This week I'm delighted to host another guest post on Office Worker Health. Angela Seeger is currently studying a doctorate in Health Psychology at Deakin University in Australia. Angela reached out to me recently as we both share an interest in employee related health and wellbeing. Angela has kindly shared some really great insights from her ongoing studies and experiences that I know will benefit a lot of people. Thanks Angela, over to you!
Do you think there is a relationship between your health and your work?
You may be on to something…
Increasingly, people are finding that the more exercise they do, the better they perform at work. Investigations into the impact of physical activity on job performance has been acknowledged and has become more convincing over the past decade.
But the question remains, how does the physical activity we do actually influence our work? The benefits of being healthy at work can come about through a variety of mechanisms…
1) By improving our health
We all know that exercise is important to maintain health. This one is glaringly obvious through a plethora of scientific evidence and well acknowledged and experienced through individual reflection. Sometimes though, we don’t reflect on some logical aspects of our functioning until they’re pointed out. For instance, the long term benefits of better cardio and respiratory health can include things like regularly being able to meet your deadline rather than being a little bit late for each meeting or regularly making the earlier train and having time to compose yourself before your morning meeting. Small factors like these group together and can be the difference between having a good day versus a bad day; making a good impression rather than appearing flustered or under the pump.
On top of these minor day-to-day benefits of improved physical health, participation in physical activity also reduces the risk of developing a range of chronic illnesses including cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes. The amount of time and energy it takes to manage a chronic illness is significant. The number of daily tasks that people suffering from a chronic disease need to manage on a daily basis is exorbitantly high. Some estimates describe people living with diabetes needing to make around 120 decisions per day regarding their health. Health checks, medical appointments, food choices, and monitoring medication regiments all impact daily on people living with a chronic illness.
Often, this time and energy means time away from work in order to attend medical appointments or due to symptoms of the illness including pain, fatigue or nausea.
2) By improving our cognitive function
Some research shows aerobic exercise improving aspects of cognition. Animal studies have shown positive neuronal growth in brain systems associated with memory and learning when associated with access to exercise equipment. Moreover, human studies also show changes in brain structure and function as a result of exercise (Hillman, Kirk & Kramer, 2008).
3) Mood and Sleep
There is a strong association between sleep, mood and pain. Through exercise, the body releases endorphins in the body that reduce pain. In addition, exercise helps gain a restful night’s sleep, which in turn rejuvenates the brain allowing for improved mood, memory and learning. Physical activity is a drug-free behavioural modification that helps with all three of these common, yet highly debilitating complaints.
So now for the how!
It’s pretty tough managing to fit everything we need to do into a day. Meals, travel, meetings, errands, and taking care of the family means daily tasks are packed in back-to-back without a spare minute to fit in some exercise.
This can be particularly problematic for office workers, as the rate of incidental exercise is often lower than the rest of the workforce. In fact, office workers have been shown to have a high incidence of metabolic syndrome.
Despite these challenges, changing tracks now is essential, as placing physical activity in the ‘too hard basket’ is likely going to give even more grief later.
An important part of change is knowing that current behavioural habits are rarely changed overnight. To change a habit takes time and focused effort. Estimates regarding time-frame for forming habits range from a couple of weeks to a couple of months. It depends on how often the new behaviour is performed and how little the old behaviour is performed.
Think of current habits like a pathway or walking track. Imagine the path that is used every day as being significantly worn and easy to navigate. This path is extremely familiar and it’s easy to get from start to finish. No decision needs to be made to take this path.
Think of new behaviours as a new walking track or path. This pathway is overgrown, sandy and has turns and obstacles that are unfamiliar and take concentration and effort to navigate. It will take time to wear in the new path, to know the turns and to be able to get along this path without any effort. But it will get easier, and eventually taking this path won’t require a decision or effort to get from start to finish, this path will come automatically.
Forming a new habit and shaking the old unhealthy one is the most difficult part of changing behaviour. It requires mental energy every day! This is why it is so difficult to maintain… What if you don’t have any mental energy left when you were supposed to do your exercise? What if you had a super busy day at work with 5 meetings and all your mental energy is gone when you are supposed to go to the gym? Here are some tricks to overcome these barriers.
Trick 1: you need to have already decided to go.
Whether you decide to go in the morning, after work, or at lunchtime, the decision needs to already be made. Have your gear at the ready and just follow through with what you planned. You will have already decided to go for a walk, run, gym session, bike ride, or Pilates class.
So when do I make the decision?
Trick 2: make the plan for your exercise when you actually have some mental energy!
This may be after a healthy lunch on Saturday, when you have had a good sleep, some nourishing food, and you have enough mental energy to make positive decisions.
Trick 3: plan your exercise for a time when other things won’t pop up and get in the way.
Personally, I need to get my exercise out of the way in the morning. Too often I have extra things that need doing in the evening and too often have I ignored my exercise plan for the sake of other priorities. Knowing this about myself means that I make a more realistic plan and do my exercise at a time when I have less excuses.
Physical activity can improve health, improve performance at work, improve mood, reduce sick leave, reduce the risk of developing a chronic illness, and is particularly important for office workers!
Changing habits can be done! Being successful in changing a habit requires planning, effort and mental energy. Knowing these things and being strategic about your behaviour change will make you more likely to succeed and understand where you've gone wrong before.
I hope this post was useful in understanding the relationship between health and work, and how to make positive changes.
Doctor of Health Psychology Candidate
Deakin University, Australia
Be a part of the knowledge! I am currently recruiting for a new study looking at motivation, physical activity and work-related outcomes. Participation is voluntary, anonymous, and can be completed via accessing the link below. Any employed adult (anywhere in the world!) over 18 years of age is eligible to participate. Please click on this link to participate in the study.