Fitness should be central to health and wellbeing strategies, but employers’ objectives must be realistic.
Providing opportunities for physical activity to employees, particularly those who do not meet current criteria for such activity, has many benefits for employees and employers.
The advantages of physical activity are well-established: lower obesity rates, increased psychological wellbeing, lower levels of stress and depression, and less risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure and some types of cancer. Exercise can also boost employees’ everyday performance.
Economic benefits for employers include decreased absenteeism and presenteeism, increased productivity and performance, greater job satisfaction, retention of productive staff, fewer accidents and reduced healthcare costs.
Before developing a physical activity programme, employers must undertake an extensive needs analysis of their staff, identifying their needs and preferences via interviews and questionnaires.
Appropriate and realistic goals should be set in terms of a programme’s objectives, and these should be developed in view of the available budget. A pilot trial of the programme will help employers identify potential problems in delivery or uptake, and will facilitate necessary changes before the programme is rolled out.
Where possible, an employer’s marketing team should be involved in designing effective promotional campaigns, such as leaflets and health fairs, to reach as many staff as possible.
To maximise the success of a programme, employers should enlist support from top-level management and managers. If such programmes are not supported by organisations actively encouraging staff to take part, or assisting financially, such as by employing qualified personnel and providing appropriate equipment, they might not be effective in the long term.
It is also important to tailor the programme to the needs and characteristics of the workforce. A one-size-fits-all approach does not work. Plans should cater for a variety of interests and ability levels in terms of physical activity.
For example, individual and group activities, whether competitive or not, traditional (such as football) and alternative (such as yoga or dance) should be available. The availability of activities should also be convenient for all employees, irrespective of their shift patterns.
Behaviour modification strategies can be helpful in promoting long-term change. These include goal-setting, self-monitoring, such as logging daily minutes of brisk walking, and positive self-talk. Other provisions may also be needed, such as flexible work patterns, safe walking trails, showers and lockers.
Physical activity champions, employees who volunteer to encourage and support colleagues to engage in physical activity, should be identified. Social support networks can also be important for maintaining employees’ involvement in physical activity.
But the challenge for employers in developing effective physical activity programmes is to recruit not those employees who are already active, but those who are inactive or hold negative views about physical activity.
Another challenge is to retain employees who initially sign up, but subsequently lose their motivation to stick to the programme.
The last step in developing such programmes is evaluation: has the strategy met its objectives and has it increased physical activity over the long term? Employers should also consider whether it has boosted job satisfaction or performance, and whether it is value for money.
- Physical activity can help boost employees’ productivity levels.
- Employers should set realistic goals when incorporating fitness into their health plans.
- Employee fitness champions can help promote exercise in the workplace.
Nikolaos Ntoumanis is professor of exercise and sport psychology at the University of Birmingham