Chasing Promotions and PB’s: The Role of Fitness in Workplace Performance
THE EVOLUTION OF FITNESS: FROM CAVEMEN TO GYM RATS
Fitness. For some, the word may conjure images of spandex-clad individuals sweating profusely whilst engaging in some peculiar movements (burpees, anyone?).
Others may evoke Darwinian notions in the name of science. Whichever interpretation you may favour, the concept of fitness is undeniably a key zeitgeist of this generation.
Historically, fitness primarily began as a way of life (think hunters and gatherers). The Greeks extended an appreciation of physical culture through the introduction of the Olympics, back in 776AD. Past this point, compulsory physical training in armies further solidified the idea of fitness as a requirement of life and of survival. Only in the last few decades has fitness been visibly re-packaged as a means to encourage ‘health’ and overall well-being.
BRO, DO YOU EVEN LIFT? WELL INSTAGRAM IT THEN
However, health is no longer the sole motivator. The modern world and evolution of the Internet has not only exponentially increased the exposure and marketing of fitness as a commodity, but has re-defined the very notion of fitness. With the rise of Instagram fitness personalities lauding the preoccupation of attaining the ‘bikini body’, and YouTube videos like the Hodge Twins spruiking the formula for bulking and cutting; the concept has vacillated to a current setting of ‘look’ fit, rather than ‘be’ fit.
I once witnessed a girl enter the gym, hair down and make-up heavy in salute to the camera, walk on the treadmill briefly, take a selfie and walk out. All in twenty minutes.
A great divide within the fitness world has thus ensued.
One side houses the fitness zealots, driven by a need for aesthetic results, beholden to the in-vogue movement of our time (you be mirin, they be mirin: eurgh, too much mirin).
The other encompasses individuals who exercise for health, personal goal achievement, stress-relief and strength.
The issue is, with current media magnification on the trend of physical perfection, the focus of fitness as a whole has shifted away from wellness as a lifestyle and behaviour. In response, the masses have been alienated, overwhelmed by the (literal) hard-ass mentality of daily gym visits and kow-towing to brown rice and chicken to reach unattainable levels of physical perfection.
It’s clear the fitness ‘movement’ of the day has germinated and is bigger than ever. Yet ironically enough, so are our waistlines. Statistics show that heart disease is the top three cause of death and exercise dramatically reduces the risk for this.
CORPORATE CONSCIOUSNESS: DO BUSINESSES CARE?
So, why would this matter in the workplace? Extensive research has revealed a direct correlation between employee health and the overall success of an organisation.
Physical activity as a lifestyle has been directly linked to cognitive brain function and performance in work settings, as well as mental and physical health.
With employees being a company’s greatest asset, this revelation has thus incentivized businesses to optimise the benefits of workplace wellness in order to increase employee performance.
Situated in their offices for about a third of their day, desk-based workers are at risk of poorer health, as revealed by a pertinent study conducted by David Dunstan at Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Australia. This has honed in on the importance of changing the sedentary face of organisations through creating physical activity as a social norm and workplace culture.
The bottom line is that healthy employees are happy ones, and most importantly are more productive.
COMPANIES THAT SWEAT TOGETHER STAY TOGETHER: REASONS FOR PURSUING CORPORATE FITNESS PROGRAMS
A plethora of informative literature has been created for businesses outlining the numerous methods in which to implement workplace ‘wellness programs’, with powerhouses like PwC and Deloitte amongst those sourced.
Statistically speaking, 71% of the population in Australia is not doing enough physical activity, increasing the health risks of obesity and chronic disease.
The connection to job performance here comes from betterment of employee health, facilitated through increased exercise. This results in less illness, reduced absenteeism, improved job satisfaction and increased productivity.
Additionally, company insurance costs are lowered with long-term improvements in employee health.
The company therefore achieves a significant strategic advantage through investing money in wellness programs that will ultimately reduce their overall expenses in the future.
Studies have concluded that poor employee health – such as obesity and physical inactivity – is connected with lower productivity levels.
Productivity is measured through absenteeism and presenteeism: the impact of poor health on both loss of work time, and impairment of work time respectively. Both facets of productivity inflict economic deficits on employers, giving companies legitimate reason to encourage physical activity for its employees.
The study further revealed that even if healthy behaviours were only marginally encouraged through the implementation of wellness programs, the sole existence of the program led to increased productivity.
Friedrich Nietzsche once mused that all truly great thoughts are conceived while walking. He may have been onto something, as validated by the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
Findings showed that the benefits of exercise not only better health, but lead to increased access to our stream of consciousness, subsequently facilitating creativity.
Stress & Mood
Work has been evaluated as the second most common source of stress. Studies have shown however, that physical activities such as running release chemicals that negate the impact of stress on the body, as well as improving mood. One study specifically analysed the effects of fitness on the behaviour of bosses to their employees, concluding that those who exercised had more moderate mood levels and were less likely to inflict negative behaviours onto their employees.
Strong evidence links the effects of exercise, such as running, to an improvement in BDNF – the protein responsible for health of nerve cells and increased memory capacity and cognitive health.
Moreover, a study at Harvard Medical School suggests the release of certain neurotransmitters in the brain following exercise facilitates new connections between brain cells-helping us learn.
“In fact, the brain responds like muscles do, growing with use, withering with inactivity.”
CONCEPT OF FAILURE
The idea of failure is one strongly allied to fitness pursuits. I can’t count how many times I’ve gone for a run and fallen over (or felt like a turtle wading through peanut butter – and definitely the crunchy variety). Or at the gym lifting a heavy weight, feeling like Stallone but looking more like a baby trying to lift the Titanic. But most of the time this has happened, I’ve kept at it. As Confucius once said, “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in getting up every time we do”.
The Harvard Business Review seems to agree with the long-gone Chinese philosopher, citing failure as a cause of productivity and even fun when handled in the appropriate manner. Take a ‘failure bow’ they posit. As detailed in HBR, “Trapeze artists, acrobats, and other athletes are trained to take a failure bow after a stumble because it releases them from the fear of making a mistake”.
Not only is failure – in the fitness realm or within the confines of an organisation – linked to improved results and learning, it can also be a sign of success to come. The more times you fail, statistically speaking, the closer you are to taking that step to success.
As Edison once said, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up”.
In bodybuilding, the concept of ‘pushing to failure’ is actually applauded. This occurs when one lifts weights to the point where they cannot do another rep in strict form, usually resulting in dropping the weight. Whilst perhaps a tad loud and annoying in a weights room, pushing to failure is a sign that you have reached the highest level of intensity and effort in your workout.
Failure through fitness therefore becomes a way for us to encourage strength and perseverance. As Tyler Durden tells us in Fight Club, “A guy who came to Fight Club for the first time, his ass was a wad of cookie dough. After a few weeks, he was carved out of wood.”
MONKEY SEE, MONKEY DO: COMPANIES WITH WELLNESS PROGRAMS
Following the buzz of wellness programs as the new golden ticket to corporate success, several major companies have followed suit and introduced their own wellness incentives, paving the way for other corporations.
Google: the quintessential company for providing the perks of all perks to employees, Google’s wellness initiatives include: bikes provided around the Googleplex headquarters, a company garden for recreational use and decked-out gyms.
Eventbrite: This San Francisco company encourages employee bonding through fitness activities include biking and most fantastically, visits to the trampoline park. Add in monthly fitness and wellness stipends to employees (as well as bring your dog to work day and the sporadic appearance of Lego robots) it’s not surprising this firm was voted one of the best places to work.
Twitter: The social media hub incentivizes employees to remain active by providing yoga, CrossFit, Kung Fu and Pilates on-site as well as free gym reimbursements. The company advocates their fitness and wellness programs in order to allow employees to “manage (their) energy better and get more done in a sustainable way”.
Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute: This institute is Australia’s leading health and medical research institute, geared towards reducing mortality and ill-health created by diabetes and cardiovascular disease. They offer a variety of fitness opportunities to employees so they can practise what they preach including: subsidised gym memberships, yoga, meditation and mindfulness classes. They encourage employees and the community to engage in team fitness events including several cycling events and the Melbourne Marathon.
EXECUTIVES LEADING THE MOVEMENT: WHY YOUR LEADER CAN MAKE AN IMPACT
Not only are companies as a whole including wellness programs to encourage fitness and wellbeing among employees, but top executives also play a pertinent role in this.
A 2014 study conducted by Limbach and Sonnenburg examined the impact of CEO’s who had run marathons on overall firm value.
The conclusion was that CEO’s who had laced up and run a marathon were ‘better leaders’, positively increasing profitability and overall firm value of the company by 8-10%. Previous research had already shown support for companies headed by CEO runners being more successful in terms of sales than companies headed by non-runners, drawing a link to fiscal success through racing the big 42.
Limbach and Sonnenburg’s study also affirmed the role of fitness in positively affecting performance and cognitive functions as well as moderating stress, drawing a link to the importance of this in the demanding and stressful nature of CEO’s jobs.
The association was reasoned by Entrepreneur magazine: “Successfully running a large company is kind of like running a marathon: Both require diligence, commitment, work ethic and strategy”.
One CEO of a consulting and strategy firm described his personal view on running a marathon, claiming the “mental toughness has a direct correlation to success in business”.
Moreover, the fitness of the CEO can play a huge part on the corporate culture of a business. If the CEO visibly engages in exercise regularly as part of their work-life balance, employees may feel more comfortable including time for fitness in their working day.
Wendt-Moore, the CEO of Leadership NZ, supports the important role of wellness at both company and executive levels. “Resilience, well-being, self-care and sustainability of our leaders is critical to business, organisational and community success and as leaders we need to model health and wellness practice and foster workplace practices that enable our teams to stay well and happy in their work.”
LEADERS IN LYCRA – WHO HAS LED WITH SWEAT?
There are multitudes of successful entrepreneurs and executives that have regularly kept active, incorporating fitness habits into their work life.
Brian Chesky, Co-Founder AirBnb: Chesky – pictured above – co-founder of international rental accommodation business Airbnb, was once a competitive bodybuilder. Who says you can’t make business gains and get that swole gain too.
Barack Obama, Present of the United States of America: In his autobiography, Obama claimed he felt he was an underachiever until he implemented a routine exercise schedule, running 5kms per day. These days he also incorporates strength training and basketball, working out 45mins a day, 6 days a week.
Anna Wintour, Editor-In-Chief American Vogue: The dragon lady herself – as portrayed brilliantly by Meryl Streep on our screens in The Devil Wears Prada – wakes early each morning to play an hour of tennis. Wintour claims this gives her the discipline and the energy needed for her demanding job (as well as facilitating that famous sass I imagine).
WHY WELLNESS PROGRAMS AREN’T ALWAYS A WALK IN THE PARK
The benefits of corporate wellness programs in the long run are now clear to businesses, and they’re jumping on the boat in droves to implement them. So are they working? Yes…and no. Evidence has suggested that whilst beneficial to employees when followed, the programs may not be as successful in their actual operation.
What it boils down to is the level of interaction and involvement between the organisational program and the employees. It’s not enough to put the program in place and expect employees to immediately rush to the treadmill you’ve just installed. Organisations have to engage their employees in the process through support, education and communication. “Engagement, motivation, support and strategy are the keys to a successful program”.
Fitness and health are a lifestyle, and it cannot be expected that results will occur immediately. To design a successful wellness program, Forbes offers 5 key points to follow. These summarise the need for careful execution of a wellness plan and most importantly, that “both parties need to be involved to share this common vision”.
Importantly, fitness by itself is not going to be enough. The benefits of fitness may be vast for both health improvement and related workplace performance increases, but having employees engage in fitness alone will not ensure the success of any organisation. Other factors like resource allocation, procurement, customer service and business strategy are fundamental. Moreover, the importance of employees is key, but their fitness levels and health are not the only piece of the puzzle in keeping employees productive and happy. Forbes outlines several other aspects recommended for employee satisfaction such as open lines of communication, respect, managerial consistency and compensation.
TO RUN, OR NOT TO RUN BEFORE FINISHING THIS STORY? THAT’S THE MILLION DOLLAR QUESTION
This is no Schrödinger’s cat inquiry. Employees can be both healthy and happy – one state congruently occurs with the other. It follows from the extensive research above, that physical activity and fitness do positively effect our performance in the workplace. We may all feel its effects in different ways, some through stress-relief, others through an opportunity to help shape their self-discipline. But whichever way it affects you – the results are in – fitness does affect you, and in a way conducive to good work performance.
But here’s the thing. ‘Fitness’ will be different things to different people. Not everyone enjoys or needs to pound the pavement 10kms every day to achieve results (imagine the physio bills). Any kind of physical activity – walking, yoga, gardening, swimming, trampolining – will aid the pursuit of fitness as a way of life.
Michael Jordan once spoke of goals, “Some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, others make it happen”. For some of us, fitness can be a way to help us achieve our goals. For others, the drive for workplace productivity doesn’t expressly need a pairing with a morning spin class.
In a world where we are navigating our way through green juices, Segway’s, Bikram yoga and deep-fried Mars Bars, either option is not in itself automatically going to make you more or less productive or valuable as an employee.
As Travis Bickle wisely said in Taxi Driver, “You’re only as healthy as you feel”. Choose your own way to feel fit. Fitness didn’t begin as a measured way to confine our movement to a select number. It was a way of life, and that’s the way businesses and individuals should approach it. It is whatever you want it to be for you.
Read our follow up story, where we interview two fitness fanatics and how fitness has helped them in their professional careers.