An important part of a workplace wellness program is supporting employees’ physical fitness, but Rocky Mountain Soap Co. isn’t just encouraging its employees to be active — it pays them to do it.

Since 2011, the soap maker has offered 45-minute morning fitness classes three times a week to employees at its Canmore, Alta. headquarters. While staff are welcome to attend as many classes as they like, they can count one each week as part of their workday. In effect, they’re being paid to attend.

Yoga classes are a permanent staple of the program, with Rocky Mountain paying a rotating trio of instructors to come into the office and lead classes on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. It also hosts a seasonal third class at a local gym. During the winter season, employees can attend an early-morning spin class on Wednesdays. And in the summer, the company puts on Wednesday crossfit training classes. In 2020, it’s introducing a meditation class.

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According to Sarah Rideout, Rocky Mountain’s manager of employee experience, the policy is meant to support employees’ physical and mental well-being, both at work and at home. “We know, for most people, movement is medicine, and that means we know when you’re being active and looking after yourself, you’re showing up feeling better for work and life outside of work. We want to help promote that lifestyle and just encourage and support employees as best we can for a fairly small company.”

Employees also receive an annual $200 healthy living spending account, which is dedicated to fitness-oriented purchases, such as studio classes or gym memberships and gear like bike helmets or new skates. In 2019, Rideout put her $200 toward her ski pass.

Part of company culture

Located in the heart of Banff National Park and the Rocky Mountains, the company naturally has a workforce that values being active and enjoying nature and the outdoors, says Rideout, noting a group of employees takes lunchtime mountain bike rides in the summer, which can also be counted as part of their workday. “We want people to get outside, enjoy nature and enjoy where they live,” she says.

Rocky Mountain has 197 employees across its head office and 13 retail stores. While its fitness class policy is only available for the 67 staff at head office, all employees have access to the healthy living spending account.

According to Rideout, 10 to 15 participants typically attend each class daily. Camille Santiago, a photographer and graphic designer at Rocky Mountain, is one of the regular attendees. She says she’s gone to classes “pretty much every week” since she started working at the company in July 2019, taking advantage of the yoga and spin classes.

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While Santiago appreciates being able to count one of the classes as part of her workweek, she says she would have participated anyway. “Yoga is something I would ordinarily do outside of work, but now that it’s offered here I save money on studio memberships, which can be upwards of $80 a month. These classes are complimentary, so it’s a good opportunity for us to be able to go, for multiple reasons.”

Santiago values the program because she considers it an extension of Rocky Mountain’s company culture. “It’s amazing to be doing yoga or spin classes next to the [chief executive officer] or the marketing director of the company. There’s a real sense of friendship and camaraderie. It’s not just about going to yoga at the start of the day; there’s a lot more surrounding it as well.”

Building the business case

Natasha Fisher, client service specialist at Hub International Ltd., says employers are increasingly including physical activity incentives in their benefits offerings, commonly through specific spending accounts.

Some employers are also making fitness or yoga classes available to employees at the office during the lunch hour or before the start of the workday, says Fisher, though she notes Rocky Mountain’s policy of counting a class as part of the workday is novel.

For employers, incorporating physical activity into wellness programs can have many benefits, including reducing rates of absenteeism and sick days. In Canada, cardiovascular issues, mental-health conditions and diabetes are among the top medical conditions in the country, according to a 2020 report by Aon.

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“[It does] build that business case to promote physical wellbeing in the workplace,” says Erin Murphy-Sheriffs, senior consultant for health solutions at Aon. “It’s about providing the tools, support, services and resources to give employees the opportunity to change those behaviours.”

Rocky Mountain Soap’s fitness program by the numbers

2011 — The year the program was introduced

3 — The number of classes per week

$200 — The amount per year employees can put toward fitness-oriented purchases

67 — The number of head office staff who can take part in the classes

10-15 — The number of employees who attend each class

Physical activity also has documented mental-health benefits, says Fisher, and hosting classes before or during work hours can be especially beneficial. “If the organization has a gym onsite, it allows staff to [participate] more easily than if the class is nearby. [And] certainly, the hour that those staff work out, even if it’s once per week — the organizations can get that back many times over because employees are coming [to work] less stressed, more energized, with a boost in productivity as a result,” she says, speaking specifically about Rocky Mountain’s classes.

Fisher suggests employers that implement physical activity programs track metrics on absenteeism, sick days and productivity to see the impact of the offerings.

Creating an inclusive well-being strategy

Murphy-Sheriffs recommends that employers create a strategy that involves a variety of opportunities for employees to engage throughout the year, such as how Rocky Mountain’s classes change up seasonally. She also suggests providing employees with multiple options to engage with physical activity.

Read: What are the ingredients of a successful wellness program?

“It doesn’t need to be a lot of things, but it can be well-spread out opportunities throughout the year and a variety. Some people gravitate toward that team or that group challenge [and] maybe some folks prefer educational resources and self-directed modules.”

Small- and mid-size employers, as well as those operating in smaller communities, can do a lot with a little, she adds, by undertaking grassroots programming, such as encouraging employees to participate in a community walk or run, offering discount memberships to local fitness centres or leveraging existing partner relationships. “Regardless of size, there’s always something they could implement and do.”

Employers should also be mindful of making their physical well-being initiatives inclusive and welcoming to employees of all fitness levels and body shapes, says Fisher. “Something I see in the fitness world, but not in the workplace [as much], is body-positive fitness. I think the fitness industry, or just fitness in general, is commonly seen as being about weight loss, [and that] can cause quite a negative experience for certain people if they don’t already fit a preconceived notion of what a fit body looks like.”

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Fisher suggests that employers keep the language and goals of fitness programs away from weight loss or dieting, instead focusing on employees’ movement and building strength in their bodies, as well as the impact of physical well-being on mental health.

“If I was to talk about my own experience, when I work out on lunch or do yoga before work, I do feel more energized, my head is a bit clearer and I can work through a problem,” she says. “Moving your body works through the problems in your mind.”

Kelsey Rolfe is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.

Copyright © 2020 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in Benefits Canada.

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