The corporate world is still trying to figure out how to solve “burnout” — a combination of exhaustion, anxiety, a short fuse, and stagnant ideas. We now know it’s an occupational syndrome that affects individuals on psychological, physical, and behavioral levels. Yet, even with our increased awareness, it persists globally. And because it stems from the workplace, the solution needs to target what burnout deteriorates the most: employee well-being.
As we consider how to combat burnout in a way that’s not just sustainable but also regenerative, new research shows that a key part of the solution may be physical activity. Deakin University Global Obesity Centre conducted a study on a 50-day physical activity workplace program, where participants were encouraged to take at least 10,000 steps a day. Researchers followed 2,900 employees from across several organizations and found that the program led to statistically significant reductions in anxiety (18%), stress (13%), and sleep impairments (7%). Importantly, it also led to strategically significant improvements in overall well-being (7%).
In other words, organizations that provided the space and encouragement for employees to move during the day helped reduce employees’ symptoms of burnout. What’s even more impressive is that the program had a low dropout rate (7%) and high levels of engagement (63% of participants recorded steps for the majority of the program).
When we dive into the neuroscience of physical activity, which is one of the seven core portions of NLI’s Healthy Mind Platter, the results of this study make a lot of sense. As Wendy Suzuki, a prominent neuroscientist in the field of exercise and brain health, explained, aerobic exercise can have immediate, long-lasting, and protective benefits for your brain and higher cognitive abilities. Years of work have supported this by highlighting the benefits of exercise on brain and mental health.
Clearly, engaging in physical activity will help the individual employee — but how does the organization benefit? For one, if physical activity can boost our ability to learn and remember, it can have a widespread impact on organizational innovation and competitiveness. Additionally, as outlined in a recent article from Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, physical activity can help to reduce workplace conflicts. The authors suggest that just getting up and moving helps us break patterns of thinking that lead to conflict or resistance to change. Knowing this, organizations can help encourage movement by:
Providing space for people to engage in physical activity at work or outside of work. For example, one government organization instituted a policy that gives employees 30 minutes for lunch. If, however, they go to the on-site gym, then they can take an hour. As one employee told us, she now goes to the gym every single work day just to get an extra 30 minutes away from her desk.
Giving autonomy to people to choose when and where they engage in physical activity, as well as the type they engage in. Providing autonomy in thoughtful ways can satisfy our basic psychological need to have control over events in our lives. A sense of autonomy has been tightly linked to well-being and cognitive functioning, whereas its removal is highly threatening. Giving employees the ability to choose to use, for example, an hour during the day to go to their gym or offering reduced membership fees could provide the intrinsic reward needed to continue the activity, even when it gets difficult.
Normalizing the idea of using work time to be physically active and helping others to embrace any discomfort that may occur because of this change as a form of progress. This type of social support can act as a strong motivator for others as they work to build new habits around exercise, whether their goal is to walk more regularly or train for their next marathon.
In a world where work often gets in the way of “finding the time” to engage in activities that make us healthier, maybe we can flip the script so that work is where we find the time to move more. By actively supporting and encouraging physical activity in and outside of the workplace, organizations can engage in a regenerative practice and leave employees better than they found them.
Author: Brigid Lynn, Ph.D, MPH , Emma Sarro, Ph.D.