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It was known affectionately as the SEP 15: After someone started working at Search Engine People, a marketing startup in Ajax, Ont. they invariably put on weight, often around 15 pounds.

The reason was not mysterious. The company believed in camaraderie and good eating, so most days the staff went out together for lunch at nearby restaurants. It was great for company morale, but not so wonderful for their waistlines.

Finally, CEO Jeff Quipp decided to address the issue. Not the camaraderie; he wanted that. But he also wanted his staff to have a healthier lifestyle, and began to look for ways to twin fitness and camaraderie. "Our philosophy is win-win-win. We need our people to be healthy, be happy – if you're not happy you won't take care of customers – and enjoy the company," he says.

Take the ping pong challenges. In the games room, there's a ping pong table for pick-up matches. But there's also a tournament, with a ladder, and if you wish to climb to the next level you must challenge and beat the person ranking just above you. Back in those eating-out days, the company was 10 to 15 people, but now there are 85 to 90 in the new office in Pickering, Ont. and it's less likely that everyone know each other. The challenges help break the isolation because you aren't playing against your cubicle neighbour but the person who happens to be just above you on the ladder, who could be from anywhere in the building.

The matches can take place any time during the day, as well. "People weren't made to sit for eight hours a day. We have to move around and do things," says Mr. Quipp.

The wellness initiative includes a dragon boat team that takes part in races in Toronto and Pickering, a hockey team, a baseball squad, golf nights, running and cycling groups, daily 15-minute stretch breaks in departments, and some paintball action. Twelve staffers took part in a Spartan Run over a military-like obstacle course that had them crawling through mud and clambering over a wall as a team. "It was quite an accomplishment to finish," says Mr. Quipp.

The company also has ergonomic work stations, a special combination treadmill and work station in the games room, a masseuse who visits weekly, and hip hop dance classes given by a staff member. "It's wonderful for reducing stress, and improves morale," says Lindsey Knapton, a search marketing specialist who also happens to have a diploma in workplace wellness and health promotion and so co-ordinates the activities.

The company has instituted wellness lunch-and-learn sessions, where staffers gather over brown bag lunches and hear a speaker on topics such as eating whole foods or ergonomics. And there are reminders of the past with monthly potlucks. "Not all the foods are completely healthy but we have fewer lunches out at restaurants, which is helping all of our waistlines," says Mr. Quipp. Indeed, the pounds are coming off. More than 600 collectively over a year. "That was pretty good considering not everyone participated," he says.

Wellness, a term that dates back to the late 1970s, can cover a variety of activities, from an employee assistance program to an on-site gym. Doug Cowan, founder and CEO of Health Systems Group, which advises and run programs for companies, says initiatives are vital these days in the oil and high-tech sector, as employees seek to join companies with the most tantalizing programs, making it a hiring and retention issue.

Traditionally, companies might have given a subsidy for staff to undertake some wellness activity – perhaps paying part of fees at a fitness facility – but he says the benefits often flow to only 8 to 10 per cent of the employees, usually individuals already active. "It's off site, and inaccessible. No chemistry develops with it," Mr. Cowan says. But well run, in-house programs can attract 35 to 50 per cent participation, with the bonus of employees seeking fitness side by side.

Health challenges are currently cutting edge, with teams from various parts of a company competing virtually, say, to walk from Montreal to Toronto. The teams adopt names, develop a group spirit even if in different locations, and the team leaders become like Sherpas nudging teammates along. Everyone's activity counts towards the collective goal through a scoring system that converts dancing or skiing to, in this case, walking. "It's very motivational. It promotes physical activities – whatever your activity is," he says.

In 2004, after acquiring other companies, Telus felt it had to bring together its assortment of different wellness programs. "Our concern was that lots of companies will put in a gym without any understanding of why," says Janet Crowe, director of wellness and work-life solutions at Telus. "We decided to use wellness as a strategic driver as well as part of our overall culture."

The wellness goals includes increasing prevention and awareness activities, so leaders will be better poised to address health issues. One initiative has included helping leaders assist team members with mental health challenges so that short-term disability is not the only response. Other avenues are looked at for handling depression, anxiety and stress, with support for the struggling worker and coaching if necessary for the leader from the wellness team to handle the complexity of an individual's situation.

"The expectation for wellness is that it's physical – running, working out in a gym, or taking a flu shot. But 90 per cent of our work is support work, supporting team members and leaders," Ms. Crowe says.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter