IT works out, gets fit

The phrase “team-building exercise” has a literal meaning for the IT staff at JM Family Enterprises Inc.

A group of tech workers plays pick-up basketball in the company’s parking garage in an area that executives have agreed to keep clear for the hoop and the regular lunchtime games. Another group of IT workers heads out to run together, while another works out at the same time in the company gym.

This commitment to on-the-job fitness isn’t just tolerated by IT executives there — it’s encouraged.

“It allows folks to stay fit, burn off some stress, to work together and build relationships,” says Shawn Berg, vice president of technology operations at the Deerfield Beach, Fla., company.

It’s really a trickle-down phenomenon. If it doesn’t come from the top to encourage the associates to stay healthy, then it’s not going to happen.
Richard Luceri, M.D., vice president of health care services, JM Family Enterprises

Companies with corporate fitness and wellness programs have a diverse selection of offerings for their workers, from health fairs during business hours to 24/7 corporate gyms to on-site medical services. While these programs benefit all workers, program leaders and IT executives say getting the company’s tech staff on board presents some challenges as well as opportunities.

“In our IT services, folks are for the most part sedentary, so there’s a lack-of-activity issue. They are exposed to a high degree of stress. And they’re so diligent and passionate about what they do that the day or night goes by and they haven’t gotten up to do anything for themselves,” says Richard Luceri, M.D., vice president of health care services at JM Family Enterprises.

Luceri says he works with managers in all departments to make sure they encourage their workers to make time to take care of their health.

“It’s really a trickle-down phenomenon. If it doesn’t come from the top to encourage the associates to stay healthy, then it’s not going to happen,” he explains.

A Department Priority

IT managers are getting the message. Berg says his department discourages using e-mail and holding meetings after 5 p.m. so workers feel like they can move on to their own activities. (“It sounds goofy but it makes a big difference,” he says.) Lunch meetings are also discouraged, he says, to keep that time free for those pick-up basketball games, daytime runs and midday gym sessions (followed up with showers in on-site locker rooms).

Berg isn’t just paying lip service to the topic. IT managers really do help workers make their own health a priority.

Jason Schell, director of product administration for information technology services at JM Family Enterprises, works out early in the morning, regularly getting in around 5:30 a.m. to exercise before getting an egg-white omelet from the cafeteria and heading to his desk.

Schell says the on-site 24/7 gym helps him fit exercise into his day, and he says he often bumps into IT workers getting off an overnight shift who are doing an early morning workout before heading home.

“It’s all about convenience,” he adds.

Other companies are making a push to integrate health and wellness into the DNA of their IT departments.

“Our IT workers do have a challenge fitting work/life balance into their schedules, but I can tell you that the IT workers are highly engaged in our wellness program,” says Bob Merberg, wellness program manager at Paychex Inc., a payroll services company headquartered in Rochester, N.Y.

Merberg says there’s no single program that attracts techies. Rather, the company and the IT leadership had to build a culture that made health as important as other components of the IT lifestyle.

Walking the Walk

Laurie Wright, a database administrator at Paychex, says she has seen an evolution in how her department regards health and wellness programs.

“There was probably initially a lot of hesitation, not because they were concerned that we wouldn’t get our work done but because we support production and they were concerned that something might happen when we were out running,” she says with a laugh. “But we showed we could handle ourselves. If you work in a stressful kind of environment like IT, you know you have to rely on your co-workers and you can work out plans that can fit everyone’s needs.”

Wright’s an example of that. A 20-year veteran of IT, she led a team of Paychex IT workers that logged the highest number of average steps in the northeast division in the company’s most recent eight-week Eat Well, Live Well challenge. Wright says she started wearing a pedometer when she first got involved in the company’s wellness program.

“I was surprised to learn that I didn’t even walk 2,000 [steps a day]. Now on a normal day I can get 10,000,” she says, attributing the improvement to both little changes like taking the stairs instead of the elevator and using the company’s outside walking track. She even walks around her office as she talks.

Wright, who has lost 40 pounds and lowered her blood sugar level, says she has seen some changes in management’s attitude toward health and wellness. She says at least one manager is likely to suggest walking the track while meeting with others.

Indeed, rank-and-file employees, wellness program administrators and IT leaders themselves agree that the best way to get techies to participate in a company’s fitness regimens is to make it part of the department’s culture.

“It often comes down to breaking down the barriers as to why people aren’t doing it on their own,” explains Debbi Brooks, the company’s employee wellness program expert. Companies need to make it convenient for workers, offer incentives and find the programs that appeal to particular groups and individuals.

Brooks says she finds that IT workers tend to “feed off each other and cheer each other on,” so they like to exercise together and compare results. They like their gadgets, so social networking tools and smart phone programs that let them track fitness progress have been popular, too. And considering the demanding hours that IT often works, flexibility is key.

Telecommunications analyst Tom Walsh says that last one really helped him. He took part in a 10-week nutrition and wellness program offered through his company, Health Care Service Corp.

“Having it at work made it much easier to be part of it,” he says. As did his manager’s support, he says. His manager adjusted his morning start time by a half-hour to accommodate morning workouts. The ROI was impressive: Walsh dropped 60 pounds, came off his blood pressure medicine and is looking at getting off his cholesterol and diabetes medicine, too.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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