IT works out, and gets fit

The phrase "team-building exercise" has a literal meaning for the IT staff at JM Family Enterprises Inc.

A group of tech workers plays pickup basketball in the company's parking garage in an area that executives have agreed to keep clear for the regular lunchtime games. Another group of IT workers heads out to run together, while a third works out at the same time in the company gym.

This commitment to on-the-job fitness isn't just tolerated by IT executives there -- it's encouraged.

"It allows folks to stay fit, burn off some stress, to work together and build relationships," says Shawn Berg, vice president of technology operations at the Deerfield Beach, Fla., company.

Companies with corporate fitness and wellness programs offer a diverse range of activities, facilities and services, including health fairs during business hours, 24/7 corporate gyms and on-site medical care. While these offerings benefit everyone, program leaders and IT executives say getting tech staffers on board presents both challenges and opportunities.

"Our IT services folks are for the most part sedentary, so there's a lack-of-activity issue. They are exposed to a high degree of stress. And they're so diligent and passionate about what they do that the day or night goes by and they haven't gotten up to do anything for themselves," says Richard Luceri, M.D., vice president of health care services at JM Family Enterprises.

Luceri says he works with managers in all departments to make sure they encourage their workers to make time for their own health.

"It's really a trickle-down phenomenon. If it doesn't come from the top to encourage the associates to stay healthy, then it's not going to happen," he explains.

A Department Priority

IT managers are getting the message. Berg says his department discourages employees from scheduling meetings or using e-mail after 5 p.m., so people feel like they can move on to their own activities. ("It sounds goofy, but it makes a big difference," he says.) Lunchtime meetings are also discouraged, Berg says, allowing for those midday basketball games, runs and gym sessions (followed up with showers in on-site locker rooms).

Berg isn't just paying lip service to the topic. IT managers really do help workers make their own health a priority.

Jason Schell, director of product administration for information technology services at JM Family Enterprises, works out early in the morning. He arrives at about 5:30 a.m. to exercise and then gets an egg white omelet from the cafeteria and heads to his desk.

Schell says the on-site 24/7 gym helps him fit workouts into his day, and he often bumps into IT employees who have just finished overnight shifts and are getting some exercise before going home.

"It's all about convenience," he adds.

Other companies are making a push to integrate health and wellness into the DNA of the IT department.

"Our IT workers do have a challenge fitting work-life balance into their schedules, but I can tell you that the IT workers are highly engaged in our wellness program," says Bob Merberg, wellness program manager at Paychex Inc., a payroll services company headquartered in Rochester, N.Y.

Merberg says there's no specific program that draws in techies. Rather, the company and its IT leaders had to build a culture that made health as important as other components of the IT department.

Walking the Walk

Paychex database administrator Laurie Wright says she has seen an evolution in how her department regards these programs.

"There was probably initially a lot of hesitation, not because they were concerned that we wouldn't get our work done but because we support production and something might happen [while] we were out running," she says, with a laugh. "But we showed we could handle ourselves. If you work in a stressful kind of environment like IT, you know you have to rely on your co-workers, and you can work out plans that can fit everyone's needs."

Wright's an example of that. A 20-year veteran of IT, she led a team of IT workers that logged the highest number of average steps in the Northeast division in the company's most recent eight-week Eat Well Live Well challenge. Wright says she started wearing a pedometer when she first began participating in the company's wellness program.

"I was surprised to learn that I didn't even walk 2,000 [steps]. Now, on a normal day I can get 10,000," she says, attributing the improvement to both little changes like taking the stairs instead of the elevator and using the company's outdoor walking track. She even walks around her office as she talks on the phone.

Wright, who has lost 40 pounds and lowered her blood sugar, says she has seen changes in some managers. She says at least one is likely to suggest walking the track while meeting with others.

Indeed, workers, wellness program administrators and IT leaders themselves agree that the best way to get techies to participate in a company's fitness regimens is to make them part of the department's culture.

"It often comes down to breaking down the barriers as to why people aren't doing it on their own," explains Debbi Brooks, employee wellness program expert at Health Care Service Corp. (HCSC), a Chicago-based health insurer. Companies need to make it convenient for workers, offer incentives and find the programs that appeal to particular groups and individuals.

Brooks says that IT workers tend to "feed off each other and cheer each other on," so they like to exercise together and compare results. And they like their tech toys, so smartphone apps and social networking tools that let them track fitness progress have been popular too. And considering the demanding hours that IT often works, flexibility is key.

Telecommunications analyst Tom Walsh says HCSC's commitment to flexibility enabled him to participate in a 10-week nutrition and wellness program that the company offered.

"Having it at work made it much easier to be part of it," he says.

As did his manager's support, Walsh says. His manager adjusted his start time by a half-hour to accommodate morning workouts.

The ROI was impressive: Walsh lost 60 pounds, he was able to stop taking his blood pressure medicine, and he might be able to drop his cholesterol and diabetes medications as well.

Workspace Ergonomics

Permission to Recline

The market for ergonomic products has introduced some healthier alternatives to the traditional desk. There's the desk that lets you stand up. There's also a treadmill desk, which, as you can imagine, allows you to walk while you work.

But Tom Revelle, vice president of marketing at Humanscale, which designs and manufacturers ergonomic tools in New York, says the best desk is one that adjusts to your individual needs so you can maintain the best posture possible throughout the day.

That doesn't mean you should be sitting ram-rod straight at your desk. Rather, you want to be reclining slightly in your chair, so that the chair takes some weight off of your back, he says.

To do that, try the following:

* Move the keyboard off your desktop; instead, put it on an adjustable shelf below the desktop, or put it in your lap.

* Get a good ergonomic chair that allows you to lean back and adjust the tension on the back support. (It should be adjustable for height, too.)

* Move your monitor up to the front of your desk when you're working on the computer, and move it back when you need desk space, so you're not leaning forward to see the screen.

* Get some really good task lighting for your work area.

If you can make the adjustments outlined here and get up and move throughout the day, that desk job won't be such a pain.

—Mary K. Pratt

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. Contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

This story, "IT works out, and gets fit" was originally published by Computerworld.

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