safety, and decrease liability.

  • Health screening
  • Fitness assessments
  • Equipment orientations
  • Fitness program prescription
  • Personal training
  • Group fitness classes – boot camp, yoga, Pilates, Zumba
  • Walking and running programs
  • Nutrition counselling

Incentive programs such as campaigns and challenges will foster team spirit and promote healthy competition. Tap into national health themes and seasonal themes wherever possible

Membership Fees
The decision whether or not to charge a membership fee and how much depends on the size and scope of the facility, type and variety of equipment, level of supervision, and types of programs offered. It is common practise for companies to charge a fee ranging from $10 to $35 /month. Most employees are willing to pay a nominal fee.

According to Excellence Canada, returns on healthy workplace investments reported by large private sector organizations can range from $1.81 to $6.15 for every $1 invested. When investing in a workplace fitness facility, it is important to take a long-term view. It can take three to five years before returns are realized. It is also important to look at the value of the investment. When employees feel cared for and supported, they will be more willing to put their best effort forward.

A well-planned and managed corporate fitness facility will provide employees with years of enjoyment. Happy, healthy and motivated employees are engaged employees! Build it and they will come!

One of the Aviva strategies is to “Win with People” and the Vitality Fitness Centre is a perfect example of how Aviva is demonstrating its commitment to investing in their people.

– Debra Ambrose, Senior Vice President, Broker Distribution, Aviva Canada