Firms get creative in staff wellness plans

Staff of IBM at their weekly zumba class in the company auditorium. The tech corporation has also given about 2,000 staff worldwide a Fitbit, a wrist-worn fitness tracker, as part of a pilot programme. If the pilot works, IBM plans to give the device
Staff of IBM at their weekly zumba class in the company auditorium. The tech corporation has also given about 2,000 staff worldwide a Fitbit, a wrist-worn fitness tracker, as part of a pilot programme. If the pilot works, IBM plans to give the devices to about 400,000 employees worldwide.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Aims are higher productivity, less medical expenses

When she hit her 40s, Ms Jassmy Loh found herself struggling with weight and knee problems and did not exercise much.

But Ms Loh, now 45, has found new motivation in the staff wellness programmes offered by her employer, semiconductor manufacturer Infineon Technologies.

Infineon rewards staff participation in fitness activities with points that can be used to redeem gifts, from kids' bicycle helmets to rock-climbing classes.

"The incentives really got my attention," said Ms Loh, a regional marketing manager. "I've lost a couple of kilos, my knee feels better, and the exercise helps me maintain my blood pressure."

She is now not only a fixture at office exercise classes, but has also started yoga to gain more points, hoping to get a fitness tracker.

While health screenings, gym memberships and fruit days are increasingly the standard at workplaces here, companies such as Infineon are getting creative with their wellness programmes to get more staff working up a sweat.

Said Infineon's Asia-Pacific vice-president of human relations, Dr Alexander Trost: "We don't want to insure bad health, we want to incentivise good health."

At technology corporation IBM, about 2,000 staff worldwide have been given a Fitbit, a wrist-worn fitness tracker, as part of a pilot programme.

Mr George Tan, 43, an integrated health services manager, said the devices have already stirred up competition between employees from different regions to walk the most steps. If the pilot works, IBM plans to give Fitbits to about 400,000 employees worldwide.

These creative programmes are aimed at increasing productivity or keeping medical costs down, in the face of rising health problems among Singapore's workforce.

The Health Promotion Board said: "The obesity rate among the general population in Singapore has increased from 6 per cent to 10.8 per cent between 1998 and 2010. With over 60 per cent of the resident population in the workforce, the workplace is a natural setting to engage Singaporeans in health."

Dr Rajeshree Parekh, Asia-Pacific director of health and corporate wellness at Towers Watson, said companies' interest in employees' health is "no longer one of vague benevolence but one that can be attributed in hard dollars directly to the bottom line".

Private medical group Raffles Medical said it has seen attendance rates for workplace health screenings jump from 10 to 20 per cent to 40 to 50 per cent in the past year, as its corporate clients push more employees to get their health checked.

At manufacturing company Asia Polyurethane, staff are allowed to finish work three hours earlier on the last Friday of each month to go for fitness classes. Chief executive officer Erman Tan, 50, said the scheme had low attendance at first, but has since improved to 75 per cent.

Some firms make physical activity a rule. Seven months a year, the employees of spring manufacturer Advanex go on a compulsory monthly morning hike of 3.54km at Bedok Reservoir. Senior workplace health promotion manager Alice Wong, 60, said: "If the staff exercise less, they are less fit. This causes production to slow."

Most firms, though, avoid such direct intervention measures.

DP Architects tried schemes targeting overweight employees, but found these less successful. It now offers mainly fitness classes and sports contests. Said its human relations director Raymond Chan, 48: "We have done our part to be effective, now they have to commit."

oliviaho@sph.com.sg