x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A fit worker is a happy worker

UAE companies add corporate fitness allowances to employee packages to improve wellness in the workplace.

Salsa instructor Adel Besrour leads a class at the Ericsson offices in Downtown Jebel Ali in Dubai. Andrea Anastasiou
Salsa instructor Adel Besrour leads a class at the Ericsson offices in Downtown Jebel Ali in Dubai. Andrea Anastasiou

Christina O’Brian, a British HR executive, enjoys a special kind of incentive at her workplace. Every year she receives a Dh2,500 allowance she can use towards health club memberships.

“I think being fit and healthy helps you focus,” explains Ms O’Brian, 29, who lives in Dubai. “Exercise makes me feel much better about myself and I think this naturally impacts how you interact with others and builds confidence. Healthy staff ultimately should mean less sick days, so companies should view it as part of their investment in the individual.”

Ms O’Brian isn’t alone in enjoying these types of corporate wellness benefits. Mohammad Zahid, a 27-year-old Pakistani operations supervisor at Adib, receives a 50 per cent discount on membership packages at a gym franchise in Abu Dhabi. There is also a small gym available for senior staff at the company’s headquarters. “These benefits are important,” he says. “Apart from keeping fit, it gives the opportunity to staff to interact with others. If you have a workout partner who is a colleague, you put in more effort and are motivated to stay up to the mark.”

It’s well documented that corporate wellness benefits lead to more productive employees who require less health care. US research by Towers Watson and the National Business Group on Health revealed there are lower voluntary resignations at companies with effective wellness programmes.

And a 2012 study by Rand found half of US employers with at least 50 workers offered some form of health programme. It appears UAE companies are now beginning to follow suit.

While the majority of companies here offer the standard employment package – salary, annual ticket, repatriation ticket, and if you’re lucky a housing allowance – some organisations are matching what top US companies offer. These vary from office gyms right through to discounted health club memberships and organised aerobic classes.

GE Middle East, for example, has a “HealthAhead” initiative that aims to improve office well being. In line with this, GE’s 700 staff and their direct dependents receive a 50 per cent reimbursement on their gym membership fees.

In addition, GE organises sports sessions such as football and basketball twice a week and arranges annual tournaments, as well as fitness challenges. In the staff cafeteria there are discounts on healthy meals, and complimentary fruit is available in the office.

Joe Chalouhi, senior HR leader at GE Middle East, North Africa & Turkey says the wellness initiatives have been in place since 2011, and more than 350 staff members at the Dubai Internet City headquarters benefit from access to a gymnasium and other facilities, elements he feels contribute to improved employee wellness, productivity and job satisfaction.

“This in turn ensures that our retention rates remain high. The wellness of our employees therefore has a direct impact on the success of our company,” he says.

“Fitness allowances encourage and motivate our employees to join the gym or to participate in our weekly sports activities. We educate and develop awareness, and this in turn results in improved employee retention through increased productivity and morale- boosting, as well as less sick days being reported.”

Similarly, Ericsson gives its staff discounted rates to UAE gyms. The company also offers free abdominal crunch, Shotokai and salsa dance classes in the Dubai office and there is a social running group. “We believe healthy employees are happy employees,” says Amr Elenein, Ericsson’s sales and business development director. “That was our driver to start thinking about introducing these benefits. It’s a win-win situation because happier employees tend to be more engaged, motivated and productive.”

Suha Haroun, HR director for Bayt.com, says it is essential companies help staff achieve a work-life balance with wellness benefits part of the formula. Bayt.com’s 2012 “Work-life Balance in the Mena” poll highlighted how stress management and fitness are integral factors for sustaining wellness. And with today’s professionals spending an increasing amount of time in the office, these two elements are becoming more difficult to accomplish.

“The study reveals the majority of employees do not spend a sufficient amount of time on sports and exercise, while 14.5 per cent say that an uneven work-life balance is causing them high levels of stress,” says Ms Haroun.

However, Guillaume Mariole, the managing director of Ignite Fitness & Wellness, says the UAE market is changing as companies realise the value of a healthy workforce.

“Increases in insurance premiums due to many staff being assessed as high risk due to high diabetes and cholesterol [levels] has meant a shifting mindset,” he says. “The direct impact of wellness programmes will be a decrease in sick days, reduced premiums via reduced claims costs and an attractive company that believes in the health and well-being of their team.”