In the long run: the benefits of corporate fitness initiatives for employees and companies

Such programmes help create happy, healthy employees, with teamwork in the field translating to better bonds in the workplace

'Team Work makes the dream work' was the mantra of the Bloomberg Square Mile Relay Dubai 2020 race.
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With everything from gym memberships and athleisure to protein supplements and niche activities (did someone say cat yoga?) more accessible than ever, there have never been more ways to get and stay in shape. But while the fitness industry has boomed within the past decade, professional pressure can affect the amount of time one dedicates to an exercise routine.

A fast-paced life, long hours, daily deadlines and the expectation of always being 'switched on' means it may not always be possible to sneak in a regular workout. As it turns out, an employer's attitude to staff fitness can make all the difference.

The concept of corporate health and wellness – by way of initiatives organised to encourage employees to get fit – is hardly new to the region. It is, however, on the rise, a survey conducted by Meed as part of the Daman Corporate Health Awards programme 2019 revealed. According to its findings, only 45 per cent of companies in the UAE had a working wellness programme in 2013, as opposed to 70 per cent in 2018.

In turn, corporate wellness programmes can help employers attract high-performing staff. In Cigna's 2018 360 Well-Being survey in the UAE, 70 per cent of respondents said workplace wellness programmes are an important factor when deciding whether to leave an existing company for a new one.

Fostering teamwork

Attracting skilled employees isn't the only advantage. Neha Gaggar is the managing partner of home-grown brand Rush-A-Way that organises wellness challenges in Dubai, encouraging employees to take part in out-of-office activities, and says these have a host of benefits for the companies.

“A high level of stress is common in the corporate world, and can lead to burnout, lower engagement, higher employee turnaround and absenteeism,” Gaggar says. “That’s where corporate fitness programmes come in. Such events promote wellness and team bonding, which in turn can help a company increase its overall performance.”

Colleagues put their fitness levels to the test at Gold Box Gym for the Oman Insurance Corporate Challenge in September 2019. Courtesy Rush-A-Way

Gaggar started Rush-A-Way in 2015 as a passion project to help people access adventure activities and experiences in the region, and conducted the company's first corporate challenge in 2017, for Oman Insurance. The annual inter-­company competition requires employees to put their skills together on physical and mental tasks, including a CrossFit circuit, stand-up paddleboarding, an escape room experience and sushi making.

"Every challenge is designed to help teams work better together," Gaggar says. "They are built in a way [that enables] colleagues to improve communication and collaborate to win.

“We’ve seen how it helps employees discover each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and get to know each other better. This in turn increases engagement and creates a more positive atmosphere in the workplace.”

Valuable life lessons

Vriti Sachanandani, an account manager at agency FLC Digital, says that apart from being a stress buster and improving team-building skills, corporate activities can incorporate valuable life lessons. "They create a work culture where employees are not restricted to a screen and have the opportunity to understand the capabilities of sportsmanship," she says.

“Fitness events promote a healthy attitude towards competition as well as helping one channel humility during failures. The bonds that develop due to sportsmanship and healthy competition remain unmatched.”

FLC Digital has participated in various fitness initiatives over the years, from the Dubai Fitness Challenge 30x30 to the Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon and Rush-A-Way, and has found a boost in employee morale after such events.

Ankit Bhutani is business director of IT consultancy Delphi, which has taken part in several corporate fitness events in the UAE over the years. He says the end game is about making employees happier and healthier. "It might seem obvious, but such employees are less likely to quit their jobs than unhealthy employees," he says.

Balancing schedules

In light of such benefits, some companies are going above and beyond to incorporate health and wellness activities into their ethos. Food-ordering platform Talabat, for instance, has partnered with Fitness First to offer subsidised annual membership for its employees, while also encouraging staff to get involved in events such as the Standard Chartered Marathon. This year, Talabat held a global charity running challenge, on January 20. For every kilometre run, €0.50 (Dh2) was donated to charity.

Talabat employees at the FitonClick Football Tournament 2019

“Fitness is a really important part of our wellness activities,” says Hanna Nordell, chief people officer at Talabat. “Hosting and competing in events gives our people opportunities to bond and keep close ties.”

Nordell says such activities have led to increased engagement and motivation levels, and reduced rates of absenteeism. "Meanwhile, a healthy body leads to a healthy mind. Exercise and being fit in turn leads to happiness, clarity of thought and good health. It's a win-win scenario."

One of the biggest misconceptions related to corporate events is that involving employees in activities outside the workplace can distract from professional duties and deadlines. But Nordell says this is not the case, and that flexible hours can go a long way towards helping people add fitness to their schedules.

"Really, it's all about being disciplined with your time. Exercise can be hard at first, but getting into a routine of going for a session before work, at lunchtime or after work has many benefits."

Creating positive long-term habits

From the Standard Chartered Marathon to the Bloomberg Square Mile Relay, the UAE has no dearth of events encouraging people to get moving. And companies footing the bill to encourage their workers to sign up for such events can make a big difference, says Eric K of LGT Middle East.

The Swiss national takes part in about two such events per year, as well as non-corporate races, and says the biggest difference between the two is the team-building opportunities the former presents.

Sometimes, even though you sit across from these people in the workplace, you don't always get a lot of time to talk to them or get to know them. Training with my colleagues has helped me get to know more about their personal lives and families.

“It’s just really nice to train with and motivate your colleagues,” he says. “Sometimes, even though you sit across from these people in the workplace, you don’t always get a lot of time to talk to them or get to know them. Training with my colleagues has helped me get to know more about their personal lives and families.”

Eric and nine other colleagues from his company participated in the Bloomberg Square Mile Relay in Dubai on February 12, where each member of the team runs a mile (1.6 kilometres) before passing the baton on to the next member. Can events such as these, in which each runner counts, place undue pressure on any one member?

"No, not at all," Eric says. "The purpose of these events isn't to win; it's to have fun together as a team."

More importantly, what might start as a fun time with friendly motivation among colleagues may lead to long-term health benefits, he says. "Many people don't feel fit enough to run, but push each other and encourage them to join such events.

“When they see they can actually run a mile, they start taking a more active interest in their bodies and overall fitness routines. Sometimes they join a gym, or start watching what they eat and drink. It’s a domino effect.”