Corporate sports events boost employee engagement and wellbeing

By Nic Paton on 4 Nov 2016 in ‘Personnel Today’

Organisations including Royal Bank of Scotland and Dixons Carphone are using corporate sports events to improve health and wellbeing, as well as influence engagement, culture and staff retention. Nic Paton looks at how agency Threshold Sports is providing support. 

In March 2016, a survey by the Reward & Employee Benefits Association (REBA) in conjunction with Punter Southall Health & Protection came to a conclusion that was, if not exactly surprising, then certainly illuminating.

It argued that, while a third of firms said they planned to introduce a wellbeing strategy this year, their primary motivation for making this investment and commitment was not health and wellbeing at all. Improving health and wellbeing was certainly a factor, but it was the desire to improve employee engagement, organisational culture and staff retention that were considered the greater catalysts.

This broader thinking around the HR and organisational benefits of health and wellbeing can be seen very clearly in work being carried out by fitness and health and wellbeing agency Threshold Sports. The company’s mantra is “More Is In You” and it describes itself as delivering “breath-taking corporate challenges for people or companies looking to push themselves to greater things”.

These can be, as we shall see, anything from walks or runs, to cycle challenges, to “ultra marathons”. And while, of course, the health, wellbeing, fitness and activity dynamic of all this is important, it’s also very much about employee engagement, team bonding and team building and corporate social responsibility, as chief executive Julian Mack explains.

“We find these type of activities really get employees engaged, especially around health and wellbeing. It is about shared endeavour – everyone from millennials up to the CEO and partners. It is a much more human, engaging experience than just a circular email around the organisation,” he says.

“We are increasingly finding that CEOs and HR departments are seeing this sort of activity as a key part of their wellbeing strategy and solutions. It is, of course, not a silver bullet but it can help to create a calendar moment where people come together.

“There is, to be honest, still a lot of hot air talked about wellbeing, and there can often be a reluctance to allocate proper budgets to it. But with us you can design events from as little as £20,000 up to £500,000. It can be a 5K walk or a nine-day, thousand-mile cycle ride around Britain,” he adds.

One organisation that has seen real benefits in partnering in this way is Royal Bank of Scotland, which last year began working with Threshold Sports to put in place a London to Edinburgh cycle challenge in aid of its charity partner Sport Relief.

As RBS employee campaign manager Clódagh McAteer highlights, it’s not been an easy time to be in banking over the past few years. “One of our key objectives therefore has been around raising pride in the organisation. Our industry has gone through a tough time in recent years. And what has been amazing is that 99% of employees who took part said they felt proud to have been involved and proud this was something the organisation supported – which is a figure that is pretty unheard of.

“What our leadership team has recognised is employee engagement can often come down to quite simple things like promoting wellbeing and encouraging people to be more active. We have always done this, but recently we’ve been taking it to another level,” she explains.

Last September’s challenge was a five-day 500-mile cycle ride from the bank’s Bishopsgate office in London to its headquarters in Edinburgh. “People could choose to cycle the whole thing or do a 100- or 35-mile leg,” McAteer says.

In total, more than 1,200 staff were involved in the ride itself, with a similar number doing static spin bike challenges in offices up and down the country. For those who did not want to get involved in the physical challenge, there were a range of other fundraising activities. The cycle challenge alone raised more than £600,000 for the charity (with the bank raising £1.52m overall for Sport Relief) but, as importantly, led to tangible improvements in employee engagement as well as health and wellbeing, argues McAteer.

“We do an annual staff survey where we track engagement and we have seen our figures go up a lot. There is more pride within the organisation, more engagement and our employees are more active, fitter and healthier,” she points out.

The activity, and the partnership, has carried on into this year, with a series of 10K and 5K runs arranged in Edinburgh, London, Birmingham and Manchester to coincide with Sport Relief in March.

“It reached a different audience in that we were coaching a lot of non-runners from their couch to 5K and helping them get ready with eight-week training plans. There have been lots of great stories of why people wanted to complete their challenge; running in memory of a loved one, to help with weight loss, to help combat mental illness and to help recover from recent surgery,” explains McAteer.

“From a business perspective, it has been hugely beneficial, in terms of employee wellbeing, engagement and building pride. It shows we’re determined to make a difference within the communities we live and work in,” she adds.

From an occupational health perspective, of course, there is a risk with any kind of exercise-based health promotion initiative in that people perhaps try and push themselves too far or too fast or risk damaging their health or injuring themselves. Therefore, as Mack also emphasises, it is vital such initiatives are properly planned and managed.

“It is, of course, important to do this in a responsible way, to have a responsible approach. We make sure people have a proper training programme, and we always advise people for have not done exercise for a long time to consult their doctor before they start any training. It is also important for firms to be doing proper health screening or assessment. You can never completely eradicate the risk, but you should be risk managing it,” he explains.

But he adds: “Even if you don’t want to, or can’t, take part in the physical side of it, we aim to ensure there are always roles for volunteers, people in pit stops, or cheerleaders, or baking cakes for sponsoring – there are lots of ways people can still get involved even if they don’t want to get sweaty.

“It is all very inclusive – the actual challenge can be just one dimension of a much bigger engagement and wellbeing story. It is all part and parcel of showing that you care and that you’re investing in looking after your employees,” he says.

Case Study – Dixons Carphone: from Average to Awesome

Dixons Carphone – the merged organisation comprising Carphone Warehouse and the Dixons electrical brand – employs some 18,000 people, and since 2001 has had a partnership with young people’s charity The Mix (formerly known as Get Connected).

To raise money, but also to boost employee engagement and health and wellbeing, the company has been working with Threshold Sports on an initiative branded “Average to Awesome”.

So far, 36 employees have taken the Average to Awesome challenge, where participants get the support of a personal trainer, custom-fit training shoes and a wearable device that tracks training data and progress. Their ultimate goal is to complete the Dixons Carphone “Race to the Stones”, a 100km ultra-marathon that takes over two days in July.
As Kesah Trowell, head of corporate responsibility at Dixons Carphone, makes the point:
“We know a healthy workforce is a happy workforce and are thrilled to have a hand in transforming our colleagues’ health and wellbeing. The results have been truly awesome – not only have we seen huge weight loss, increased energy and better overall fitness, we’ve seen other benefits such as how well this Group from across the business has bonded.”

“It has been amazing. We’ve had cases where people have reversed their diabetes, people who have said they’re now able to fit into their wedding dress, people who have lost four to five stone, people who now intend to do the London Marathon next year.”

Average to Awesome participants follow a fitness and training regime devised by celebrity personal trainer Rory Coleman. Wearable technology also plays a part – with last year’s group of 12 employees stomping some 13,500,000 steps over the course of the 12-week programme.

Trowell continues: “Initially the main aim of Race to the Stones was to raise money for our charity partner – and we raised £49,000 in first year alone. But what’s great is that it gives us an opportunity to achieve multiple corporate responsibility objectives – encourage fitness, promote team-building and raise funds for our charity partner, as well as help the charity establish a meaningful dialog with participants and potential supporters.

“One of the things that also surprised us was the benefit in terms of mental wellbeing. When you have been through an experience like this, the bond you build up with the people you are with is amazing,” says Trowell.

The company circulates a regular health, fitness and wellbeing email newsletter called “Boost” that offers exercise and nutrition tips, discounts, offers and progress by the Average to Awesome team.

There have been clear wider organisational benefits, too. Given that the merger of Dixons and Carphone Warehouse presented an HR challenge in terms of bringing together two quite different workforces – with, for example, the Dixons demographic generally older than that of Carphone Warehouse – the initiative has proved valuable in forging a shared identity and employee engagement.

Some 80% of the organisation’s employees who have taken part in the Race to the Stones agree the company is taking responsibility for their health and wellbeing, job satisfaction is up by 14% and employee productivity by 8%.

“People feel fitter and healthier, but they also feel more engaged and applied to their workplace,” says Trowell.