Let's get Active about it
By Bria John
If you go to the Toyota manufacturing plant in Cambridge, Ont. at 8:15 in the morning you’ll be greeted to a cheery sight - employees on the manufacturing floor and in the office stretch together to start the day.
One leader stands in front with a headset and leads the plant in simple stretches and activity.
“The culture of work warm-up is aligned with our production environment. For the people who are building cars all day they do focused exercises that help them limber up for the day. There’s a big focus on wellness at the organization,” Suzanne Baal, manager of communications at Toyota said.
Now the organization includes the office workers in the morning routine.
Research has shown that physical activity can positively affect mental well-being.The benefits are three-fold – biological, social and psychological.
“The releasing of endorphins is a biological mechanism. The social aspect is distraction, so a lunchtime yoga session can distract from something that’s causing distress in the workplace. The increase in people’s self-confidence because of engaging in physical activity and feeling capable is the psychological aspect,” Dr. Kelly Arbour-Nicitopoulos, assistant professor at the University of Toronto said.
McMaster University started the MACtive program with their employees in 2007.
“We originally put the program in place to reduce chronic diseases related to physical health. Mental health is in the forefront now,” Deb Garland program manager of engagement and wellness at McMaster said.
For six weeks during spring McMaster employees are encouraged to put on the pedometer and participate in all kinds of physical activity during their lunch break like zumba classes, rock climbing and pulling a bus. Or the University offers walking clubs year-round.
“It’s a tool for teams to get together and make sure to have fun,” Garland said.
While they’ve noticed a boost in morale, they haven’t been able to gather the stats on their employees’ mental health yet.
“As a non-profit, getting those numbers can be expensive but we are hoping to get some next year,” she said.
Toyota also doesn’t keep track of the numbers but they address employee well-being through the lens of creating a good workplace community.
“What I do know is that [the warm-ups] can lead to a positive work environment. It’s something that people enjoy. When we stand up and do the warm-up together we also chat. There’s a social well-being element that happens naturally by standing up and rolling your wrists and looking out the window together which contributes to team building,” Baal said.
The Cambridge plant includes an on-site gym and recreation rooms for house-leagues that is staffed with trainers, physiotherapists and nurses and accessible to employees throughout the workday.
“There’s a big focus on prevention rather than treatment with the hope that we can catch things early and help people learn ways to avoid strain or stress on their bodies,” Baal said.
Two of the major concerns with implementing physical activity in the workplace are the loss in productivity and the cost to the employer.
“The dedicated time we spend doing the warm-up is five minutes, it’s not a huge investment of time. I use five minutes of desk work but I may be more productive when I sit down,” Baal said.
‘There doesn’t necessarily have to be a huge cost. We know that physical activity is associated with less absenteeism because people have better health. So the money they’re going to invest is likely going to have a longer term effect on the staff,” said Arbour-Nicotopoulos.
According to Garland 30 percent of leaves at McMaster are mental health related.
“Personally, I enjoy working for a company that values wellness and invests in it. I really enjoy work warm-up in the morning. It’s also good business to invest in helping people stay healthy rather than treating people after they get sick,” Baal said.
Incorporating physical activity into the workplace doesn’t have to be an onerous thing. It’s a matter of changing the culture.
“Part of our wellness programming includes healthy meetings; so taking meetings outside or having walking meetings instead of in the boardroom,” Garland said.
It can be as simple as getting up to talk to a colleague instead of sending an email or standing every once in a while.
Arbour-Nicitopoulos worked with her fellow University of Toronto colleague Dr. Guy Faulkner to create an online platform to address workplace physical activity that sends alerts through Outlook. Over 11 weeks participants wearing pedometers are given strategies on how they can increase their steps. They found that the number of steps increased by the end of the intervention.
“Increasing the amount of physical activity or reducing the amount of time sitting are both associated with positive mental health,” she said.
“Education and commitment on the employer’s part is big. An employee can be committed but if they feel like they’re not being encouraged by their employers, it’s kind of hard for them to deliver on that,” she said.
For example if an employee feels like they’re being watched and judged for walking to a colleague instead of sending an email next time they might just send the email instead.
“But it’s a whole culture change and changing a culture can take a long time,” she said.