Each Tuesday I take the top voted question from readers and answer it. With 143 votes, this week’s winner was from Naveen Sinha:
Many companies are now providing standings desks, healthy food, and fitness trackers to promote the health of their employees. What patterns have you seen between the workplace environment and employee productivity, especially in terms of health and fitness?
Sick workers are not productive, which means any sane organization will invest in keeping its workforce healthy. More than 1/3 of American adults are obese, which may lead to more preventable illnesses and missed days of work than almost any other factor. Since 80% of jobs today are sedentary, and employees spend half or more of their waking hours at work, there’s a systemic trap that workplaces contribute to a problem that the workplace itself should be helping to solve.
To make the point another way: could you imagine a company that made their workplace as hazardous as possible, with typhus laced spikes jutting out of the floor and trap doors, with starving lions inside, around every corner? Companies invest millions of dollars in salary, training and benefits into their employees and want to get as much out of them as possible for as long as possible. Fitness is simply an important element of health, and organizations naturally care about the health of their workforce.
Productivity beyond basic health is trickier to measure. Productivity itself is also hard to define for creative kinds of work (See: Data Paradox). There are plenty of examples of people with unhealthy lifestyles being extremely productive, as any story of an entrepreneur in a garage living off ramen noodles attests to(related: workplace architecture’s value is overstated). Some of the most productive years for Van Gogh, or your favorite rock band, included abuse of alcohol, other drugs and sleep deprivation. These are anecdotes of course, but there are so many examples of highly productive creatives, at least in the short term, who made poor health choices. Everyone’s biology and temperament are different, different enough that there is no single answer to what factors makes one specific person productive or not.
But in the longer term there’s much support that regular fitness only helps workers and workplaces. There’s evidence it improves concentration, lowers stress, makes workers happier on days when they exercise, and even helps with depression. I think the inability to concentrate is a fundamental problem that explains what’s wrong not just workplaces, but culture at large, and exercise contributes to developing powers of concentration.
I looked for studies claiming that exercises reduces productivity and didn’t find a single one. Of course that could mean that there’s not much funding in disproving the benefits of exercise, but that’s beyond even my level of skepticism about studies. The human body evolved to expect sustained exercise, as 20,000 years ago we had to work our bodies every day just to eat and find shelter. It makes sense that our bodies work best when we use them regularly. Even the U.S. government recommends 30 minutes of exercise per day for everyone.
My favorite reference about the value of exercise is about its relationship to stress and worry:
If you are one of those chronically upset worriers, Dr. Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University, has a prescription for you: exercise. “If you could give one magic pill that would improve physical health, mood, reduce weight,” this would be it, Waldinger says.
I couldn’t find data to support it, but my hypothesis is any workplace that provides standing desks, fitness membership discounts and even healthy food, recognizes that employees are adults and should be enabled to make choices about not just lifestyle, but workstyle. It reflects a philosophy of empowering employees and giving them choices, rather than dictating policy. It wouldn’t surprise me if there was a correlation between organizations that had these perks and ones that allow workers to choose to work remotely.
If you’re looking for advice on how to craft an exercise program, James Clear’s post is the place to start.