The healthier way to work
Modern humans have a problem. The body is designed to walk the 30km a day that our ancestors used to trek in search of work or food. But in the developed world, people walk an average of less than one kilometre a day.
This helps account for the huge rise in Non Communicable Diseases (NCDs) which are defined as being exclusively caused by unhealthy habits. Since 2006 these have been the primary cause of death world-wide and lead to over 60 percent of all premature deaths every year. While we can exercise more, eat healthier, drink less and not smoke at all if we so choose, there is one thing many of us cannot change – the amount of time we have to spend sitting all day in deskbound jobs.
“The precondition for creativity and productivity is a healthy, well-trained body”
Academic research by universities in the UK had already proved the increased risks of diabetes, cardiovascular problems, higher cholesterol, back pain, colon cancer and poor blood circulation. Most stark of all was a 49 percent increased risk of death from any cause.
The conclusion of those studies was something we have all heard before – we should take regular breaks, stretch, walk about, etc etc. Most of us probably start the day with this intention but then get caught up in work. The more conscientious among us will then make ourselves feel better by exercising in our free time to counter the damage. Which does make us fitter and slimmer. But there’s a flaw in the plan: New research by the Medical College of Wisconsin found that working out doesn’t actually undo the damage of a sedentary lifestyle.
These findings have given rise to the term “active couch potato” which describes those who exercise regularly and are relatively fit, and yet still sit for long periods and therefore are increasing the risk of health issues further down the line. And for companies that expect increasing levels of commitment from their employees, handing out gym memberships or providing healthier canteen options isn’t enough to mitigate the dangers.
The whole model needs to change. For practical examples of how that might be done and the cost / benefit ratios involved, one company stands out as showing a decades’ long commitment to the study of staff wellness. It goes way beyond the usual CSR platitudes.
Technogym’s ‘culture of wellness’
That firm is Technogym, the world’s leading supplier of fitness/wellness equipment and services for use in homes and hotels, founded in 1983. 35 million users train every day on Technogym equipment and the Italian company was the official supplier for the last five Olympic Games.
What most people won’t know is that its design and manufacturing headquarters, Technogym Village, in the countryside of Cesena, northern Italy, is a self-styled wellness campus that seeks to put into practise everything that the company preaches. To Technogym, staff wellness is “the enhancement of the available human capital. The precondition for creativity and productivity is a healthy, well-trained body, as physical and mental or psychological well-being are closely linked.”
Opened in 2012 by Bill Clinton, the complex is the physical manifestation of founder Nerio Alessandri’s long held vision. Together with architect Antonio Citterio, he conceptualised a place where lifestyle, quality, design and productivity are combined with eco-sustainability and bio-architecture. His is a vision that extends beyond the gym to a “culture of wellness”.
These kind of utterances could also be empty platitudes, but a visit to the factory shows that it is in fact a very real commitment. The first thing to note is the building itself, which is designed to maximise natural light for the employees. All the work areas have been designed to ensure personal well-being in terms of posture, lighting and movement education. Everything is spacious, airy and well laid out – even on the factory floor. Those shopfloor staff look visibly healthier than many of their counterparts in similar manual industries do – there isn’t a fried egg sandwich in sight on their tea breaks.
In any case most of them are otherwise engaged in their downtime. Fitness programmes are drawn up for employees, who also have the option of free medical check-ups and group sports activities. A two hour lunch break is included in the nine hour day, giving adequate time to visit the onsite gym, for which membership costs 30 euros per year.
Over in the offices, the suited staff sit on wellness balls instead of chairs and some meeting rooms are set up to host standing meetings to promote physical activity. Flexibility machines, placed in common areas, stretch the muscles that suffer most from sitting. A sign on the (rarely used) lift doors says “take the stairs to burn calories”. And when the staff do find time, the restaurant menu, created by the firm’s science centre, features balanced dishes prepared using seasonal, high-quality ingredients.
More than 66 percent of men and 60 percent of women in the UAE are overweight or obese
There are no desserts though this being Italy, good coffee is still available. Some company leaders will view the above as needless costs, viewing staff health as the responsibility of the employees. The counter-argument would be the medical checks of Technogym’s staff, which are analysed by independent Universities. They show that Technogym staff who participate in the Corporate Wellness program successfully improve their health records or maintain them unaltered over time. As a result both absenteeism and presenteeism are lower than national averages and the company claims its output is higher thanks to better concentration levels and individual performance.
Gyms for the masses
For Nerio Alessandri the company headquarters are the logical outcome of his thirty-year drive to promote the concept of wellness. Arguably he has always been ahead of the curve in this regard. He built his first fitness equipment by hand in his garage after noticing that gyms in the early 1980s used primitive technology that was only applicable for hardcore bodybuilders.
His vision for how technology could help a normal person helped spread the use of gyms to the masses. Once the company was established and his equipment was in different countries, he wanted to use some kind of cloud based information storage so that personal programmes could be saved and used on any machine. This was before the internet was in widespread public usage. That dream finally came to fruition with the “Technogym Ecosystem”, a Cloud-based digital platform which allocates “Move” points. These are charted on digital leader boards and, in another nod to the thought innovations of “nudge” phycology, converted into (healthy) prizes.
These ideas form the basis of Technogym’s corporate wellness consultancy, which now advises schools, universities, governments and around 6,000 companies worldwide, including Google in California, BMW in Germany and Rolls Royce in Britain. Alessandri also started the Wellness Foundation in 2003, a not-for-profit organisation to assist institutions, schools, universities, research centres that are committed daily to improving people’s quality of life.
In person Alessandri speaks with the zeal of an evangelist about the concept he has instigated at his HQ. He returns again and again to the simple statistic that from 2006 onwards more people have died needlessly from NCDs. Last year he instigated the Let’s Move for a Better World initiative, founded once again on the idea that wellness is a social as well an individual issue. It once again uses cloud technology, whereby members at Technogyms around the world compete to accumulate the highest number of Move points. The winning gym is able to donate a gym, provided by Technogym, to a local school.
The Gulf’s growing obesity problem
All this is hugely important in the Gulf. More than 66 percent of men and 60 percent of women in the UAE are overweight or obese, one in five has diabetes and heart disease strike 20 years earlier than global averages. Individuals can change this. And their companies can facilitate that process.
But will they listen? Research shows a threefold return on investing in employee wellbeing. Figures aren’t available for the UAE but in the UK, “presenteeism”, defined as “the loss of productivity that occurs when people come to work ill”, costs the economy as much as £15.1 billion [Dhs86 billion] every year.
So this clearly is a problem for which there are solutions. However, with much of the workforce in the Gulf being comprised of transient expats who, should serious, illness strike will probably leave the region, what long-term incentives are there for companies to invest in the future of their workforce?
It’s something that we couch potatoes, active or otherwise, should bear in mind when choosing an employer. Our health may one day depend upon it.