The strongest link

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Scrutinize a few companies, compare team productivity with employee perks, and you may discover that the strongest correlation exists when employees use a regular health maintenance and fitness program — funded by the firm.

“Most CEOs know that a strong work force improves productivity, reduces absenteeism, turnover, and health care costs,” says Doug Ribley, fitness and wellness director at Akron General Health & Wellness Center in Montrose. “A common trait among the most successful companies is that most of them have a strong benefits package focused on health, wellness and prevention.”

Recognizing that a company’s weakest link is often an out-of-shape work force, Ribley says many local companies are beefing up benefits packages by partially funding memberships to Akron General “Lifestyles” — a medically supervised membership and exercise program staffed by credentialed exercise physiologists, athletic trainers and other health professionals.

“We have 8,000 members, and many of them are reimbursed all or in part for their memberships by their own companies,” Ribley says.

Akron General’s Health & Wellness Center offers a Corporate Affiliation Program in which a company pays a fee for a variety of health and wellness-related benefits. For example, members have use of more than 200 pieces of exercise equipment, an indoor pool and track, a whirlpool, sauna, steam room, gymnasium, even a climbing wall, in addition to fitness assessments and behavior modification classes.

The center also offers an aquatics program and more than 70 group exercise programs weekly, such as aerobics, kickboxing, extreme cycling, yoga, tai-chi and Pilates.

Fit for service

When an employee maintains a regular exercise routine, says Ribley, that individual is likely to be sick less often and miss fewer days of work. Productivity is higher, there are fewer health insurance claims and the company’s health insurance premiums go down. Clearly, that’s a big savings for the business.

So why, then, are only the most progressive companies willing to sponsor fitness club memberships for employees?

“A lot of companies figure they may not see a return on that kind of investment for some time, because it does take an employee some time to get in shape,” Ribley explains. “Since companies are so pressured to achieve quarter-to-quarter earnings, it’s a tough decision for them to make.”

But investing in an employee’s health regimen can pay off big time. Dave Bickering, president and CEO of the International Fitness Club Network, estimates that returns for establishing employee wellness and fitness programs can be as much as 100 to 300 percent over five years.

And considering that a fitness club membership is a mighty factor in swaying good employees to stay with the company, the returns are actually more immediate than that, Ribley says.

“Employers also find their employees are more productive because they’re in a better state of mind,” says Karen Bangert, a personal trainer at Akron General Health & Wellness.

Exercise, she underscores, is the great stress-buster.

“Employees find that exercise is the best way to relieve job-related stress,” Bangert says. “So the employers of my clients are actually encouraging them to exercise.”

Among those clients are FirstEnergy Corp., Deloitte & Touche, the Revere Local School System, and others.

When Ali Jamshidi started working out at Akron General Health & Wellness in spring 2000, he was pleased to see several other employees of FirstEnergy Corp. exercising there, too. As FirstEnergy’s director of conversion economics, Jamshidi wanted to enable more of FirstEnergy’s employees to use the facility. So he asked his assistant to tour the center and investigate options for employee discounts.

As a result, FirstEnergy pays a portion of the Health & Wellness Center’s initiation fee to minimize the cost of membership for its employees. Kristen Baird, a public relations spokesperson for FirstEnergy, says employees are taking advantage of the perk.

“Anything we can do to make it easier for our people to attain their fitness goals, it’s in our best interest to help them do that, because if they’re happier as a result, they’re going to be happier on the job,” she says. “Every extra incentive helps, and they greatly appreciate that assistance.”

Sign me up!

Akron General Health & Wellness Center debuted in 1996 as a division of Akron General Health System. The 197,000-square-foot facility brings together outpatient surgery, diagnostic services, sports medicine, cardiac and pulmonary services, physical therapy and rehabilitation, and Lifestyles, all in one location.

Describing the initiation process for Lifestyles — the medically supervised membership and exercise program — Ribley says a new member first receives a computerized physical assessment with a degreed exercise physiologist who reviews the assessment results, prescribes a personalized exercise program and works with the client to achieve set goals.

“The staff spends a lot of time developing incentive exercise programs to make it fun and to keep people focused on what they’re trying to accomplish,” Ribley says. “Then twice a year, we invite the entire membership to be reassessed so we can compare that to their initial assessment and find out what’s working, what’s not, and adjust their exercise program.”

The center operates under the guidance of a medical advisory board that includes 25 physicians and a medical director who reviews and supervises every activity in the center, Ribley says. Every staff member has a minimum of a four-year degree related to health and wellness, in exercise physiology, exercise science, physical education, athletic training or physical therapy.

“Obviously, they’re qualified to address any of the health-related issues and questions our members might have,” he says.

Akron General Health & Wellness Center also offers cardio and pulmonary testing, rehabilitative services including orthopedic evaluation and treatment, aquatic physical and exercise therapy, sports physicals and rehab, orthotics and functional capacity evaluations, and other services and specialty programs. In addition, there’s a surgery center for more than 300 types of outpatient procedures.

“Those are just a few things that differentiate our medical fitness facility from the commercial offerings out there,” Ribley says.

As investments in employee health and fitness programs figure into the bottom line, Ribley emphasizes that an organization’s strategic wellness is not just about numbers — it’s about people. And insightful companies like FirstEnergy are finding that strengthening the people actually fortifies the team as a whole.

How to reach: Akron General Health & Wellness Center, (330) 665-8000

Akron General website