Step Away From The Desk

When Employees Make Time For Play, Everyone Benefits

Janice Kleinschmidt.

A funny thing happened on April 1, 2011, at a hybrid footwear manufacturer in Portland, Ore. Company officials asked employees to pledge to take at least 15 minutes a day of recess.

Surely this was an April Fool’s Day joke. But no, KEEN even created a Recess Center to encourage play. The center included a “recess tracker” and “play things” such as Frisbees, yoga mats, and bikes.

CEO James Curleigh described his eight-year-old company’s philosophy at the Clinton Foundation Health Matters Conference in Indian Wells this past January. Business leaders’ dashboards, he said, include profit-and-loss statements, balance sheets, and cash flow.

“I really believe that not enough of us look at the personal P&L, the personal balance sheet, and the health flow,” he said. KEEN believes so strongly in its Bring Recess Back program that it has posted a “tool kit” on its website with information and downloads to help other companies adopt programs that encourage employees to re-energize through periodic play breaks, increasing creativity and focus when they return to work.

Dr. Toni Yancey, a professor at the UCLA School of Public Health, co-director of the UCLA Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Equity, and author of Instant Recess: Building a Fit Nation 10 Minutes at a Time (University of California Press, 2010), says that even people deemed physically active by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (defined as those who exercise 30 minutes a day) need diversion from otherwise sedentary lifestyles: “Our inordinately high levels of physical in-activity, combined with an overweight rate of two-thirds of U.S. adults, make it critical that we develop approaches to lifestyle change targeting the majority of adults, who are both overweight and sedentary.”

Yancey, who helped KEEN develop its Instant Recess Tool Kit, recommends a 10-minute, structured group exercise break every four hours of work. “I also suggest breaking up sedentary time by standing up and stretching or dashing to the water fountain once per hour,” she says.

Like Customer, Like Employee

Outdoor apparel maker L.L. Bean has had an employee wellness program for 30 years. Today, that program includes an employee outdoor club (outings include hikes, bike rides, and kayaking), activity classes (running the gamut from circuit/cardio training to Middle Eastern dance and Zumba), a fitness center at the company’s offices in Maine and health club reimbursements for employees working in other states, a discount for Weight Watchers, a 12-week exercise program for employees and their families and friends, on-site smoking cessation classes, and free health screenings.

Eighty-seven percent of employees covered by the company’s medical insurance participate in the Healthy Lifestyles program, which includes electronic consultations with WebMD health coaches. Employees who enroll in the program pay less for their health insurance.

“With our health-risk appraisals, Healthy Lifestyles, the first year [2009], we got a 1.7-to-1 return on investment. The second year, 2.3 to 1,” says Susan Tufts, wellness manager. “The third year, we jumped up to 5.3; for every dollar spent on the program, we saved $5 in medical costs.” The savings for the company with 4,500 employees amounted to more than $1 million in 2011. Smoking among employees is down 42 percent, cholesterol levels are down 22 percent, glucose levels are down 18 percent, and sedentary lifestyles are down 66 percent.

L.L. Bean also has decreased workplace injuries with mandatory stretch breaks in distribution, manufacturing, and call center operations.

In addition to the physical health components of L.L. Bean’s overall program, the company offers free, confidential, short-term counseling for employees and their families through independent mental health professionals.

Driven to Succeed

Subaru of America kicked off its Work Play Love Tour with a visit to KEEN on March 1. The companies, as well as other active lifestyle partners, teamed up to bring “fresh-air therapy breaks” to businesses recognized for having a positive work-life balance.

Tour stops included outdoor games, a DIY trail mix station, product demonstrations, and giveaways. At a “workday warrior” photo booth, tour attendees could choose from various backdrops and props, including fake mud and snow, to create adventurous-looking images of themselves. West and east regional tours ran through May 10 with stops in 19 states.

The carmaker also has an internal Wellness at Work program. “At Subaru, we believe employees and their families should be aware of and understand the importance of maintaining healthy lifestyles,” says the Corporate Social Responsibility page of the company’s website.

“The whole idea behind it is to make activities and information readily accessible to employees,” explains Sandy Capell, community services manager. “For example, we celebrated Men’s Health Month and Women’s Health Month.” In addition to encouraging employees to wear blue (for Men’s Health Month) and pink (for Women’s Health Month), the company brought in medical professionals to conduct health screenings and consult with employees one-on-one about any health concerns they had.

Subaru of America has fitness centers at each of its two headquarters buildings in Cherry Hills, N.J., and encourages fitness events at its remote locations.

Employees play an active role in the program as volunteers to serve on wellness committees and arranging walks at lunchtime or bike rides after work and on the weekends. Subaru provides “team” T-shirts for employees and their family members who join in the activities.

According to Capell, companywide participation (among almost 800 employees) is about 45 percent. While Subaru partners with WellCall, a wellness solutions provider based in San Francisco, much of the Wellness at Work program is employee-driven (including on-site Weight Watchers sessions).

“We have kept this very family-focused environment in the workplace,” Capell says. “[Wellness at Work] really is culture based.”

There are many ways that companies can encourage employees to maintain healthy lifestyles, but Tufts advises the right approach.

“You need to partner with your employees,” she says. “You don’t do something to them; you do it with them.”


• Schedule 10-minute activity breaks at the same time each day, and add structured group recesses during meetings lasting longer than 60 minutes.

• Meet on the move. Hold walking meetings or schedule sit-down meetings at places that are a short walk from the workplace.

• Make standing ovations the standard show of appreciation for speakers.

• Skip the elevators and use the stairs.

• Stand up, stretch, and move around.

• Go outside at least once a day.