April 2006 ISSUE


The Serious Business of Corporate Sumo Wrestling


Sumo wrestling at the office? That and a whole list of other healthy, stress-busting activities are making the grade at Associated Engineering.

Freelance Columnist

There’s nothing like a sumo wrestling match between consenting colleagues to brighten faces around the old water cooler. Sound a little weird? Well, it happened not so long ago at the Edmonton offices of Associated Engineering, a 60-year-old employee-owned firm that specializes in water, transportation, infrastructure and environmental engineering, and has offices in B.C, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario.

According to Juliana Tang, P.Eng., who witnessed the stress-busting tussle between two Associated managers, the Friday afternoon sumo exhibition was a barrel of laughs. It even added more than a few coins to the coffers of the Canadian Cancer Society.

 “We placed wagers on the match,” says Ms. Tang, past chair of the Edmonton office’s wellness committee. The friendly Friday afternoon sweat-fest was a definite improvement on simply meeting the gang after work for pretzels and a beverage or two.

Not that sumo wrestling is a routine attraction at the well-equipped gym, which shares Associated’s premises at corporate headquarters on Jasper Avenue. You’re more likely to find the firm’s professional, technical and administrative staff toning their bodies and refreshing their minds by traditional means: walking, running, lifting weights, practicing yoga or tai chi, playing badminton, volleyball or soccer.

Well-Deserved Awards
Since 2004, fitness and preventive health strategies have taken their official place within the corporate culture. So far, nobody’s complaining.

Over the years Associated Engineering has earned a well-deserved reputation for consistency and strong performance, chalking up an impressive list of official kudos, including Consulting Engineers of Alberta awards of excellence for water recycling strategies at the Gold Bar Wastewater Treatment Plant; the McKay River Bridge project; and the city of Edmonton’s Big Lake Drainage Study.
Meanwhile, the Canadian Consulting Engineers tossed in its own award of excellence for Associated’s efforts to rebuild the Little Mountain reservoir in Vancouver.

Even the wellness program hasn’t gone unnoticed. Early this year it was cited for a major CEA award, indicating that the company knows as much about human resources as it does about top-shelf engineering.

Insiders say most employees are buying into this co-ordinated effort. Even chief executive Alistair Black, P.Eng., is watching his daily diet, while visiting the gym weekly. He hopes to carry over the good habits after he retires in May.

Competitive Health
But Mr. Black willingly concedes that the wellness program was conceived in a spirit of corporate self-defence. Members of the staff benefits committee had grown increasingly alarmed by the rising cost of health care being shouldered by both the employees and the company.

“We were looking at higher costs for prescriptions, dental work and most other services covered by our extended health benefits,” Mr. Black explains. “Our wellness program evolved from discussions started by committee members who wished to stress the importance of preventive measures.”

And though senior management carried the ball at the outset, Mr. Black testifies that the program has drawn much of its strength from the ranks. “We encouraged it and endorsed it. But it was embraced very early on by staff members themselves.”

Most offices report a high participation rate since lunch-and-learn seminars started featuring expert speakers. Topics range from ergono-mics to dietary habits, and the company also supports regular reflexology and massage treatments for the staff. Healthy munchies have been added to the in-house vending machines, to encourage replacing junk food with healthier choices.

It’s too soon to appraise overall results. But Mr. Black credits the program for the company’s demonstrated ability to retain valuable employees in today’s highly competitive environment.
“We place great emphasis on the importance of staff retention, as well as recruitment,” he says. “Our numbers are pretty good. We think the wellness program is one reason why.”

Meanwhile, various creative wrinkles keep people smiling. One example: lunchtime video sessions, with volunteers bringing along their favourite comedy videos.

What better way to wrestle stress to the mat than by sharing a wholesome belly laugh with the gang at the office?