Let’s get physical: how employers can break down barriers to activity

Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign was founded to help women manage the fear of judgement that acts as a barrier to physical activity. Kate Dale, the campaign’s strategy lead, looks at what employers can do to help women, and men, be more active.

Getting employees to stay active during their working day can be a challenge, especially for those in desk-based roles.

Physical activity can be daunting for some staff – especially women – with many fearing being judged on their appearance, ability or priorities by their colleagues. Some women may worry that they are too “jiggly” or “sweaty” when they are active, that they aren’t going to be “good enough” at a particular activity, or perhaps that they worry they’ll be judged on how they spend their time: that they should be devoting more time childcare or, more pertinently, work.

The This Girl Can campaign has been hugely successful since its launch in 2015. We have more than 800,000 women and girls in our community and the campaign has encouraged 3.9 million women to engage with physical activity.

But we still have a way to go – we’re looking to employers to buy into the fact that their female workforce has certain needs to enable them to be physically active. We aren’t revealing new information by pointing out that healthy and active employees are beneficial to companies, not only in healthcare terms, but for output too.

While many companies are putting a concerted effort into ensuring their staff are healthy, employers have to acknowledge that they could be doing more to tailor a work/activity balance for those who face a very particular set of barriers to exercise.

Talk (and listen) to your employees

Employees who suggest physical activities are leading the way to creating an active working environment. But although it’s essential to keep talking to those employees and to allow them to act as workplace ambassadors, there may be a segment of the workforce who don’t feel compelled to be proactive, and may not even know what’s on offer from their employer.

Sitting down with focus groups, requesting line manager feedback, employee surveys, and taking the time to talk to employees or new joiners could help identify employees’ needs.

Eliminate the practical barriers

Women often face self-imposed barriers to physical activity or barriers borne from societal norms. Engaging with the workforce is a good way of identifying and easing these issues.

We aren’t revealing new information by pointing out that healthy and active employees is beneficial to companies, not only in healthcare terms, but for output too.”

Access to workplace showers or changing areas can be problematic – even if this is something employers can provide. For some women there is an expectation to be well presented at work and they might find that they need extra time to cool down before putting on make-up or style their hair. While this may sound superficial, old-fashioned or stereotypical, we’ve seen it’s an issue that affects women’s willingness to be active during the working day.

One size doesn’t fit all

Many companies fall down at tailoring activity to their workforce. While a discounted gym membership may be a big draw for potential employees, it’s important to try to factor in those who find the gym intimidating or not suitable for their working day.

A joint aim – such as fundraising for a fun run, a sponsored walk or swim – can be really motivating for employees. There may be a want for a lunchtime yoga or pilates class that employees may need help putting into practice. While introducing a competitive sporting element may work for some environments, this could be isolating or inappropriate for certain workplaces.

Play to your advantage

It’s easy to tell businesses to install showers, lockers and offer employees gym classes, but in the real world many can’t provide these perks. Yet small businesses or teams with a certain level of autonomy have an advantage that isn’t available to their larger cousins: the power to really listen to their staff.

We spoke to Chloe Pearson, who after a car accident wanted to return to her previous level of fitness. Because she worked in a tight-knit team she was able to ask for a 90-minute lunchbreak to allow her to run and shower. She flexed her working day around her runs and found it encouraged co-workers to get involved with fitness at lunchtimes. Her employer – the Environment Agency – was recently awarded a gold in the Mind Workplace Wellbeing Index.

While a discounted gym membership may be a big draw for potential employees, it’s important to try to factor in those who find the gym intimidating or not suitable for their working day.”

Create role models

While high performers like marathon runners or triathletes can act as natural advocates, it’s important to seek out those who take part in day-to-day activity to act as role models. By creating an environment where workplaces can recognise and celebrate small achievements through internal comms or CSR initiatives, employees will be encouraged to speak about their fitness objectives.

Senior management needs to speak out and be visible in introducing activity into the working day. When an employee sees their manager taking a class at lunchtime or sparing 10 minutes for a walk around the block, this fosters an environment where workers feel able to be active in a way that doesn’t affect their work.

Address the working day

We’ve spoken to countless women (and men) who find their hours of productivity don’t tend to chime with their contracted hours. Many find that starting earlier or later would afford them the time to exercise.

University worker Rachel Barnwell told us moving her working day back by an hour allowed her to exercise each morning. While she still needs to work around her working partners and clients, making the time to be physically active made her more productive.

There will always be environments where hours cannot be shifted, but employers should use these situations to encourage activity around the working day. Cycle-to-work schemes or walking commute groups are practical ways of easing employees into physical activity.

Kate Dale

About Kate Dale

Kate Dale is head of campaign strategy at Sport England and is responsible for the This Girl Can campaign

One Response to Let’s get physical: how employers can break down barriers to activity

  1. Paul Matthews 26 Jul 2018 at 9:26 pm #

    Great article with lots of useful suggestions. I think it’s also possible to be active at work without the need for sports clothes and showering or having to leave the building.

    Given that many of us are at work for 8 hours a day, being on your feet and moving for at least half of that time goes a huge way to addressing the energy imbalance caused by office work. You don’t necessarily need a standing desk ( although this helps). Just putting your laptop on a box is enough. One side effect, bourne out by many studies, is a boost in energy and concentration levels as well as often stated mood enhancements.

    Taking things one step further, set aside a prominent and visible part of the office to allow workers to take active breaks through Active Workareas. This can be as simple as a treadmill desk which is used hot desk style for extended periods ( 20mins +) or it can be something like a HIIT station which could be a gym style stationary bike that you go full blast for 2-3 minutes. This is too short to be sweat-inducing but long enough to have a genuine energising effect. A screened off version of this was recently shown by Dr. Mosseley on Trust Me I’m a Doctor.

    At Office Fitness we have been promoting a lot of these ideas for years but buy-in from management is key to creating the environment where employees feel that it is acceptable to leave their desk for short periods to burn energy. The overly conservative nature of offices when it comes to activity and the social awkwardness of staff in attempting to do anything other than sit still is the real stumbling block. HR and Occupational Health need to lead the way in showing that it’s OK to move and be active in work.

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