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SAS Canada employee and personal trainer Rajah Lee, works with Martha Casanova at the company gym inside their Torontoheadquarters Oct. 1, 2012. (Tim Fraser for The Globe and Mail)
SAS Canada employee and personal trainer Rajah Lee, works with Martha Casanova at the company gym inside their Torontoheadquarters Oct. 1, 2012. (Tim Fraser for The Globe and Mail)

Fitness

Onsite gyms show firms’ commitment to health Add to ...

James Palmer looks out the window at the churning Fraser River as his feet dutifully pound away on a treadmill. Three days a week at 6:15 a.m., Mr. Palmer begins his workday in a sweat at the Richmond, B.C., offices of the Great Little Box Company Ltd. – one of Canada's Top 100 employers.

But he's not sweating about his next sale for the corrugated paper firm. It's the healthy sweat of physical exertion. Mr. Palmer is one of many people attracted to a company that offers employees a benefit that others can only envy: free (or subsidized) membership in an on-site gym, complete with machines, free weights, stability balls and, in some cases, the services of a personal trainer.

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The vice-president of sales and marketing at the 250,000-square-foot plant, one of four corrugated box facilities the company operates, works out appreciating both the view of nature and the glint of chrome.

“Most people go ‘Wow,' at the sight of our gym,” Mr. Palmer says. “Many only have a treadmill and some free weights. ... But ours is a full gym. There's a treadmill, an elliptical [cross-country simulator], two stationary bikes, one a sit-down [recumbent]; there's free weights and three other different weight set-ups – and a punching bag to work out frustrations.”

It's called wellness, and the use of a gym as part of a company's employment strategy is a win-win situation, says Marilyn Reddick, vice-president of human resources at Toronto's Sunnybrook Medical Sciences Centre.

“So many of our staff deal with people who are in pain, or who are diagnosed with cancer – and we have to deliver the bad news,” Ms. Reddick says. “My concern, in wellness and fitness, is in people doing their jobs; the accumulated effect this has on people, dealing with it day in, day out. We talk about this a lot, what can we provide in terms of total wellness – mental health, physical health.”

With a free or subsidized gym membership, employees get relief from stress, work out and shower at the same place they work, improve their fitness and have more energy. The company invests in space and gym equipment but gets back an employee who typically is healthier, is absent fewer days, is less likely to leave for another employer and – because travel to a workout is eliminated – is more willing to work longer and more productive hours.

“I have a very demanding job and work-life balance is important to me,” says Ru Taggar, Sunnybrook's director of quality and patient safety. “It's challenging when you're working a 12- to 14-hour day, but it's important to make the time for my physical fitness. It gives me a sense of feeling healthy.”

Ms. Taggar uses the gym at least three times a week. She works eight to nine hours then takes an hour off to get changed and work out 45 minutes on the treadmill and weights at the hospital gym, then returns to her desk for another two-three hours of work.

“It continues to energize me. Usually by 5 or 6 o'clock, I'd be fading. If I don't get up and do something different, I'd probably go home and watch TV on the couch. … But I don't feel like I've been sitting in a chair all day, which is the challenge a lot of administrators face.

“If I had to go home, change, then go out to train, chances are it wouldn't happen,” Ms. Taggar adds.

“They've got just about everything you'd expect them to have in a gym – stability balls and free weights and treadmills and elliptical machines and weight machines. And there's an area where you can take a class, like a step-class. It has everything you'd find in a gym where you pay membership.”

Most corporate gym facilities are open 24/7, accessed by the swipe of a security card. They exist in places as diverse as the National Ballet Company in Toronto, 3M Canada Inc. in London, Ont., software specialist SAS Institute (Canada) Ltd. in Toronto, Winnipeg Airports Authority and the Cambridge, Ont., facility of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada – with more than 7,000 employees they even have courts for basketball, volleyball, squash and racquetball.

The wellness strategy works for industry giants such as Toyota and small concerns such as Great Little Box, which employs about 200 people but also has a volleyball court for employees. Great Little Box also has a points program for fitness activities. Employees earn points by participating in a volleyball tournament or the annual Vancouver Sun Run or the Grouse Grind mountain hike, then can exchange the points for merchandise.

“Certainly, the wellness aspect goes over very, very well for us,” says Great Little Box chief executive officer Robert Meggy, 66. “We have a personal trainer on staff – she works in clerical, but we pay for her work as a personal trainer and everyone gets two free hours with her every year.

“We have very low turnover here, ” he says.

The convenience of having a free, on-site facility appeals to Dianna Richardson, director of human resources for the Winnipeg Airports Authority.

“I go after work. I'm here on the property and don't have to go home and get changed and go out to another place,” she says. “We have a lot of individuals who go at lunch time – we have shower and locker facilities as well – and they shower up and come back to work energized.”

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