Benefits on the Fringe: Healthy Perks That Boost Productivity

Welcome to Benefits on the Fringe, the monthly column where Jason McDowell covers the most unique benefits today's employers are using to woo talent, as well as advances and innovations in the employee benefits realm.

As we learn more about lifestyles and how they impact work performance, many companies are choosing to implement healthy workplace initiatives to help employees increase productivity. From free or discounted gym memberships to healthy lunches and weight loss challenges, corporate America is offering a wider range of healthy perks than ever before.

Few know more about the benefits of a healthy workplace than Ivan Misner, chairman and former CEO of global business network BNI. Once a typical executive living a sedentary lifestyle behind a desk, Misner made big changes after one day changed it all five years ago.

"In 2012, I was diagnosed with cancer, which made me completely remodel my unhealthy lifestyle," says Misner. "I became more productive than I'd been in years and thought, 'What would happen if I tried this on my employees?'"

Misner set out to do just that, organizing a 90-day makeover called "The Misner Plan Challenge." Employees who opted in changed up their diets to incorporate fresh organic vegetables, hormone-free chicken and wild fish, and healthy oils and fats. Employees also acted as support networks for one another.

"Several of the employees reported that they began to sleep better, which helped them be more alert at the office," Misner says of the results. "They felt more positive, were more patient and engaged in their work, and had more energy."

After polling participants directly, Misner found the employees experienced measurable increases in energy. Thirty-five percent of participants reported losing 16-25 pounds without even trying.

Instead of a one-off benefit or a short employee challenge, Misner offered myriad options to his employees to help them completely reshape their habits.

"We offered morning yoga, juicing afternoons, bring your favorite vegetable to work day, and started a walking contest," Misner says. "It became commonplace to see our employees heading out to the sidewalks during their breaks in pairs or trios to increase their daily activity. The employee who logged the highest number of minutes each week received a gift card to a local department store. Several employees jumped at this opportunity and started to lose weight they had been struggling to release."

Developing a Successful Health Initiative

No office can develop a program that will interest every employee, of course, but that shouldn't stop anyone from trying.

While only 60 percent of employees joined The Misner Plan challenge, nearly all participants stuck with it for the full 90 days. Those who dropped out often did so due to a lack of support at home, rather than in the office.

"It showed us that it is easier to make these difficult changes when those closest to you are also sharing this healthy focus," Misner says. "It also seems like those who did not participate wore some of the other employees down by bringing in desserts and treats that were too tempting to be avoided in the break room. It highlighted the need to have the support of the entire team to be successful in making these kinds of changes."

Another key to success lies in not dropping a huge initiative on employees all at once.

"Remember, you can't change things overnight," Misner says. "I found that the key to moving my staff into a healthy paradigm at work is to make incremental changes, rather than coming in all at once and making sweeping changes."

To follow Misner's lead, take these low-cost starter tips into consideration:

Install a water filtration system: "Hydrated brains are productive brains," Misner says. "BNI provides coffeemakers, and staff members are welcome to bring soda from home or drink tea of their choice, but if herbal teas and fresh, purified water are available, they are just as likely to drink these provided beverages."

Provide healthy alternatives at staff luncheons and celebrations: "This is a good chance to evaluate what you're feeding your employees," Misner says. "If your lunches are centered on burgers, fries, and milkshakes, consider replacing them with healthy alternatives such as turkey burgers, whole wheat buns, fresh juices, and salads."

Start a walking club at work: "You'd be surprised at how many of your employees would come early to the office to walk together," Misner says. "Walking in the early morning can be invigorating and give everyone a jump start on the day without making your staff wish for a second shower."

Keep morale high in the workplace: "Mental attitude has such a profound impact on health that we started a 'Daymaker Initiative' based on David Wagner's book, Life as a Daymaker," Misner says. "The focus on making someone else's day better really captured the interest of the BNI staff. Simply creating a positive environment can make your office a healthier place to be."