Image by Kompania Piwowarska via flickr

The One, Life-Saving Change Workplaces Can Make For Their Employees

This post was originally published by HootSuite CEO Ryan Holmes on the LinkedIn Influencer blog. Follow Ryan on LinkedIn:

According to death statistics from 2011 compiled by the CDC, the top three killers in the US are heart disease, cancer and chronic lower respiratory diseases like emphysema. Collectively these diseases killed over 1.3 million Americans that year alone.

What’s most striking to me is how preventable many of these diseases are. Regular exercise, together with a proper diet, can dramatically reduce rates of heart disease, for instance. Nonetheless, nearly 80 percent of American adults don’t get their weekly recommended amount of exercise (2.5 hours of moderate aerobic activity or 1 hour and 15 minutes of vigorous activity). Given how critical fitness is to overall health, it’s worth taking a look at exercise in the one place where nearly all of us will spend a good chunk of our lives: the workplace.

Here are a couple of key ways companies and their employees can team up to promote healthier, more active lifestyles … on the job:

If you build it, they will exercise—gyms, fitness classes and showers at work.

Google is for many young jobseekers the Holy Grail of workplaces. The tech giant, which currently employs over 40,000 people in its American offices, has been called the best employer in the country, in large part for perks like free food and flexible time-off policies. But from the start one of the best things Google did for its employees was provide them with convenient, on-site gyms with shower facilities and free access to a variety of fitness classes (including ones that truly make exercise sound fun, like How to Dance at a Party). By motivating employees to stay fit on the job from early on, Google set an important precedent in work-life balance that’s reverberated throughout the tech industry.

At my company—with currently over 600 employees—we also try to encourage exercise before, during and after working hours. When we moved into a new headquarters several years ago, we installed a small gym and yoga room, as well as showers and changing rooms. Facilities are modest compared to those at some companies, but they’re well used. Yoga classes are packed before work, at lunch and after work. In our gym, volunteers from our company lead sweaty bootcamps and cross-training classes. Outside the office, groups set out for lunchtime runs and evening hikes. We have a hockey team and a road biking team and even a Quidditch team that does battle on broomsticks in the park.

The company that sweats together, stays together—fostering a culture of fitness.

But when it comes to promoting fitness on the job, dedicated facilities are far less important than fostering a company-wide culture of health. (And this doesn’t have to break the bank.)

At Hootsuite, we tried to encourage a culture of fitness from the beginning. Back in the day, in our cramped startup offices on the industrial side of town, we couldn’t afford a gym (in fact, we couldn’t even afford phones). But we did hang a fingerboard on the wall for pull-ups. We brought in yoga balls for chairs. We encouraged employees to bike to work, even though that meant cramming our office entryway full of bikes because it was too sketchy to park outside. And we made it clear that anyone could block off an hour for exercise during the day, provided it didn’t conflict with meetings and they made up the time (by having lunch at their desks, for instance).

There’s a saying that couples who sweat together stay together. I think it’s just as true that companies that sweat together stay together. Over the years, the culture of fitness in our office has grown with the enthusiasm of new employees and taken on a life of its own. Our staff include ultramarathoners who run 50 miles at a stretch, elite cyclists and triathletes, personal trainers, avid rowers and sailors, yogis and hardcore hikers and, of course, lots of people like me who just like a good workout from time to time. Fitness has become one important thread that helps tie the company and its culture together.

Help managers understand the benefits of exercise … to the bottom-line.

I’m picturing old-school managers out there rolling their eyes. The manager’s job, after all, is to get results out of employees, not keep them fit. But even on a ruthlessly practical level, allowing and encouraging employees to exercise at work makes good sense. I see employees return from workouts refreshed and better focused on their jobs. Time lost on exercise is made back and more in terms of improved productivity. And research backs this up.

A study presented to the American College of Sports Medicine, for instance, found that workers who spent 30-60 minutes at lunch exercising reported an average performance boost of 15 percent. Sixty percent of employees said their time management skills, mental performance and ability to meet deadlines improved on the days they exercised. Workers in the study were less likely to suffer from post-lunch energy dips after exercising and also reported improvements in mood.

Then there are the longer-term benefits to keep in mind. Healthy, active employees take fewer sick days and bring more energy to the workplace. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine showed that incorporating just 2.5 hours of exercise per week into the workday led to a noticeable reduction in absences. Perhaps most importantly, fit and healthy workers are less prone to exactly the kinds of preventable, debilitating illnesses that take such a heavy toll on families and on society.

Exercise in the office isn’t a new idea. But it’s such a clear win-win—in terms of health, morale and productivity—that I think it deserves to be put in the spotlight once more. Considering how pervasive heart disease and other preventable illnesses are, it’s not an exaggeration to say that our future—as healthy individuals, healthy companies and healthy societies—may depend on it.

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