Fats Track: Are you fit for the job?

Works gyms can be a good place to get ahead, but don't outrun the boss.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Bill Clinton has a habit of inviting photographers along when he dons the presidential running shorts for a morning jog, a ritual that has become semi-obligatory for presidents and presidential hopefuls. It's a way of saying: "Look at me, I'm full of energy and stamina, always ready for action." (Although Monica Lewinsky could have told us that.) Likewise, Princess Diana's gym visits were integral to her compassionate-but-in- control image.

But it's not just presidents and princesses who see keeping fit as part of the job. British employers are increasingly setting up gyms in their office blocks, forming company sports clubs and football teams and offering employees corporate membership at a local fitness centre. The Ultimate in Fitness Ltd (which supplies exercise equipment) reports that demand from corporate clients has increased by a staggering 100 per cent in the past five years, while Granada Health and Fitness (which manages company gyms) reports that this area of their business is seeing an annual growth rate of 21 per cent.

So what can this trend offer the graduate recruit, apart from bigger biceps? Can climbing a Stairmaster help you climb the career ladder, or will beating your boss at squash backfire on you? The world of corporate sport, it seems, is a mixed blessing. According to Dai Williams, an occupational psychologist with EOS Career Services, the biggest benefit of fitness to graduates is its role as stress-buster. "In a highly pressured environment, personal fitness is essential - all the body's mechanisms for coping with stress are geared to being fit," she explains.

Indeed, City recruitment firms claim high-flying job-seekers are increasingly including sports facilities on their list of "fundamentals", alongside pensions and health insurance. After all, says Williams, it also has great social potential. "One of the greatest challenges for new recruits - particularly graduates - is establishing a social network."

Being seen to exercise and play sport also sends out the right messages, she adds. "It shows you're a positive person and that you recognise the value of having balance in your life. In addition, if you see your manager in the gym regularly, it gives you something in common."

The mistake all too many eager-to-please graduates make, however, is failing to recognise that few managers appreciate being tackled about business as they sit, legs-splayed, on the hip-adductor. "Most graduate recruits are dying to reveal to their boss how committed they are," explains Alison Matthews, an occupational psychologist. "But it's one of those unwritten rules that, whilst doing this during corporate drinks or dinners may be acceptable, it certainly isn't when working out in the company gym."

Even more problematic is when the tables are turned. Amanda Webster, PA to an insurance broker, says of her boss in the changing rooms: "She acted like we were still in the office, even though we were both stark naked, which was very disconcerting. She'd towel-dry herself, bend over to touch her toes, and all the while talk about meetings. I had to stop going to the gym."

Nevertheless, Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at UMIST, claims there are solutions. Make a ground rule very early on with superiors that work is not to be discussed in the gym, he advises. "And if you do not have that type of relationship, or lack the social confidence to say it, then get the message over by always switching the topic away from work. Do not defer to him or her in the gym, or this will reinforce the hierarchies."

Playing competitive sports with colleagues may present a different set of difficulties. Charlie Pearson, a fund manager who plays squash at lunchtimes, finds that aggression can continue off-court: "There is one manager who is hostile to me for the whole day if I beat him," he remarks.

Professor Cooper claims this is by far the most risky aspect of corporate sport, and that the only answer is to stop playing. "If they bring their aggravation from the squash court into work, that either says something about the culture they are operating in, or about them - that they are too achievement-driven." The same goes for team sports. Company games can have great potential for building team spirit, but they may also be counter-productive, raising your stress levels and threatening off-pitch relationships.

A final word of caution comes from one trainee solicitor whose relationship with a senior partner changed radically after seeing him at the swimming- pool: "He always seemed very high-powered and suave in his expensive suits," she says. "Then I saw him at the pool and lost my awe: how could I respect a man who wore Speedos?"