Healthy means wealthy and wise

by 13 May 2008

Health and fitness programs are gaining in popularity in many corporate circles. But proving their ROI is still a challenge for HR professionals. Sarah OCarroll speaks to Sinclair Knight Merzs Carrie Luzar about the benefits of a healthy workforce

The cost of employee sickness and absenteeism is on the agenda of most businesses, together with confusion about how best to tackle it and whether investment in doing so can be fully justified.

When considering the wider business case for employers to invest in wellness programs, lots of evidence suggests that such programs have a positive impact in areas such as staff turnover and productivity, and that program costs often translate to financial benefits. But what exactly the best wellness programs are – and how to best implement them and quantify them – is still a challenge for many HR departments.

Sinclair Knight Merz (SKM) began rolling out health and wellbeing initiatives a few years ago and the reasons were twofold. There was the assumption that people perform better when they’re balanced and healthy. And, as employers became increasingly desperate to hang on to staff, it was about creating an attractive environment to work in.

“We need to match if not exceed our competitors,”said Carrie Luzar, remuneration and benefits manager of SKM. “Our health and wellbeing activities would form part of our value proposition, which is making SKM an attractive place to work.”

Culture

Where SKM has triumphed in this field is not with the unique health initiatives on offer, but in how the programs have become ingrained in the culture of the business. According to Luzar, what is important in creating a healthy and energetic workforce is not about continuously offering health checks, and sporting activities – it’s about genuinely creating an environment where employees want to get involved and the initiatives eventually come from the bottom up instead of the top down. This is the culture that has evolved in SKM.

“I got an email from a person in our New South Wales office and what they’ve done is started up a group of cyclists, so you can ride to work and join up with a group and ride to work together. That’s not a corporate initiative that we’ve handed down by saying ‘we’re going to have bike clubs,’” she says.

“Instead, what that shows to me is that people have really taken on board the overall philosophy of what we’re trying to achieve and it’s actually become part of the way they do things. They’ve taken it on with their own initiative and have really started to live it. I think then it doesn’t just end up being corporate rhetoric or handed down from above.”

Communication

The communication process is crucial to any program’s success. SKM has made sure employees and managers understand how the wellbeing programme works through localised communications at work.

However, according to Luzar it is important to be innovative in the ways in which you communicate, encourage and engage employees. This is one area in which Luzar believes SKM have more work to do.

“It’s very hard to focus on this sort of thing which often sits in the background when everybody is busy and everyone has got day jobs to do. I think there are probably some really innovative and interesting ways of helping to communicate some of these programs that perhaps we haven’t tapped into as well as we could have,” she says.

“Getting it into staff meetings and trying to get some of the face-to-face contact talking about this stuff is the key. I think we’ve got some very passionate people in SKM who love this kind of thing and it’s about finding champions in the business and getting people excited about it rather than hearing it from me,” she says.

Options for all

As the saying goes: one size doesn’t fit all. And this couldn’t be more true when it comes to implementing health and wellbeing programs. With a variety of tastes and preferences it is important to offer a variety of options so all employees can reap the benefits. Successful health programs in one environment cannot be expected to transplant into other cultural situations.

To this end SKM have a global framework in terms of what’s important about health and wellbeing and activities are tailored in each country and region across SKM.

“Part of the reason we don’t have total subsidies on this stuff is that when we were doing some employee focus groups people were saying for example ‘I don’t want you to pay for the yoga because I don’t do yoga,’” says Luzar.

This is one of the difficulties in introducing a successful health program. “It’s really hard to please everyone: it’s about giving options that people can choose to take up and hopefully an environment that is supportive of that kind of lifestyle,” says Luzar.

Some of the activities offered within SKM are subsidised massages, yoga classes and in-house competitions in sports such as volleyball, soccer and basketball. Executives also receive a full health evaluation annually. Executive support is important for success, according to Luzar.

“The success of the initiatives depends on the support of the executive team and we have a fairly health-conscious leadership team which I think is important. Our CEO, for example, is a really active cyclist and he’s always out on the weekend,” says Luzar.

Be clear with the objectives

SKM has seen an increase in bottom-line performance over the last few years. But to attribute this solely to the health and wellbeing programs alone would be pushing it a bit, says Luzar.

The benefits of having a healthier workforce have been twofold for SKM. First, what Luzar and her team have found is that not only do healthy and active people tend to be harder workers and achieve more, it also creates a much more lively and energetic atmosphere in which people are happier to work.

“If you walk into a workplace where people are energetic and achievers, and working and playing hard, that’s a much more attractive place to join and to stay. You’ve got the inherent benefits of being a healthier person, but also the extrinsic value that that brings to the workplace,” says Luzar.

It can be difficult to directly quantify and measure ROI on health initiatives. However Luzar believes the only way to measure it is by setting out clear objectives at the outset.

“The best way of measuring the successes of the programs, or measuring the return that you’re getting out of it, is by being really clear about the objectives: what you’re trying to achieve by the program and then evaluating whether or not you’re meeting those objectives,” she says.

One objective is promoting SKM as an attractive place to join and to stay. The health and wellbeing program has helped achieve that objective in terms of reducing turnover and, therefore, making the recruitment and selection process easier. Luzar believes this is the area in which they can most see the benefits and ROI.

“There really needs to be some clear thought in terms of what you’re trying to achieve because there’s a danger that corporate health and wellbeing programs can become a bit of jargon or a buzzword.

“If you can sit down and think about what we need to achieve out of doing this, first of all you get a better program, you get better design, but you also get better results out of it. You focus your efforts rather than just ticking the box.”