Think Outside the Cubicle

If your worklife feels like a bad episode of The Office, part of the problem may be the
hours you’re putting in—who has time to exercise with that kind of schedule? But some
companies, eager to keep their employees happy and productive, have come up with
innovative ways to encourage worker well-being.

By Claire Sykes

June 2007

You sit all day at your desk, squinting at the computer screen until you’re seeing double. Your posture suffers, shoulders slumping under the weight of endless stress. Your demanding schedule only allows enough time for a quick junk-food lunch—along with a caffeinated cola to compensate for the energy crash that followed your hasty coffee-and-muffin breakfast. Is it any wonder that you’ve packed on pounds? The only exercise you seem to get during the workday is when you walk over to the fax machine. You go home feeling drained and frustrated—career is important, but not if the rat race costs you your health. White collar or blue collar, whatever your working life, you know you could live it more healthfully—if only your employer would let you.

The Puritan work ethic may still dominate the labor landscape in the US, but forward-thinking companies are stopping the spinning rat-wheel in the cage and letting employees loose in a work environment that’s fit, fun and more fruitful than ever. From on-site gyms and wholesome cafeteria choices to nap rooms and meditation breaks, workplace health and wellness programs are focusing on employees’ welfare and redefining the nine-to-five lifestyle—all while boosting the company’s bottom line.

“We spend most of our waking hours at work,” says Steven Aldana, PhD, professor of Lifestyle Medicine at Brigham Young University. “So, more than any other area of life, worksites influence our health”—both negatively (that vending-machine lunch) and positively (the company softball team).

“But in general, people don’t take care of themselves and their unhealthy habits place a financial burden on their employers,” by way of increased costs of health insurance, absenteeism and turnover. “Businesses can no longer afford not to provide healthful workplaces for their employees.”

“Healthy people cost the health system and employers less,” says Anna Silberman, Vice President of Preventive Health Services at Highmark Blue Cross/Blue Shield, based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “They also have a higher quality of life and are more satisfied employees, living longer, healthier lives.”

Emerging research suggests that, in addition to reducing sick days, healthy workplace practices also boost productivity. A 2005 study presented at the 52nd American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) Annual Meeting revealed that quality of work, mental performance and time management were all significantly improved on days when workers took breaks for on-site exercise programs like aerobics, yoga and stretching. Additionally, workers reported being easier on themselves and more forgiving of their colleagues after exercise breaks—translating to improved teamwork, enhanced office morale and greater job satisfaction.

In Healthy Company
At the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minnesota, the staff doesn’t wait for a break before they get moving. In the 12-person research lab run by James Levine, MD, specially designed treadmills double as workstations. Along with mobile phones, employees wear a Mayo-designed “standometer” that monitors vertical time and activity needed to reach daily individual goals. Instead of sitting for meetings, small groups discuss business while strolling the two-lane track that runs the circumference of the 5,000-square-foot lab. And for a fun office workout, Mayo Clinic staff can wear plastic carpet-skates, sliding everywhere they go.

Meanwhile, the Eat Well, Live Well program at Wegmans Food Markets, a regional supermarket chain headquartered in Rochester, New York, enhances the healthy workplace menu, encouraging employees (as well as customers) to eat five cups of colorful fresh fruits and vegetables per day while offering healthful recipes, nutrition and fitness tips on its website (www.eatwelllivewell.org). For eight weeks in spring 2007, Wegmans challenged employees to rack up 10,000 steps each day—and helped them achieve this healthy goal by coordinating morning and afternoon “store walks.”

Walking is also a winner among staff at Highmark Blue Cross who partake in the 10,000 Step Challenge or (lower-level) Strides for Health campaigns. The company’s Color Your Plate program adds a variety of hues to employees’ food choices as well, through the company cafeteria’s Whole Body Line of healthful options and initiatives that motivate employees to order fruits and vegetables online and have them delivered to the office. Staff seeking nutritional guidance can take a free six-week Eat Well for Life course, taught by a registered dietician, one of six available for company-sponsored personal consults. Outside alternative health services, such as acupuncture and massage therapy, are also offered to staff at a discount, as are supplements and vitamins.

When it comes to getting physical, employees at two of Highmark’s largest locations need only take the elevator (or the steps!) to a 10,000-square-foot fitness center, complete with exercise bikes, treadmills, free weights and weight machines, along with yoga and Pilates classes. Highmark uses The Dean Ornish Program for Reversing Heart Disease to unite these healthy actions, encouraging employees to achieve wellness with nutrition, exercise, stress management and group support.

“We try to provide programs tailored for our employees, given where they’re at with their health and how they want to learn, whether online, by phone or in person,” says Silberman. Highmark employees are increasingly taking advantage of the company’s health and wellness program, with 40% participation in 2002 and double that in 2005.

All Work and Some Play
Aiming to maximize employee retention and minimize nine-to-five drudgery, Yarde Metals, a metals distributor based in Southington, Connecticut, created a work environment that is a vibrant paradise in a world of bland gray cubicles. Hundreds of Yarde employees take advantage of the company’s gym, with its treadmills, elliptical machines, bikes, weightlifting equipment, personal trainer and yoga teacher/massage therapist. Yarde’s recreation options, including a half-size basketball court, bocce ball court, dartboards, foosball and pool tables, plus an indoor driving range and putting green, make being at work feel almost like play. Even employees’ dogs get to frolic in the company’s six outdoor kennels and dog run.

To make a happy workforce even happier, Yarde added an amenity that has become increasingly popular among progressive employers: naptime. After noticing employees using their breaks to nap at their desks or outside in lawn chairs, owner Craig Yarde set up a nap room to make sleepy workers more comfortable. The idea was a rousing success; now, in each new company facility, staff can close the door, pull the blinds and sack out on the couch (off the clock, of course). Mid-day napping has been linked with reduced accidents and mistakes, and improved performance, mood and long-term health—making this unconventional offering a smart managerial maneuver.

Yarde Metals’ Connecticut location went a step further recently and turned the employee nap room into the “Z Lounge,” complete with its own “Serenity Suite.” Twice a week, marketing and sales representative Jim Russo settles into the suite’s S-shaped chair while a relaxing babbling brook scene fills the plasma television screen before him. After a few moments, the video (one of four, including a roaring fireplace, rolling ocean waves and swaying palm trees in a sunset) fades and new age music begins to softly play, as the chair rotates slowly and massages him at the same time. After the 20-minute session, says Russo, “I feel totally rejuvenated and ready to go.”

So do staff who meditate at Windhorse Associates, a non-profit, whole-person-oriented psychiatric treatment and education organization in Northampton, Massachusetts. “Closely attending to people with extreme mind states, such as schizophrenia, can be fatiguing,” says Windhorse Associates’ development director Jeff Bliss, MSW. “Giving clinicians time every day to relax and restore their minds improves their performance and demonstrates our workplace values.”

For half an hour four days a week (two of those paid), staff may sit and watch their breath in a carpeted room that turns itself over to a yoga class once a week. Employees also open and close all meetings with a moment of silence.

As a company’s health and wellness program integrates further into the many aspects of daily work routines, it becomes known as a “contemplative organization,” promoting values, practices and philosophies that transcend sales, profits and losses. Thanks to these organizations, an exciting new era is dawning—where all the negative labor stereotypes dissolve and only success, prosperity and good health remain.

Though employee wellness initiatives can be complex and sophisticated, the journey to a healthy workplace can also start simply. Even if there’s just one exercise bike stuck in a corner of the supply room, or you have the boss’s OK to take a nap in the unused boardroom, that’s progress in the workplace—and yet another opportunity to take positive, proactive steps to improve your health throughout the day.

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