Why Your Boss Should Pay for Your Gym

Why Your Boss Should Pay for Your Gym

By Meghan Walsh



Because you don’t want your top-performing employees to have heart attacks. 

By Meghan Walsh

In the late 1970s, Johnson & Johnson’s CEO declared that the company was going to have the healthiest employees in the world. He may not have lived up to that claim in a literal way, but a study says his company has done pretty well by its workers.

Chances are you’re an employee or an employer, so you might be interested in how Johnson & Johnson does it: The company calls out the overweight folks in the office. That’s right. They offer a $150 bonus to overweight employees who slash their body mass index by 10 percent. The company estimates that its wellness program has saved hundreds of millions in health care costs.

Is this true elsewhere? Maybe. Researchers looked at 51 studies conducted between 1984 and 2012 that, in total, included almost 262,000 participants from across 12 countries. By dissecting these individual findings, they figured out how companies should evaluate their programs, writes lead author Siyan Baxter in an email. And the resulting answers show some potential savings:

For every


spent on workplace health programs, companies reap



in return.

That comes in the form of shrinking insurance deductibles — which companies eat as part of providing health insurance — and greater productivity. The cost? Michael O’Donnell, founder of the American Journal of Health Promotion, says it’s about $300 per employee — the amount employers might drop on a pizza party.

The number of workplace health programs started growing in the 1970s because Wall Street bankers were simply keeling over from heart attacks in their mid-40s. This was bad news for companies… mostly because those bankers gypped the company of their top performing years, says O’Donnell. Since then, the practice has spread to the West Coast, where companies build on-campus gyms in a competitive bid to entice tech workers.

Health economists claim that about two-thirds of rising health care costs over the past two decades can be attributed to crappy lifestyle habits. Preventable illness will cause one-third of Americans to become disabled before retirement age. Luckily, crappy lifestyle habits are fixable. 

According to professionals and other studies, the most effective workplace health programs have several common attributes: First and foremost, management needs to be on board. And they have to be able to convince workers that what the company is proposing will help them to be more creative or better parents or something else motivating — otherwise workers might not take the incentives seriously. Next, employers have to screen and target high-risk employees with personalized programs. If there’s an obesity problem in the office, switch up the food in the cafeteria, and pay for gym memberships. Are people lighting up? Make it a smoke-free campus.

But while companies from Johnson & Johnson to today’s cushy Silicon Valley startups tout such worker health initiatives, the research on whether they actually save companies money has been less certain — many of the return-on-investment studies are inconsistent in that they have used a range of measurement methods, and, more troublesome, have often suffered from shoddy methods.

Some employers contend it’s not their business to get involved in employees’ personal health. O’Donnell says that more often, the hesitation is because they just don’t know how to go about implementing a program, or they balk at the cost. His response: “The return on investment is a lot more for an employee than for a desk.” The desks are a whole other debate… What about a workplace standing-desk revolution?