Companies don’t always take responsibility for the physical health of their employees, but maybe they should. Increased productivity is just one of the benefits that exercise has on workers. Reducing the impact of presenteeism is another. According to the British Heart Foundation, businesses that invest in the physical and mental health of their employees could see an ROI of £4.17 for each £1 spent. What’s more, the global economy could get a boost of up to $100 billion a year if employers ‘successfully encouraged their staff to meet World Health Organization guidelines on exercise’. To put that into some perspective, that’s only the equivalent of 15-minutes walking every day.
What are the Benefits of exercise in the workplace?
Exercise Improves Focus and Productivity
Exercise improves employee productivity by increasing blood flow to the brain and making it easier to focus. It also facilitates creative thinking, helping employees find innovative solutions to difficult problems. One study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that workers who exercised moderately produced higher quality work and performed better in their jobs than those who did no exercise. It’s the word moderate that’s key here. No one is suggesting vigorous military bootcamps throughout the day. Employees certainly shouldn’t be coerced into exercise, either. Education and encouragement are key. Speaking with employees and getting a feel for the types of activities they enjoy (or that think they might enjoy) can be helpful. Moderate exercise includes brisk walking, a gentle jog, dancing, riding a bike, or pushing a lawnmower. By providing the brain with more blood, exercise also benefits other forms of cognitive performance including multi-tasking, alertness, and decision making. Which are all essential elements of a productive and focused employee. What’s more, exercise has also been shown to mitigate some of the effects of the post-afternoon slump, where productivity and focus can be harder to maintain. One study found that even 5-minutes spent walking in nature was enough to reset and reduce mental fatigue. Encouraging employees to take a walk outside not only boosts physical health but mental health, too.
It Helps Employees Manage Stress
During exercise, the body releases endorphins which are known as feel-good neurotransmitters. Stress is unavoidable in life. Sometimes that stress might be work-related but personal stress can (and does) bleed into an employee’s working time. Helping people to manage stress helps the business. Website Aapativ writes about the results of one study published by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), that showed how “Seven out of ten adults in the United States say they experience stress or anxiety daily. And most say it interferes at least moderately with their lives.” Up to 70% of your employees could be dealing with stress or anxiety daily.
Exercise lowers the amount of cortisol and adrenaline released into the body and raises endorphins which are ‘natural painkillers and mood elevators.’ Giving employees space and opportunity to deal with stress constructively way can help prevent minor worries from becoming something much bigger. Unresolved stress can lead to employees exiting the business or going on sick leave. Of course, it’s not only stress that exercise helps fight against. Physical activity can also help manage symptoms of mild depression, anxiety, and increase self-esteem.
Exercise Could Help Treat Employee Burnout
Burnout is chronic job stress. There are several causes but an unmanageable workload is the most common. Symptoms include exhaustion, demotivation, and a drop in productivity. Training managers to delegate tasks appropriately and teaching them how to spot the early signs of burnout are key, but exercise can help, too. One study concluded the following “Cardiovascular exercise was found to increase well-being and decrease psychological distress, perceived stress, and emotional exhaustion. Resistance training was noticeably effective in increasing well-being and personal accomplishment and to reduce perceived stress.” The study goes on to say that exercise is one way of helping employees recover from burnout. And it’s a condition that’s becoming more common.
It’s now officially recognised by the World Health organisation (WHO). Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Jennifer Moss argues that responsibility must lie with the employer. Poor management and toxic work environments are often key culprits but if individual employees are finding it hard to handle their caseload, then exercise may provide some temporary relief.
Exercise Can Reduce Presenteeism and Absenteeism
In 2019, AXA PPP Healthcare released a study suggesting that a lack of physical activity was costing UK businesses around £6.6 billion. Physically inactive employees also take, on average, an extra four and a half working days off work per year either through presenteeism or absence.
It Can Encourage Better Working Relationships
Group exercise is a way of building better and forming new working relationships. It expands social groups and creates supportive social networks within an organisation. This can be vital in maintaining morale during difficult periods for the business. Companies might organise yoga classes in the morning or arrange a walk around the local area during lunchtime. Team challenges are also popular. It could be a step challenge for example. They’re also a fantastic way of encouraging interaction between different employees and departments. It can also encourage and support collaboration and teambuilding within departments and networks.
It reduces the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle
Humans aren’t meant to spend so much of the day sitting down. Unfortunately, modern life requires many of us to do just that. With so many jobs now entirely desk-based, there’s not always much time for movement. Employees may also opt for sedentary activities when they’re not working, too. Watching television, sitting in pubs, driving, etc, all contribute to long hours of sedentary behaviour. Researchers now believe that sitting down for extended periods can be as bad for a person’s health as smoking. The NHS website points to an interesting workplace-related fact about where the first indicators about the dangers of sitting came from:
“The link between illness and sitting first emerged in the 1950s, when researchers found double-decker bus drivers were twice as likely to have heart attacks as their bus conductor colleagues. The drivers sat for 90 per cent of their shifts, the conductors climbed about 600 stairs each working day.”
Increased sitting increases the risk of developing chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, muscle and bone weakness, and it weakens the body’s immune response. This latter fact, in particular, could have a real impact on the number of absences within an organisation during the year.
It Makes Current Staff Feel Valued and Attracts New Employees
Businesses that care about their employee's wellbeing have lower staff turnover. They’re also more likely to attract new talent. Younger people aren’t basing their employment decisions on salary alone. Work environment and social responsibility means they’re looking for companies that align with their values. For Forbes, Naz Beheshti writes: 89% of workers at companies that support well-being initiatives are more likely to recommend their company as a good place to work.
Promoting Physical Activity in the Workplace
Flexible Working Hours
The pandemic has accelerated the popularity of Flexible working. Working outside the traditional 9-to-5 helps employees manage their time better. It helps employers increase the productivity of their workers, too. Time is an asset in the modern world. Longer working hours, overtime, commuting, social and childcare responsibilities can make it tough to find the space for exercise. 46% of working people say they don’t have enough time to work out. Allowing employees to carve out time during the working day can help. Don’t hold so tightly to the 9 to 5 format. It’s showing its age and, to many young people, is outdated. Allowing people some control over their hours can help build a more productive workforce. Let people start and finish earlier. Let people start later and work later. Let people take extended lunches and then catch up on either side. A few companies like Total WellFit even allow their staff to exercise whilst they’re on the clock. Flexibility makes it easier for individuals to make positive choices in their free time.
Start Walking and Stand up
Start standing up for meetings. Some companies have walking meetings. Up and down corridors or even better – outside! Not only are these a great way to get your daily step count up, they’ll also stop meetings running over. Businesses could also provide standing desks.
Create the Environment
Providing changing facilities and including showers can encourage employees to exercise whilst they’re at work. Adding bicycle racks may also mean more people start cycling to and from the office. If your business has the capacity, you can add a gym to your building or subsidise gym membership elsewhere. For employees that aren’t confident enough to cycle outdoors, add a couple of energy-generating indoor bikes to the office. These will also complement a workplace sustainability policy. It’s a great way of engaging staff with environmental issues whilst boosting physical health and wellbeing.
Putting on Classes
Holding regular exercise classes or groups can help. Asking what employees would like to try out is a good way of offering a wide range of fitness options. It doesn’t even need to be a class. Arrange a walking or running club during lunchtimes. If there’s a big enough screen in the building, stream an exercise class on that.
Plan Team Activities
One website suggests supporting local events like fun runs, walks, charity initiatives and get everyone involved. Signing up as a team can be a great way to motivate people and encourage those who are new to exercise. Community volunteer days where employees help out in the community – litter picking, painting walls, assembling furniture etc can be great, too.
Make Use of Social Outings
Going regularly to social events that involve exercise – five a side tournaments, ice-skating, Nordic walking, Zumba, alpaca walks, paintballing – anything that gets people up and moving. It’s a great way to build social relationships, too.
Encourage Active Lunchbreaks
Encourage people to be active during their lunch breaks. This should be moving away from desks.
Smaller businesses may not feel as if they have the budget for an all-out assault on employee health. That’s okay. There are plenty of small things listed above to experience the benefits of exercise in the workplace. The benefits go both ways: healthier happier employees often mean a more productive workforce.