IT workers shape up

January is traditionally the month of good intentions. It’s the time of the year when we promise ourselves to quit smoking, learn a language, call our parents more often and, of course, start that exercise regime. Fortunately for some of us, certain IT companies are helping us keep our resolutions – they might not have your mom on speed dial, but they’re making it easier for their employees to go to the gym.

According to John Quinn, marketing and communications manager for SAS Institute (Canada) Inc., fitness is an important component of striking a balance in terms of employee wellness.

“It’s always been a part of our philosophy,” Toronto-based Quinn said. “Satisfied employees mean satisfied customers, and SAS has always believed that if you treat employees as if they make a difference, they will make a difference.”

While SAS’ Cary, N.C.-based headquarters boasts an onsite recreational facility, which includes basketball courts, soccer fields and a gym, its Canadian subsidiaries provide alternative resources for its employees. SAS provides a 100 per cent reimbursement of a gym membership, which includes a squash membership. Quinn estimates that better than 50 per cent of employees take advantage of this resource.

Additionally, SAS Canada provides some in-house perks to keep its staff as healthy and happy as possible.

“We have onsite yoga classes and massage therapy sessions,” Quinn explained. “Sometimes when you’re hung up over your computer all day long, it’s nice to sign up for a half hour massage.”

Pete Kloppenberg, a founding partner of Tribal Communications, based in Toronto, sees a definite relationship between physical activity and productivity.

“If I go out for a walk, I find that my motivation goes up a bit,” Kloppenberg said. “My energy level and my alertness level improves – it’s a great way to recharge your batteries.”

While Kloppenberg’s former employer provided its staff with fitness club subsidies, the technical writer did not find it to be much of an incentive to get in shape.

“I’m not sure how genuine the offer was, or if it was just one more benefit,” he said. “I don’t think that they had a specific level of interest in my fitness, but it certainly didn’t affect my attendance level at the gym.”

Andy Kroen, executive vice-president of human resources at Sun Microsystems Canada Inc. in Markham, Ont., explained that physical activity is encouraged on several levels. Like SAS, Sun Microsystems also provides subsidies for employees who would like to join a fitness club, but will also supplement employees who prefer to sweat to the oldies at home.

“We subsidize 50 per cent or a maximum of $250 per year for the purchase of exercise equipment,” Kroen explained.

Additionally, Sun Microsystems’ Markham location provides shower and change room facilities for employees who are active during the workday.

“Because in IT work schedules are often flexible, we do promote – in a quiet way – people going for a jog or a walk during the day,” Kroen said.

Both SAS and Sun Microsystems encourage physical activity through community participation. Sun Microsystems regularly has a team in Toronto’s annual Dragon Boat competition, and routinely participate in United Way campaigns including the Ride for Heart and Stroke. SAS is annually represented at CIBC’s Run for the Cure and has a competitive sculling team.

Combating the stereotypical image of an IT worker coding with a can of Jolt Cola in one hand and a Snickers bar in the other, both companies place a focus on healthy eating. SAS regularly brings in guest speakers about the importance of a healthy diet, and has provides healthy snacks for its employees throughout the week: Mondays, for example, are fruit days, while Fridays are for a balanced breakfast. Sun Microsystems’ in-house cafeteria focuses on light food choices, and according to Kroen, has a very high usage factor.

Sun also allows employees to hold Weight Watcher meetings onsite.

“It’s a pretty successful group,” Kroen said. “There’s a real ease in participating because the person in the office next to you might influence you to go.”

According to Quinn, programs encouraging employee fitness and health are here to stay.

“Prior to 1995, this kind of initiative might have seemed a little odd, but now more and more companies are seeing the benefits of implementing comparable types of programs,” Quinn said. “Wellness programs really benefit the employers, too, because they save more than they spend in the long run. Absenteeism and long-term disability rates drop and customer satisfaction rises. It boils down to healthy minds dwelling in healthy bodies – it leads to more productive employees.”