Analysis: Corporate fitness programmes

Gym and fitness centre benefits are increasingly popular employee benefits but what is the best way of covering their costs? Nic Paton reports

For anyone who started going to the gym as a 2012 new year’s resolution and is still, four months on, hanging in there, first, very well done, and second, you may not realise it but you have now successfully cemented a lifestyle change that is increasingly chiming with the priorities of employers.

The idea of employers encouraging staff to make use of gym facilities, whether physically on site or through discounted or subsidised membership at a local facility, is not, of course, new. But with, on the one hand, the UK hosting the world’s top Olympic athletes this summer and, on the other, the cost of managing absence and ill-health (especially stress and mental ill-health) continuing to rise, and now according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development standing at £673 per employee compared with £600 in 2010, there has rarely been a clearer incentive to include fitness in some shape or form within your clients’ benefits or insurance mix.

Just as importantly, research by corporate health cash plan provider Health Shield suggests fitness is becoming an increasingly important, and valued, component within healthcare cover. In a poll of more than 20,000 members gauging the popularity of its fitness benefit – which includes negotiated discounts and contributions to health club memberships, swimming and exercise classes or a personal trainer – it found 65% of 18- to 24-year-olds valued having it as part of their health cash plan, up 12% since 2006. Among 35- to 44-year-olds there had been a 6% rise and a 4% increase among 55- to 64-year-olds.

EASIER SAID THAN DONE?

Yet corporate healthcare and gym provision are not necessarily the easiest of bedfellows, as Tal Gilbert, head of research and development at PruHealth, one of the pioneers in this market, readily concedes.

“We have seen for a long time now that quite a lot of corporates are interested in providing some sort of gym facilities for their staff. It is highly valued by employees but also not necessarily cheap for the company or provider, particularly if it is something you are providing in-house,” he points out.

Common challenges can include how, or to what extent, to offer incentives to encourage staff to carry on going to the gym plus, especially for employers outside larger metropolitan areas, how to offer a genuine choice of facilities or provision. Then there is the ongoing debate over whether better levels of fitness do in reality feed through into significant health insurance benefits, such as reduced claims. Back in September last year, for example, PruHealth published a five-year South African study involving 300,000 members of its regional offshoot Discover Health that suggested a strong correlation between member engagement in incentivised health programmes and lower hospital admissions.

Others, however, remain more sceptical. Richard Saunders, sales director at Healix Health Services, agrees that, while some companies providing free gym membership do report seeing benefits from having fitter employees, there is, after all, no absolute guarantee being fitter will make you any less likely to get, say, cancer. Moreover, over-exercising can easily lead to injuries or musculoskeletal problems that can have a knock-on effect on attendance.

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