Workplace Stress Is High. All the More Reason to Get Employees Moving
When it comes to providing benefits that employees value, wellness programs matter. Yet traditional initiatives press on with sterile offerings to incentivize weight loss, exercise and updated medical screenings, like access to immunizations, company gym rooms and recreational programs. Add to that, attempts to increase participation in these programs often comes in the form of extrinsic motivators, like gift card incentives.
But what if employers took a closer look at what employees actually need to stay physically and mentally healthy? What if managing stress and improving work performance was as simple and cost effective as adding physical activity into the flow of work: implementing walking meetings or 10-minute movement breaks throughout the day?
As the specter of employee burnout lingers, it’s hard to ignore the ways physical activity can relieve stress, and in turn generate positive, more balanced feelings about work. Increased productivity has been a longstanding benefit of movement, but evolving research and dialogue suggest that an effective wellness program begins by prioritizing mental health.
Physical Activity Directly Impacts Employee Mental Health
Mental health challenges intensified at the height of the pandemic. Being stuck at home changed work environments and dug up feelings of uncertainty. It also prompted conversation around balance and managing stress. “During COVID-19, people started recognizing that we started to change,” said Bryce Hastings, head of research at Les Mills.
According to Hastings, for the first time ever, stress relief has overtaken “getting in shape” as a reason to work out. Les Mills provides support to corporate and hospitality partners through on-site programs and virtual platforms. And in the midst of the pandemic, the focus for developing these programs was simple: “We were really just trying to manage stress.”
A cross-sectional study on 1.2 million participants between 2011 and 2015 found that those who exercised were less likely to experience poor mental health days — displaying a reduction of 11.8% at minimum — than those who did not. The largest associations were seen with popular team sports (22.3% lower), cycling (21.6% lower), and aerobic and gym activities (20.1%).
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Adding Movement Into the Flow of Work Means Prioritizing People
Whether employers are asking teams to return to the office or implementing a hybrid work model, we’re still pressing forward with long, sedentary hours in front of screens. The CDC notes that Americans who work full-time spend on average nearly eight hours a day at their worksite — that’s a third of every day.
The Health Enhancement Research Organization argues that “incorporating movement throughout the day is essential — that providing employees with the opportunity and support to add movement to their workday promotes the perception that the organization and its leaders care about their well-being.”
Creating a culture of health with impact considers employee health and starts with leadership teams recognizing the mental benefits of physical activity, particularly during work hours. But where should companies start, and how do HR leaders navigate decision-making that directly impacts stress management and reduction, in addition to wellness program efficacy?
Introduce Scheduled Breaks That Invite Movement
For Derek Haigler, a senior recruiter at Ampirical and founder of Yoga For All Humans, movement impacts healthy brain activity. But it’s not just about exercise — it’s about taking time to be intentional in whatever physical activity you’re doing. "It’s healthy to quiet your mind so that you can think. Whenever I was doing yoga at work, that was when I had my best ideas. It actually made me a better employee because I had a lot of clarity around whatever was going on."
While Haigler takes advantage of lunchtime yoga two times per week, movement breaks don’t all have to look the same. They can happen throughout the day in small, meaningful increments. But to have an impact, they should be scheduled, recurring and encouraged by leadership teams. Setting company-wide calendar reminders for daily movement breaks or walks at lunchtime can optimize work-life balance. Specialized tools aren't necessary — something as simple as using the settings in Microsoft Outlook to schedule time away from the screen can be motivating. For those who want a more specific tool, mobile apps like Stand Up, 7 minute workout, Sworkit and others are accessible to help employees embrace movement breaks, no matter the time or place.
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Provide Resources for Opportunities to Reduce Stress
Valuing a culture of wellness at work means budgeting for experiences that support stress management and reduce anxiety. This communicates that companies are invested in their people and care about their physical and mental health.
Haigler’s former company negotiated to pay 50% of the costs for providing yoga at work, but that complicated the message. “I would advise companies to just cover the entire cost. If you’re splitting the cost with employees, the employee cost is [often] dependent upon how many employees sign up. And then it becomes more of a financial analysis of, ‘okay, how much do I value this.' It sends mixed signals."
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At a time when wellness initiatives might be cut due to budget constraints, companies with employees back in the office have some ready-made options. Johns Hopkins research concerning Physical Activity in the Workplace concludes with a Guide for Employers, suggesting that every workplace already has an existing physical activity environment waiting to be optimized: hallways, sidewalks, and stairwells. Given a 10 minute movement break, employees could climb stairs with a teammate, or take their meetings on a walk. These are budgetless solutions.
Survey Employees to Find Out What They Want
Movement is a part of the culture at Les Mills, especially in its US office. In addition to surveying employees, the company prioritizes time for staff to attend a variety of classes during the day, with positive impacts to both their mental outlook and relationships at work. “They feel connected and bonded. It’s not like a chore. They’re just in [a space] with their workmates doing something that involves them moving around some music,” noted Hastings.
Ultimately, the secret to getting people moving in a sustained manner is providing them with something they enjoy. And if you’re not sure what that is, just ask. When it comes to stress relief and mental health, Hastings believes that, “You really want people to feel good after exercise and getting engaged in something that they really enjoy is going to be a key part of that. If you couple the intrinsic motivators and the sense of enjoyment with the right experience, then that’s going to be a behavior that sticks.”
The best wellness programs are the ones employees actually use and enjoy. Programs that offer incentives for completing health risk assessments, biometric screenings, and meeting annual condition requirements, likely succeed in creating a baseline for health; but fail when it comes to effectiveness and long-term adherence. “I don’t think they’re overly effective,” said Haigler. “A lot of times [these programs] are more focused on weight loss and less on [overall] health.” Surveying employees is a solution to better understanding what they value in wellness offerings and what types of activities excite them.
Related Article: Making the Case for Mindfulness in the Workplace
Shift the Wellness Narrative to Include and Value Physical Activity
It’s important for companies to use accessible language in promoting activity initiatives for their teams because part of overcoming this barrier is getting people to understand that movement is both valuable and for everyone.
Over the last few years, Les Mills started talking about movement instead of exercise and replaced the word “fitness” with "wellness."
“I think just by changing the narrative, we can actually start to promote the effects of exercise and also get away with the constraints around having to do 150 minutes a week of cardiovascular exercise, or some sort of resistance training sessions. Actually just do what makes you feel better and start with that,” said Hastings.
Human Resources Should Lead the Conversation
After the turbulence of the last few years, a much broader population has started looking for stress management solutions. Leaders can be the key to unlocking whatever’s next, and it starts by understanding exercise's role in reducing stress and anxiety. “I think because we’ve labeled it as exercise and fitness, it doesn’t always appear that way; people are taken by the physical benefits of exercise and don’t always put together other factors in this part of the decision process,” Hastings said.
Haigler hopes to see the broader HR world advocating for the benefits of movement in the workplace. "If SHRM were to introduce something about movement at work and why it’s important, that would be huge — to have the biggest voices bringing it forward."
About the Author
Multidisciplinary communicator and coach, with a background in writing and movement. Experienced in copywriting, project management, social media marketing, and team leadership, I prioritize strong relationships and communication with purpose. Connect with Sarah Gonsiorowski: