Illustration: Cathy Wilcox
When Woolworths asked consultants to assess the health of its 900 store managers and 200 operations managers last year, the news was not what the ''fresh food people'' wanted to hear.
The results were a shock: 80 per cent of the senior staff were either overweight or obese and 31 per cent were obese.
Woolworths decided to pilot face-to-face biometric testing, which assesses the physical age of a person based on questions about lifestyle and health. It then compares it with actual age. The results were handed to managers personally in March last year.
''For some it was extremely confronting,'' said Justin Pratt, the employee care and wellbeing manager. ''Some managers were 20 years over their chronological age. It was intentional: to create a real shock and vulnerability.''
For Woolworths it was confronting, too: 80 per cent of its senior managers were in bodies older than their birth age.
At the urging of the managing director of supermarkets, Tjeerd Jegen, the company has begun grappling with how to motivate nearly 200,000 staff to adopt healthier lifestyles.
After the initial shock, the managers were offered a pilot program with online motivational tools and subsidised gym membership.
The portal, known as ''All Good'', includes a health risk assessment tool, training programs and an eight-week schedule to help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. A weekly email on topics ranging from eating broccoli to dealing with teenagers and exam stress.
About 600 staff have signed up for ''fit bugs'' which track and download their activity to the website. Regional teams of managers were competing in a virtual race around Hawaii, Mr Pratt said.
In the Balgowlah area, 17 store managers meet once a week for boot camp. Others have adopted more solitary forms of exercise such as running home from work.
One person who has high praise for the program is Matthew Jorgensen, store manager at Bega.
''I would describe myself as a relatively fit person who did a lot of sport in the past,'' he said.
But four years ago he relocated from Wagga Wagga to Bega, and with the new job and family life, he let exercise go by the wayside.
Mr Jorgensen did ''pretty well'' on the biometric testing. ''I tested at the age I was,'' he said. But the program inspired him to take up the challenge to get fitter.
''It got a bit addictive,'' he said of his exercise regime of boot camp during the week and weekend activities with his children.
For Mr Jorgensen, the result has been 10 kilograms shed in a year. ''You would probably still consider me overweight, but I feel so much healthier,'' he said.
Mr Pratt stressed that Woolworths did not use the health testing to determine promotions or as a hiring tool. ''We have only been given aggregate data,'' he said.
''We are now looking at how to engage first the 26,000 salaried employees and then the broader 200,000 employees,'' he said.
And if actions speak louder than words, then the head of supermarkets is a shining example. Mr Jegen has lost 12 kilograms and now takes his managers on runs.