Our industry’s origin can be traced back to the promotion of physical activity. Before we began to fully understand all the elements of well-being in the workplace, “corporate fitness” was the focus. Yet, 50 years later, 60% of adults still do not get enough regular physical activity. What went wrong? Probably a lot of things, but paramount might be the fact we failed to address the psychosocial factors that affect people’s willingness, or even ability, to exercise. In the workplace, where we spend a large percentage of our waking hours, these psychosocial factors can be particularly influential.

Physical activity is a key determinant of health and of our ability to be productive, both on and off the job. Being inactive is a factor in many diseases, and is associated with work-related problems such as excessive turnover, absenteeism, and poor performance. In an October 2011 Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine article, Canadian researchers hypothesized that the structure and nature of work may influence physical activity level in working adults. In “Examining the Relationship Between Psychosocial Working Conditions, Physical Work Demands, and Leisure Time Physical Activity in Canada,” Sara Morassaei and Peter Smith presented path analysis research using self-reported data to explore this relationship. Path analysis — a technique where factors along a known continuum are correlated to one another to demonstrate how they affect the result — allows direct and indirect contributors to be assessed.

The most significant findings of the path analysis follow:

  • Workers with a higher skill discretion level (the degree the job involves a variety of tasks, low levels of repetitiveness, occasions for creativity, and opportunities to learn new things and develop special abilities) and decision latitude (how freely a person can make decisions and control work) had higher physical activity levels. This indicates people with more control of their work environments, and more latitude on how to accomplish their work, are more likely to exercise regularly. It may be a result of the schedule flexibility allowing more time for physical activity.
  • Job security had an impact on the level of physical activity a person gets and was more pronounced in older workers: the less job security, the less physical activity. This may indicate that worry over potential job loss robs energy and time that otherwise might be put into exercising.
  • Coworker support was correlated with higher amounts of physical activity — suggesting the importance of a work environment that encourages regular physical activity.
  • The higher the job’s physical demands, the less likely a person would perform physical activity outside work. This is probably because of fatigue, and the perception (or sometimes misconception) that work provides adequate exercise.
  • The effects of psychosocial factors at work on physical activity differ across genders and ages — and even for people with young children versus those with older or no children.
So what does this mean to a worksite health promoter?

  • It tells us we need to think beyond our usual approaches and do our best to exert influence more deeply. This is uncomfortable for many because it takes us out of our element, into the world of human resources and organizational development. But perhaps it is time. A mounting body of evidence indicates that work culture, policy, and organizational environment heavily influence lifestyle behavior. In fact, a number of studies published over the last 2 years demonstrate the link between psychosocial environment at work and physical activity, eating behaviors, stress, and smoking habits. Knowing this creates our opportunity to reach beyond normal roles and contribute to mainstream functions — helping management see the links across work environment, healthy behaviors, illness, and health/performance-related costs.
  • Programs and policies targeting skill discretion and decision latitude at work may help bring about improvements in physical activity levels. We need to advocate for working conditions that enable physical activity, with commitment to a healthy work environment that is supportive and flexible. We can also better deliver on what we control directly, by recognizing that one size does not fit all when it comes to physical activity programs — broadening our approaches while remembering psychosocial connections and worker needs. This knowledge, and a little creativity, can lead to more effective physical activity programming.
So go boldly! It is time we gain ground on getting more workers physically active.

John Harris is Chairman of the Board of HERO (Health Enhancement Research Organization).

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