who’s looking after you?
You spend your life looking after the wellbeing of others – but are you looking after yourself?
In many ways I consider myself to be a lucky guy. This year marks twenty-five years since I started working in the fitness industry, and it’s been a great quarter of a century full of adventure, fun and fitness. During this time my job responsibilities have ranged from casual gym floor work in 1980s Melbourne to an executive role with a Hong Kong-based US multinational. These days I’m happily grounded back home on the banks of the Yarra where my focus is on a corporate health and wellness strategy that involves creating new connections between this sector and disadvantaged communities.
My work may have varied enormously over the years, but one thing that has remained constant is my passion for staying involved in the industry in a practical capacity: 2014 also marks 23 years of my teaching group exercise classes. Twenty-two of these were consecutive, and saw me teaching a variety of programs from freestyle step and HiLo, to Les Mills BODYPUMP™ and CXWORX™, as well as mind body practices like yoga and Pilates. In 2013, however, it all came to an abrupt and shocking halt for me as I found myself – for the first time in my life – with a serious injury that stopped me dead in my tracks.
A knee reconstruction is not an uncommon injury, but when you work in our industry, which usually requires mobility as a bare minimum, and in some cases an elite level of fitness (group fitness instructors), the consequences of such an injury can be far reaching. I was, indeed, faced with some significant challenges. In addition to the professional repercussions, the injury also greatly affected my personal time because, like many in our industry, I live an energetic life of playing sport, volunteering and enjoying active time with my family. The gap between my usually active life and being practically disabled with a long road of rehabilitation and recovery ahead of me was vast. More shockingly, I realised that if I hadn’t had the foresight to put plans in place around medical and personal insurance, I could have found myself in a very difficult predicament financially.
Eight months of injury, surgery, rehabilitation and recovery taught me some valuable lessons about the necessary precautions to take if you work in fitness, because – as I’ll elaborate upon later – the nature of employment within the industry means that it doesn’t provide a lot of support for workers.
As fitness professionals we can have a sense of indestructibility. I certainly had this opinion of myself until a poor landing from a ski jump brought me back to earth, literally. This ‘invincibility’ combined with the ego that is common (and often necessary!) among us in fitness, may also, unfortunately, prevent us from seriously addressing the risks we face. How long will you be able to push your physical limits before your body starts to give up? What happens if you suffer an unplanned acute injury? And if you do, what safety net have you set up, and who will look after you? Who will make your car payments, rent or mortgage payments if you are suddenly unable to take your classes or train your clients? You look after the wellbeing of others every day of your life – but are you taking the necessary precautions to look after yourself?
The prospect of implementing the following suggestions may not excite you, but doing so will provide great peace of mind.
1. Protect yourself professionally
If you are a registered fitness professional you need to cover yourself with Professional Indemnity Insurance. This is critical if you are a contractor or run your own business, but still very important if you are employed or work within a small to large fitness chain. For the equivalent weekly cost of a coffee, you can cover yourself against claims that arise when a third party, usually a client, alleges that your professional advice, design or service as a fitness instructor or personal trainer was negligent and caused them a loss (such as bodily injury, property damage or financial loss).
2. Protect your health
Make sure you have some form of private medical insurance. If you suffer a serious injury (knee, shoulder, ankle, spine) that requires surgery and don’t have private medical cover, you simply won’t progress through the public system fast enough to get back on your feet. When your income relies on your ability to move, demonstrate and lead movement, it’s critical to minimise any downtime.
In addition to your health, cover for injury management will entitle you to some wellbeing services like massage, physiotherapy and osteopathy that will get you back on your feet faster. These are also services you might not engage to the required extent if paying directly from your pocket.
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3. Protect your income
Get some income protection insurance. Your ability to earn will be severely impacted if you suffer from any kind of acute or serious injury. If you are a full/part time employee with entitlement to medical leave then you have a short term solution for recovery from a serious injury. But serious injury isn’t often associated with speedy recovery.
Income protection can include your full time, part time and casual earnings. If the unexpected does happen, you’ll have peace of mind and be able to focus on a full and proper recovery, as opposed to rushing back to work prematurely.
4. Protect yourself from the taxman!
Get some advice from a tax accountant on how you can better structure your affairs. Expenses such as insurance and health services may be eligible deductions.
Should the industry take the lead?
It’s unfortunate that by nature and evolution, employees within the Australian fitness industry do not enjoy high levels of compensation or benefits. This isn’t necessarily by intent, but rather because the vast majority of employment and work is casual or contracted – which may be viewed as a model that fosters less engagement.
It’s my personal belief that these workplace conditions could be improved – and that doing so would reap dividends for the fitness industry in the form of increased employee happiness, translating to reduced churn and burn of staff and an increased ability to attract new talent. It would be great to see large chains and service providers take a lead on this, as it’s a pity for the trade-off for working in such a fantastic and important industry to be a concession in regards to compensation and benefits.
This position on improved conditions for fitness industry employees isn’t purely speculative. Fifteen years ago when I first moved to Asia to work, I was given the opportunity to develop a white paper for fitness employment, initially in the area of group exercise. I drew on everything that I had experienced, both good and bad, about working as a casual group exercise instructor and personal trainer in Melbourne. I combined this with the criteria of what would be considered the ‘dream job’ for someone in our industry.
In 2000, we rolled out permanent full and part time (as well as casual) positions for group exercise instructors and personal trainers. The positions were exclusive to our chain, but included a fixed salary with paid annual and medical leave. The opportunity also existed to work harder and earn more. Of course, complimentary membership to the gym was included, but most importantly full medical insurance, including hospital and dental, were part of the package.
We took this logic for employment to all of the emerging markets in which we launched our fitness product. Today, those concepts not only remain in place, but have become the standard of employment for all service providers in those countries. When I left Asia in 2011 to return home to Melbourne, our company employed over 40 full time group exercise instructors and 250 personal trainers, who all received benefits in Hong Kong alone, not to mention the seven other international markets in which we set up operations.
My hope in the future is that the industry looks at ways to make similar employment programs available to workers in Australia. While it is more challenging to retro-fit compensation and benefit plans, it is not impossible. After all, the number one rule of customer service is ‘The employee will treat the customer in the same way that the company treats the employee’. This was a key driver behind our service and people strategies. I certainly noticed a higher level of engagement and connection to customers and the business from employees when their employment was secure and an organisational priority.
My involvement with the white paper in Asia gave me an insight into the necessary precautions that fitness professionals need to take in order to be covered when circumstances take a turn for the worse – and when I suffered my injury I was glad that I’d implemented the steps above. Unless you are fortunate enough to work for an employer that offers these protections, I recommend you do the same.
Andrew Ward, BAppSc spent 14 years based in Hong Kong as 2IC and senior vice president of operations for California Fitness. He now works in a multi-business management role with YMCA Victoria. In 2013 Andrew was awarded YMCA Victoria Manager of the Year.