Gym'll fix it for the workers

A "well staff" online service aims to boost health and fitness awareness
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Kevin Nisbet wants bosses to treat staff a little more like company cars. Companies, he says, are always saying their employees are their greatest asset yet they often do nothing to keep them in good condition. Private medical insurance has become an almost standard benefit in large corporations. But that is like relying on the AA to look after your vehicles, he says.

Kevin Nisbet wants bosses to treat staff a little more like company cars. Companies, he says, are always saying their employees are their greatest asset yet they often do nothing to keep them in good condition. Private medical insurance has become an almost standard benefit in large corporations. But that is like relying on the AA to look after your vehicles, he says.

One reason why membership of breakdown services is cheap is that car owners typically spend £1,000 a year on servicing and related routine costs. So, he wants to persuade finance directors that a similar maintenance programme could reduce high health insurance premiums, as well as make their workforces healthier and more productive.

Mr Nisbet is on this crusade because he is about to launch an online "wellness" service called eCare. This is not the first attempt to use the internet to promote health. But he maintains that most other health sites are more like "sick sites because they are what you go to when you don't feel well".

Nor is he claiming to be pioneering the idea that exercise and other programmes can improve health. The rapid growth in the fitness centre market - which, according to market research company Mintel, has seen Britons spending £1.25bn a year on working out - demonstrates that the notion is well-established.

The problem with company gyms is that they favour "the saints", who see the benefit as the firm paying for something they would do anyway, says Mr Nisbet. He points out that many people feel intimidated by the idea of fitness. There are, he says, "guys who still think lunchtime is for a couple of pints and a pie in the pub".

The idea behind eCare is to use employees' computers to educate them in health consciousness and to provide the means of doing something about improving their health.

Conscious that many internet start-ups have run into problems through having business plans based on advertising revenues or transaction fees, Mr Nisbet stresses that eCare sees 77 per cent of its revenues coming from subscriptions to the service. Rather than taking ads, the company will recommend suppliers, while any money arising from transactions will be seen as "jam". It is providing a facility for staff to take up other services because that was seen as essential to making the concept work rather than as a way of making money.

Mr Nisbet sees the educational aspect as having two main elements: interactivity, so that employees can provide information about their own needs and concerns; and tailoring, so that this information is used to treat people as individuals. "Different people have different needs," he says.

But the benefits do not stop with the employee. Mr Nisbet believes the service can help companies consolidate all their health-related policies in one place, so reducing costs, and also provide them with valuable information about the health of their workforce.

Larger organisations are a key target for the service, which is due to be launched at the end of next month. Mr Nisbet sees such customers integrating it with their existing healthcare services, and he expects the cost to be 5 to 10 per cent of their medical insurance premiums.

But eCare can also serve small- and medium-sized companies that are unable to offer staff medical insurance because of the high cost and the problems of administration. It is planning to launch the service via an online community aimed at small businesses.

eCare is the brainchild of Mr Nisbet's brother, Louis, who after working with Hoffman La Roche, Glaxo and SmithKline Beecham founded the drug delivery company Xenova. Knowing of Kevin's experience of large companies and IT as a senior executive with Unisys, Louis asked his brother to look at his plans. Kevin recommended that Louis, who is now a director of Sitka Partners, a firm based in Paris and London that finances start-ups and advises on development, recruit a former colleague to run the business.

That colleague was David Stevenson, who added his own ideas. But, rather than running the company, he said he would become commercial director if Louis could persuade his brother to be chief executive.

There are plans to move into continental Europe next year. There again the emphasis will be on individuality. "The local management teams will make their own arrangements for suppliers," says Kevin. "The French approach is very different from the UK one. We need to recognise local differences."

Comments