Wellness done right: Five rules for startup wellness programs

One of the things that makes running a startup so tough is that you have to attract some of the best and brightest employees, and get a heroic amount of productivity out of them, all while bigger, better-funded companies are offering them more money and better benefits.

In this environment, it’s tempting to spend a lot of money on perks — like yoga classes, fitness bootcamps, and gym memberships — to entice employees to not only work for you, but work longer hours. A corporate wellness program for a ten-person startup can easily end up costing two or three thousand dollars a month. At that point you’d be better off just hiring another employee.

However, it is possible to provide fitness & wellness service to your employees at an affordable cost. A good company wellness program makes for healthier employees, which means happier, more productive employees. It can contribute to a healthy and harmonious company culture.

Most importantly, a good wellness program can make it easier to attract and retain the best talent. If you want to create a company wellness program for your startup, here are five rules you should follow.

Remember that work comes first

Yes, part of the reason why you want a corporate wellness program is to help people break up the monotony of sitting at a desk all day. However, this can backfire if fitness activities are scheduled such that they interrupt times when people are getting important work done.

People are usually the most productive if they work in blocks of around two hours, with breaks in between. Now consider how this fits into the typical startup work day, where people are coming into the office around nine, eating lunch around noon or one, and working until around seven.

You obviously don’t want to schedule a wellness activity for eleven AM, since that would break up people’s mornings. You don’t want to have it at two PM for the same reason.

That leaves three good times for wellness activities: the lunch hour, late afternoon, and the very end of the work day. If you schedule something at lunch, you’re not interrupting anyone’s work. The downside here is that you might be obligating people not go to very far from the office for lunch.

If you hold a wellness activity around three-thirty or four PM, right around the time people start to feel worn out in the afternoon, it provides them with a mental break to help them make it through the rest of the work day.

Finally, an activity at the very end of the work day can motivate people to work late, while also helping them to unwind at the end of the day.

One other thing to consider is that the period between three and eight PM is the best time of the day to work out. That’s when our core body temperature is highest, and it’s when our hormonal environment is most conducive to recovering from exertion. If you want to hold group workouts or fitness bootcamps, put them later in the day.

Energize your employees

A good wellness program should help your employees reach their fitness goals, whatever those may be. Yet if we’re being honest, you probably don’t care if your employees can bench press two hundred pounds, or run a marathon.

On the other hand, you do care that your employees are happy and productive. And as it happens, there’s one thing that impacts both your ability to get into shape and your ability to get a lot of work done: your energy level.

Therefore, a good wellness program should help all employees to improve their energy level throughout the day. Here are just a few of the ways you can do that:

  • Teach your employees proper sleep hygiene, such as keeping their bedrooms dark and developing an evening routine.
  • Provide desks that allow employees to alternate sitting and standing throughout the day.
  • Provide healthy, low-calorie snacks at the office so that people don’t suffer from blood sugar crashes throughout the day.
  • Keep the office well-lit, or better yet allow natural light into it.

When people have more energy, they’re happier, healthier, and able to focus more effectively on their work. It’s win-win.

Use fitness challenges to drive engagement

A wellness program has obvious practical value, but if you want your employees to engage with it, it also needs to be fun. One tried and true way to make things fun is gamification.

Fitness challenges encourage employees to take care of their health and maximize the value they receive from a company wellness program. Utilized properly, they can also make great team-building exercises. Here are a few examples of simple fitness challenges you could run:

  • Improve your maximum plank time as much as possible in one month.
  • Clean and organize your kitchen every week
  • Do fifty squats on day one. Increase this number by five per day, every day thereafter.
  • Spend five more minutes each day working while standing up.

These challenges are best held on a monthly basis. Note that none of them involve having employees compete against each other- that’s by design. A competition would likely see some employees bow out when they realize they can’t win, and it’s best to think of fitness in terms of self-improvement, rather than competition.

Build fitness into your office

Our environment has tremendous influence over the way we behave. For instance, one classic study showed that there mere presence of weapons in a room caused people to behave more violently, even though the weapons were not being interacted with in any way. This has been dubbed “the weapons effect.”

You can use this same principle to get people into fitness. Strategically place a few pieces of exercise equipment in a highly visible location. Lay out a few healthy snacks, like apples or protein bars. Leave your gym bag conspicuously lying next to your desk. Call it “the dumbbell effect.”

Fitness challenges can also contribute to a fitness-friendly environment. If the challenge involves doing something in the office — such as doing crunches on the in-office Swiss ball — people who engage in it will be helping to build a company culture that priorities employee health and fitness.

Go online

People usually think of fitness training as something that happens in person- a personal trainer yelling at you as you struggle to raise a barbell, or a yoga teacher demonstrating the downward dog pose in front of a class. And often that’s true — but it doesn’t have to be.

There are many trainers who specialize in online coaching. While they don’t train clients in person, they do design workouts, diets, and meal plans, as well as coach clients on improving their habits and lifestyle. Unlike in-person trainers, online trainers also provide continual support by email, or in some cases even by phone.

For companies, online training has several compelling advantages. It doesn’t have to interrupt the work day the way a fitness class would. It allows each employee to receive customized training advice that they can apply on their own schedule, as well as individual consultation. And of course, it allows you to offer fitness coaching to remote employees, or to people in multiple offices.

The main downside to online training is that, while practical, it can end up being an individual activity that misses the team-building aspect of group fitness classes. To make up for this, a good online trainer should create fitness challenges for your employees, help you create a fitness-friendly office, and hold seminars or group coaching calls in order to include team activities in the mix.

One last big advantage of online training is cost. Hiring a trainer to teach classes for your employees can easily end up costing two thousand dollars a month or more for two one-hour classes per week. An online trainer for a company of ten to twenty people can stay under a thousand dollars a month, and the costs usually scale up more slowly as your company grows.

Healthy Startups are Successful Startups

When your employees are healthier, they’ll be happier and more productive. When they get healthy together, their relationship with the company changes; they go from being employees to being members of a team.

John Fawkes is a fitness coach and corporate wellness consultant who helps startups improve employee health, morale and work-life balance, while reducing turnover. He can be reached at john@johnfawkes.com.

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