For cure, on exercise depend

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Clued-up companies are urging their employees to shape up for the challenges of the new millennium - literally. The message is work out or you won't make out in the global economy. The puritanical tract Healthy body, healthy mind is emerging from murky gyms as a mantra for the workplaces of the late1990s.

For companies, the belief that preventing illness is easier than curing it, is promoting supreme fitness because it saves money and cuts absenteeism.

Leading the way is Unipart, the Oxford-based manufacturing group which has borrowed the Japanese concept of the complete worker. Known as "a beacon for British industry", it established a pounds 1m Lean Machine fitness centre in 1992, when its reputation for employee care was already well established.

The Lean Machine's rationale was to teach the company's workers, retired employees, contractors and clients to control their own health and well-being in a suitable environment .

In the Lean Machine, staff not only get fit and receive treatment for stress-related problems, they learn how to manage stress, said John Neill, group chief executive. "We're told that change this decade will be 10 times faster than in the past. This rapid pace of change means that employees are facing more and more stress which can manifest itself in physical and mental problems. The real benefits come from creating an informed, healthy and enthusiastic group of employees."

Games courts, a full-size sports hall and a dance studio were added to the Lean Machine in 1994, allowing staff to play squash, take aerobics or work out on state-of-the-art equipment. The following year saw the opening of The Orchard, a well-being centre with treatment rooms offering feel-good therapies such as reflexology, chiropractic, beauty treatments, aromatherapy and mas- sage, as well as nutritional advice, and Chinese medicine. Alongside these are more traditional services such as occupational health, an optician and physiotherapy.

"There's been an enormous amount of thinking behind our well-being vision," said Mr Neill.We had to equip our workforce to compete in a constantly changing global marketplace."

David Perry, former chief executive of the Oxfordshire Health Authority, said: "The Lean Machine goes further than any other fitness facility in not only improving employees' physical and mental condition but preventing more serious problems later on."

The drawbacks of the 1980s ethic of "work until you drop" are appreciated in smaller companies too. Only last week, the Trades Unions Congress and the Forum of Private Business, which represents many small businesses, set out a blueprint for improved health at work and called on ministers to introduce measures to make it work.

The Goldmark gallery and secondhand bookshop, a small business in Uppingham, Rutland, already lays on alternative therapies for its staff during the lunch hour. Several times a week, proprietor Mike Goldmark gives shiatsu massage and sometimes "healing" to his workers. "You're asking staff to lean over an electronic screen for hours on end while using only a limited group of muscles. That is a very unhealthy thing to do," he said.

It would be wrong to think, however, that keeping trim is self-indulgent. For those doing dangerous jobs, clear thinking and quick reactions are vital. Realising this, Oxford Airport, in Kidlington, puts great store on its health and safety programme for pilots.

The hotel industry has also joined the health craze, providing for both guests and staff. The Moat House group has set up Club Moativitation at 30 of its premises, typically with aerobic studios, gyms, spas, steam baths, swimming pools and solariums.