Corporate Fitness Evolves
Broader perspective on workplace wellness creates new opportunities for fitness and wellness professionals.
Employers are looking for partners to provide experiences and solutions in social, emotional, financial, family and career growth and well-being,” says Grace DeSimone, national group fitness director with Plus One Health Management, an Optum company, in New York City. Companies are also embracing mindfulness, meditation and virtual solutions for telecommuting employees, according to DeSimone. All these changes represent an evolution from programs aimed primarily at improving physical health and controlling healthcare costs.
Research confirms that America’s largest corporations are addressing these wellness challenges. According to 2017 survey data from the National Business Group on Health (NBGH) and Fidelity Investments, which includes responses from 141 large and mid-sized companies,
- 95% of surveyed companies have physical well-being programs;
- 87% have emotional health programs; and
- 84% have financial security programs.
Companies also support communities and nonprofits by promoting team-building volunteer programs, matching charitable donations and organizing cause-based collection drives (NBGH 2017).
How can fitness pros take advantage of the shifting workplace wellness landscape? We’ll show why change is happening and then dive into actionable ideas for finding and keeping corporate wellness clients.
The Expanding Definition of Wellness
Landing corporate wellness clients requires an understanding of the forces behind the push for more-holistic programs. Drivers of the corporate wellness culture movement include
- a growing realization that traditional disease-management programs don’t address the full scope of wellness;
- more people having employer-sponsored health insurance coverage as a result of the Affordable Care Act; and
- higher corporate profits providing more discretionary income to businesses (Turk 2016).
In years past, corporate wellness programs focused primarily on disease management for “high-risk” employees with heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome or other chronic diseases—because workers and companies shared a motivation to reduce healthcare costs (Archer 2012). Today, employers see wellness as a means to improve their return on investment.
“The bigger opportunity for ROI is to improve mental and physical thriving, which leads to more energy, creativity, resilience, productivity and loyalty,” says Margaret Moore, aka “Coach Meg.” Moore is CEO of Wellcoaches® Corp. and co-directs the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, a Harvard Medical School affiliate in Belmont, Massachusetts.
The trend also reflects the reality that traditional disease-management programs are not particularly motivating. “Employees are tired of being told that if they are unhealthy, it is 100% their fault,” says Patty Purpur de Vries, MS, who directs the Stanford Health Promotion Network at Stanford Medicine WellMD Center in Silicon Valley.
The current variety of company wellness services—among them, financial counseling, treadmill workstations or “sit-to-stand” ergonomic desks, and community charity drives—points to a shift from disease management to wellness enhancement and a movement from a top-down directive approach to a more organic engagement model.
Exploring Corporate Wellness Opportunities
Wellness professionals are finding work in a broad spectrum of companies. For instance, large companies tend to have in-house wellness departments. Some have chief wellness officers and on-site medical clinics. Large and medium-sized corporations often work with external corporate wellness service providers like DeSimone’s parent company, Optum, which operates more than 2,000 group fitness classes for companies across the United States and Puerto Rico.
In contrast, Angel Chelik, ACE-certified health coach and founder of WorkBetter Wellness in San Diego, started her own business in 2010 to help local companies.
“In the past 5 years, I’ve seen an evolution. [Now there are] more entrepreneur fitness pros who serve businesses directly, rather than working with corporate subcontractors at large companies, and who even approach nontraditional settings, like co-working spaces,” Chelik says. These entrepreneurs offer everything from weekly on-site classes to comprehensive wellness programs.
Tamara Smith, industrial ergonomist and NASM-certified personal trainer in Long Beach, California, developed a comprehensive program after a local company approached her. She turned the “Industrial Athlete Program” she created for her initial business client into a turnkey model (see the sidebar “Case Study: Industrial Athlete Program”).
Experts agree that smaller companies may present opportunities to entrepreneurial fitness professionals.
“Small employers want the same stuff that medium and large employers have, but [small businesses] are challenged with resources,” says Jessica Grossmeier, vice president of research at the Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO). “There are also differences in meaningful outcomes. The smaller an employer is, the more painful health-related absences and disability leaves are in terms of business impact.
“And, regardless of size, most employers are interested in attracting and retaining top talent. In Silicon Valley, small employers use wellness as one benefit to attract employees and to support their performance once employed.”
Fitness professionals who want to work in corporate wellness—whether for a large corporate wellness service provider or as an entrepreneur—must understand all the components. “Additional knowledge in areas beyond fitness is critical,” says DeSimone. “Hybrid roles like group fitness instructor/personal trainer or registered dietitian/wellness coach are more common in the corporate environment. There are many opportunities available to professionals who want to add these skills to their resumés.”
Moore agrees. “Becoming a certified coach enables the fitness professional to align with healthcare and clinical settings. Fitness pros who become trained and certified in coaching start by moving from personal training to a combo personal training and coaching practice. The balance of ‘physical coaching’ and ‘mental coaching’ is attractive in a combo practice.”
An alternative to becoming a hybrid professional is having a strong colleague network. Brett Klika, CSCS, co-founder of SPIDERfit Kids in San Diego, notes that developing such a network is valuable for fitness entrepreneurs because companies want all-encompassing programs that require expertise in more categories than one person can provide.
Positioning Yourself to Get Hired
If you want to work in corporate wellness, the best strategy is to get supplemental training, learn about the market, begin networking, develop a value proposition and jump in. Experts agree that diverse qualifications and perseverance are key.
The more dimensions of wellness and delivery that you can teach or support, the more valuable you’ll be to a comprehensive wellness program. The experts we interviewed suggest these tips:
Get training. Learn more about behavioral health and/or health coaching. Understand components of wellness that go beyond fitness. Expertise in wearables (improving and maintaining engagement), related apps and accountability programs is a plus.
Join organizations and network. Enroll in groups such as the Wellness Council of America, the International Association for Worksite Health Promotion or the National Wellness Institute. Read corporate wellness trade publications. Go to corporate wellness conferences to learn and network. Use social media platforms such as LinkedIn to connect with people who work with wellness service providers. Network with other wellness experts, such as nutritionists, massage therapists and meditation teachers.
Contact corporations directly. Go to the Chamber of Commerce or other local business organization meetings to network. Research local businesses, and reach out to their human resources departments to inquire about needs.
Learn key metrics. HR and upper management want to improve specific metrics on performance and healthcare costs. If you have a plan, can you prove its effectiveness? Can you present research on the methodology? Before you speak to any employer, do your homework—understand the company’s culture, employee demographics, resource levels and outcome objectives. Data and research are essential.
Grow your outcomes data. Build assessment and evaluation into all your programs and services so you’ll have credible outcomes data.
Perfect your pitch. Develop a confident, concise description of what you do, what people you serve and what makes you unique. Focus on your niche within overall wellness.
Jonathan Penney, former senior general manager with Plus One Health Management in Boston, recommends beginning with an established corporate wellness provider to understand the context. With this experience, you can decide what direction to take next.
Ultimately, you have to believe in yourself. “Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there,” says Christopher R. Mohr, PhD, RD, founder of Mohr Results in Louisville, Kentucky. “Many years ago, we started cold-calling companies . . . and got several ‘no, thank-yous.’ But, ultimately, we made a great connection with [and delivered a 12-month program to] a large law firm” (see the “Resources” sidebar for help on developing your program).
The Future of the Corporate Wellness Opportunity
Corporate wellness represents significant growth opportunities as organizations embrace a culture of personal well-being and optimal health to retain the best employees and reduce healthcare costs. Fitness professionals who enjoy being part of a collaborative team with employees, other wellness staff and corporate management are likely to thrive.
Engagement is critical to wellness program success. That means fit pros who excel at inspiration, motivation and support are already poised for corporate wellness. Those who combine “soft skills” with training expertise and knowledge of behavioral change will be indispensable in the quest to make all employees fit for life.
Companies see the same thing fitness pros see: an explosion in wearable devices and online platforms that are changing people’s views on health and wellness. Data backs up the growth in wearables and the connection to corporate wellness. In 2015, employers accounted for half of all fitness bands sold in the United States; that same year, wearables manufacturers shipped more than 78 million devices (Grossmeier 2017). To encourage employee participation, a group of companies that have mostly incorporated trackers into their wellness programs are fully (51%) or partially (12%) subsidizing activity tracker costs. In 2018, U.S. employers are projected to integrate more than 13 million wearables into health and well-being programs (Grossmeier et al. 2017b).
Making Wearables Work
The Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO) developed and evaluated employer case studies on early adopters of wearables. These are some of the recommendations HERO developed after investigating efforts to integrate wearables into the workplace:
Include spouses and domestic partners. Extend wearables to family members to increase participation and provide social support.
Do a pilot program first. Test a wearables-supported program with a small group to improve program design and communications before rolling out the program across an entire organization.
Use incentives. Tie relevant incentives to the use of wearables and to deeper levels of engagement. Use tiered incentives. For example, companies found that once people attained a goal, they stopped logging steps. Rewards for additional steps achieved with bonus “challenges” supported sustained behavioral change.
Integrate with a comprehensive program. Use interest in wearables to stimulate involvement in a comprehensive well-being initiative of programs, policies and environmental supports. Simply providing a wearable device is not a wellness program; the device needs to complement a broader program and enhance engagement in specific program activities.
Keep programs fresh. Keep in mind that participants easily lose interest after the initial novelty of using a new activity tracker. Surveys show that one-third of wearables users stop using their devices within the first 6 months. To retain engagement, continue enhancing programs by responding to program evaluation data and feedback.
Pursue goals and objectives. Develop program goals, and use wearables data to measure goal achievements. Wearables can enhance employee engagement by encouraging participants to upload steps or track eating habits; however, engaged employees need incentives to hit specific targets, such as consistently meeting or exceeding the guidelines for recommended levels of physical activity (Grossmeier et al. 2017a).
Experts agree that wearables succeed only in the context of a strategy that aligns with operational goals. Fitness professionals who are proficient with fitness technology and apps can be an important resource for companies that are integrating wearables into wellness programs.
Pursuing Online Offerings
Companies are also plugging gaps in previous wellness efforts by providing more online services to educate, engage, motivate and provide accountability to employees.
“Millions of dollars have been spent on employee fitness facilities. However, companies are finding that this doesn’t necessarily increase the number of people in their company who choose to exercise,” says Brett Klika, CSCS, co-founder of SPIDERfit Kids® in San Diego. Klika says this opens up opportunities for fitness pros who are ready for a challenge.
“Fit pros need to consider how to engage those who have less supportive beliefs about investing time [in] exercise. This may require ÔÇÿreframing’ the purpose, execution and other aspects of an exercise program. Fit pros must be able to offer ongoing support for program participants. This may mean offering webinars, an online platform, email interaction, or other ways to educate and inspire employees outside of direct contact time.” Klika recommends creating an accountability platform, such as a support group or private Facebook group, to keep employees engaged and to allow both participants and program leaders to check in on progress.
To learn more, check out the following resources:
Guides & Journals
Archer, S. 2011. How to become a corporate fitness professional. ideafit.com/fitness-library/how-to-become-corporate-fitness-professional.
Stephano, R., & Edelheit, J. 2012. Engaging Wellness: Corporate Wellness Programs That Work. Palm Beach Gardens, FL: Corporate Health and Wellness Association.
American Journal of Health Promotion, journals.sagepub.com/home/ahp.
Corporate Wellness Magazine, corporatewellnessmagazine.com.
Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, journals.lww.com/joem/.
American Council on Exercise: Health Coach Certification, acefitness.org/fitness-certifications/health-coach-certification/default.aspx#chooseAProgram .
National Academy of Sports Medicine: Behavior Change Specialization, nasm.org/products/CEU151K.
Wellcoaches® School of Coaching, wellcoachesschool.com.
HERO (Health Enhancement Research Organization), hero-health.org/.
IAWHP (International Association for Worksite Health Promotion), acsm-iawhp.org.
WELCOA (Wellness Council of America), welcoa.org.
Workplace wellness clinics are becoming more common as companies seek to provide more comprehensive wellness services. On-site clinical staff may include a medical doctor, nurse practitioner, pharmacist, chiropractor, health coach, registered dietitian and, in some companies, a dentist. The National Association of Worksite Health Centers describes key benefits of an on-site clinic:
Productivity. Employees do not need to take 3–4 hours off work to visit doctors and pharmacists.
Disease prevention and management. Clinics can reduce illness frequency and severity while improving chronic disease management.
Recruitment and retention. Employees view on-site clinics as a valuable benefit.
Healthcare cost savings. Delivering on-site medical, pharmacy and therapy services eliminates the need to pay external providers a higher margin for these benefits.
A 2014 NAWHC survey of over 225 employers in 15 industries found that 71% had an on-site or near-site clinic. These employers reported that clinics improved employee health, elevated engagement with workplace health programming, increased employee satisfaction and boosted productivity (NAWHC 2017).
Managers of McMaster-Carr Supply, a warehouse-based distributor of thousands of products, wanted to reduce the incidence and severity of on-the-job injuries and worker compensation claims.
Based in Santa Fe Springs, California, the company found a fitness partner in Tamara Smith, an industrial ergonomist and NASM-certified personal trainer in nearby Long Beach. In 2011, Smith created the Industrial Athlete Program for McMaster-Carr, which has a large workforce with physically demanding jobs. After a review that included performing employee tasks in 10 departments, Smith implemented the following:
Ergonomic training manuals. Smith created training manuals with instructions specific to each department for safe, effective handling of materials. She recommended changes in tools, workstations, flooring and specific physical movements to reduce the risk of joint injury from job tasks.
On-site employee risk assessment program. Smith set up a station with a treadmill, pullup bar, 12-inch step-up box and yoga mat for employee assessments that required only a 45-minute absence from work. Each 30-minute assessment included questions on behavioral habits, injuries and perceived stress, along with a standardized strength and overhead-squat/postural test. From the assessments, Smith developed a risk rating system to calculate each employee’s estimated risk and determine how long individuals should participate in the training program.
Physical training and nutrition education. Smith created 90-minute “Industrial Athlete” sessions that included an overhead-squat assessment, weight training, stretching, self-myofascial release and applied ergonomics training. Employees participated in sessions twice a week and received basic nutrition education, behavioral change tips, goal-setting, review and adjustment.
Results. “We have seen a reduction in injuries and received phenomenal feedback from employees,” says Scotti Shafer, safety manager at McMaster-Carr Supply Company. Many participants say the program has changed their lifestyle for the better. McMaster-Carr is extremely satisfied with the Industrial Athlete Program.
“Embracing the broad definition of wellness has led to a tremendous impact on organizational health and worker productivity and happiness,” says Julie Stitch, associate vice president of content at The International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans. The following are examples of wellness programs and the percentages of companies that are offering these new services (from the Workplace Wellness 2017 Survey Report):
- chiropractic services coverage: 62%
- community charity drives/events: 59%
- on-site events/celebrations: 58%
- wellness competitions like walking/fitness challenges: 51%
- healthy food choices in cafeterias or vending machines: 44%
- standing/walking workstations: 42%
- wearable fitness trackers: 23%
Data Underscores Opportunities in Corporate Wellness
Corporate wellness used to be more about containing health costs. But in the current competitive job market, wellness programs also attract top employees, reduce turnover, boost engagement and productivity, and decrease absenteeism. While three-fourths of organizations promote wellness to improve overall employee satisfaction and well-being, just a quarter are aiming to reduce healthcare costs (Milligan 2017).
And there’s more good news for fitness pros:
- The corporate wellness services industry is projected to grow by 7.8% annually from 2016 to 2021—reaching $11.3 billion—according to a 2016 report by the research company IBISWorld (Turk 2016).
- From 2016 to 2017, nearly 25% of companies increased wellness offerings while only 3% reduced them, according to the 2017 Employee Benefits survey report by the Society for Human Resource Management (Milligan 2017).
- More than 60% of organizations have specific wellness budgets, and over half of these organizations expect their budgets to increase in the next 2 years, according to the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans (IFEBP 2017).
- Among organizations without a wellness budget, 1 in 9 expects to adopt one in the next 2 years (IFEBP 2017). And, for every dollar spent on disease management, businesses are expected to get a $3.80 return on investment (Turk 2016).
Archer, S. 2012. Health is wealth: The rise of workplace wellness. IDEA Fitness Journal 5, (9). Accessed Feb. 16, 2018: ideafit.com/fitness-library/health-is-wealth.
Grossmeier, J. 2017. The wearables in wellness issue. American Journal of Health Promotion, 31 (3), 251-52.
Grossmeier, J., et al. 2017a. Promising practices from pioneering employers: Case studies demonstrate effective use of wearables as part of a broader health and well-being initiative. American Journal of Health Promotion, 31 (3), 255-58.
Grossmeier, J., et al. 2017b. Seeking value: Meaningful use of wearables as part of employer-sponsored health and well-being initiatives. American Journal of Health Promotion, 31 (3), 252–55.
IFEBP (International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans). 2017. Workplace wellness goes beyond ROI. Accessed Feb. 16, 2018: ifebp.org/aboutus/pressroom/releases/Pages/Workplace-Wellness-Goes-Beyond-ROI-.aspx.
Milligan, S. 2017. Employers take wellness to a higher level. Accessed Feb. 16, 2018: shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-magazine/0917/pages/employers-take-wellness-to-a-higher-level.aspx.
NAWHC (National Association of Worksite Health Centers). 2017. What is an on-site clinic? Accessed Feb.16, 2018: nawhc.org/about-nawhc/what-on-site-clinic .
NBGH (National Business Group on Health). 2017. NBGH Press Release: Companies expand well-being programs and increase financial incentives. Accessed Feb.16, 2018: businessgrouphealth.org/news/nbgh-news/press-releases/press-release-details/?ID=322.
Turk, S. 2016. IBISWorld Industry Report OD4621: Corporate Wellness Services in the US. Accessed Feb. 16, 2018: static.politico.com/3e/68/b29a1ff04e7d8b c7c8231352ffc5/ibis-study-on-corporate-wellness-programs.pdf.