Stress at work? Exercise is the cure

With people spending more time at work during the recession, employers can help their staff beat stress by encouraging them to take more exercise, say Sue Cartwright and Cary Cooper.

The majority of the working age population currently spend 60% of their time engaged in work activity. Compared to the workers in many other developed economies, UK employees work longer hours.

With changes to the normal age at which people will retire, in the future workers will not only be working longer hours but will also be working for a much longer period of time than previous generations. While for some the proposed extension in working life will be welcome, for others the increased demands may have a detrimental impact on their health and wellbeing.

On 21 October the Work and Wellbeing conference in London, organised by organisational psychology company Robertson Cooper, will look at how employers can help staff beat the stress caused by long hours at work.

Decades of research have demonstrated that work plays a major role in determining physical and psychological health and have highlighted the co-dependence between individual health and organisational performance, and its implications for wider society.

According to the UK Labour Force Survey, in 2007 an estimated 2 million people each year suffered from what they considered to be work-related ill health. As a result, organisations have been encouraged to adopt strategies designed to reduce the potential threats and risks to health inherent in the workplace. At the same time, it has been the prevailing view that individuals have a fundamental personal responsibility to maintain their own health by adopting sensible lifestyle habits, and that organisations can do much to encourage their employees to reassess their health status and promote more positive health behaviours.

A survey conducted by YouGov last year on behalf of Lancaster University at the time the UK economy entered recession found that over half of employees found the current situation stressful and that two out of three workers were spending more time at work. If economic recovery is to be achieved employers will need to maximise the return of the human capital they employ, which means that employee health and wellbeing will assume an even greater importance. This is a particular challenge when levels of job satisfaction and commitment in the UK have been steadily falling over recent years.

The benefits of exercise

The benefits of exercise in reducing the risk of heart disease, stroke, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, cholesterol and improving one’s overall sense of wellbeing are well documented. Yet despite the recommendation by the World Health Organization that individuals walk 10,000 steps a day, the average office worker only achieves a step count of about 3,500.

Most people, despite their good intentions, find it difficult to sustain a regular exercise routine. Going to the gym after a long day at work can soon feel like a chore and another extra task to fit into one’s daily schedule. However, evidence suggests that organisational initiatives to promote physical activity which involve an element of fun and teamwork can be very successful in sustaining improved health and activity habits.

The Global Corporate Challenge (GCC) has been running for seven years. It is a worldwide initiative which challenges teams of seven to each walk 10,000 steps a day over a 16-week period. Members’ individual step counts are recorded and tallied into a daily team total and plotted on the GCC website to complete a virtual walk around the world. Last year only 8% of the 60,000 participants failed to complete the 125-day challenge.

Astra Zeneca, Centrica, GlaxoSmithKline, Nestlé, Tesco and Unilever are among the 1,000 workplaces that promote and participate in the GCC. An independent evaluation of the impact of the programme on Nestlé UK employees in 2009, conducted by the Centre for Organizational Health and Wellbeing at Lancaster University, found a significant improvement post programme in:

  • concentration levels;
  • ability to make decisions in the workplace;
  • enjoyment of day-to-day activities;
  • self confidence; and
  • productivity.

In addition, a small number (around 260 employees) undertook extensive health screening before and after the programme. These results showed that more than half of the participants had achieved weight loss, and one in three had reduced their cholesterol and had reduced levels of body fat.

But health is more than just owning a pair of running shoes. While health promotion initiatives can play an important strategic role in employee health and wellbeing, there is much more that organisations can do to improve the health and efficiency of their workforce by developing a more healthy and positive work culture.

For example, one of the key factors that has consistently been shown to have an impact on employee health is the relationship between a worker and their line manager. Other factors include poor work-life balance, lack of job meaning and challenge, and poor learning opportunities.

Health and wellbeing

In recent years, more progressive organisations have come to recognise the value of stress auditing to enable them to address those factors inherent in the workplace that affect health. However, health and wellbeing are increasingly being recognised as two distinct concepts and so likely to involve different factors and processes.

Health is an objective concept in the sense that it can be assessed in terms of the absence or presence of medical symptoms and conditions. However, wellbeing is a more subjective concept, which has variously been described as self-evaluated happiness, the engagement in interesting and fulfilling activities and general feelings of satisfaction. The 2008 Foresight report on the development and improvement of mental capital suggests that wellbeing is associated with creativity, productivity, good interpersonal relationships and resilience in the face of adversity as well as good health and life expectancy. In short, wellbeing is more than merely the absence of stress or distress.

Therefore, the future challenge for organisations, given the potential problems of extended working life and pay restrictions, is not simply to ensure that employees are not made ill by the work but that they are positively engaged, motivated and gain a sense of worth and meaning from their work activity.

As John Ruskin wrote in 1871: “In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: they must be fit for it, they must not do too much of it and they must have a sense of success in it.”

Susan Cartwright is professor of organisational psychology and wellbeing, and director of the Centre for Organizational Health and Wellbeing at Lancaster University. Cary L Cooper, CBE, is professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School. Under the auspices of the Academy of Social Sciences, Professors Cartwright and Cooper have organised a work and wellbeing conference at Unilever House, London on 21 October 2010, with presentations by: Dame Carol Black; David Fairhurst, VP for people at McDonalds; Dr John Cooper; and chief medical officers of Unilever and other organisations. If you are interested in attending, contact the Academy of Social Sciences.

 

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