Working out for the bottom line

Swedish study finds link between exercise and productivity

August 24, 2011   by Erika Beauchesne

TORONTO—Want your workers to be more productive? Here’s a new approach—tell them to go take a hike.

New research out of Sweden has found employees who take the time out of their workday to exercise are more productive than their sedentary peers.

The study looked a group of workers at a large dental health organization. The high-stress profession involves fixed postures and repetitive movements for extended periods of time.

One group of employees was assigned an exercise program that cut into their workweek by 2.5 hours. Another group had a shorter workweek but without any exercise. A third group continued to work regular hours without physical activity.


Overall the workers who took time off to exercise reported increases in productivity. They not only felt more effective but also had a reduced rate of work absences due to illness.

The results suggest that exercise throughout the workday can improve efficiency, the authors conclude.

In Canada, workplaces are also starting to realize the link between productivity and physical activity, says Jan Chappel, senior technical specialist with the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS).

At Chappel’s workplace, employees can take an extra half hour at lunch if they use it to do physical activity, even something as light as a walk around the block.

“There are benefits to giving people the time out. It helps clear the mind and improves problem solving abilities,” she says.

There’s also a return on investment. Canadian studies have found employers receive up to $3.8 return on investment for every dollar spent on wellness programs.

“There’s a recognition now among employers that physical activity is important to employee health,” agrees Dr. Carolyn Dewa, the head of the centre for research on employment and workplace health at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

She was recently part of a CAMH pilot project that gave a group of workers pedometers to encourage activity.

The employees with pedometres were less sedentary and reported decreases in stress, which Dewa notes is one of the biggest productivity killers.

Simple initiatives like handing out pedometers can also boost employee engagement because it creates a light-hearted competitive environment between workers, she adds.

But getting employees involved in fitness initiatives can be a delicate dance, says Veronica Marsden, co-president of Tri Fit, a Toronto-based company that provides workplaces with healthy solutions.

“Even if you’re holding something like a traditional health fair, you can’t wait for them to come to you. Often times, even if they’re interested, employees are intimidated to leave what they’re doing at work to come check it out,” she says.

Instead, firms such as Tri Fit will reach out to workers during short visits to their stations, starting off with “bite-sized” health and fitness information.

Some companies may hire a person part-time to encourage a fitness culture, but leadership can also come from within.

In the industrial sector, Marsden says some companies appoint an employee who can lead others through a stretch break.

“During a typical break at the plant, workers will stop what they’re doing and do a series of stretches to reduce the tension that’s typical in movements of the job, which in manufacturing is typically upper body and neck,” she says.

The kind of workplace exercise can vary not only by sector, but employee base.

“With an aging population, we’re now seeing more businesses bringing in activities like yoga,” says Nora Spinks, president, CEO and founder of Work-Life Harmony Enterprises.

The Toronto-based firm works with organizations to foster healthier work environments.

Spinks says another program that’s recently become popular at workplaces is Zoomba, a combination of dance and exercise.

She’s also seeing more companies aligning fitness programs with their entire corporate social responsibility goals, such as organizing races for a charity.

“The movement isn’t only driven by ROI, but the knowledge that exercise is healthy for the body and mind. That is increasingly important at a time when organizations need to be as focused, innovative and resilient as possible to survive.”

Click here to go back to the Manufacturing Leadership report on productivity.

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