Exercise in the Workplace – is there a place?

We all know that Injury Prevention is complex. From a workplace perspective, it is important that the organisation has gone through a thorough risk assessment process i.e. identified hazards and what factors may be contributing to that risk and consider an evidence based approach to putting control measures or strategies in place. Using the hierarchy of controls, these measures could be considered most to least effective (Worksafe Code of Practice on How to manage Work Health and Safety Risk 2021). Exercise programs would be considered a lower level intervention or an administrative control as it is targeted at the individual and relying on human behaviour. They do not necessarily consider the source of the risk, and therefore are considered less effective.

But we also know the many benefits of exercise. The workplace is endorsed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Australian Government as a suitable setting for exercise promotion to increase employee physical activity participation and improve health. Workplaces often have large numbers so the effect can be scalable, facilities and equipment must be convenient with flexible access for time poor workers, and having colleagues engaged with the program can assist in motivation and engagement.

Exercise can be integrated into a workplace for many reasons. There is the growing risk of MSD’s in the Australian workforce, but exercise can also help other issues such as fatigue management, stress management, general health issues and chronic illnesses, particularly those from prolonged sitting and sedentary lifestyles.

The distinction between injury prevention exercise programs (defined as executed on the shop floor or in the office, and involve several breaks from work routine), and employer sponsored corporate fitness or wellness programs (which emphasise general physical exercise and CV fitness) is becoming increasingly blurred. Current trends and programs seem to be eroding the distinction between injury prevention and health promotion as the emphasis is on total worker health. Equally, with the rise of MSD’s generally, incorporating other components of exercise, such as strength, flexibility, motor patterning, postural control and job specific training seems to be broadening the workplace health promotion context.

So is it the workplaces responsibility to promote the health of their workers or is it the individuals? For many years we have spoken about work – life balance. But work is a part of life (a very important part for the majority of Australians), so shouldn’t we consider these active strategies as a collective, working towards a life balance?

So, where to start when considering exercise programs for workplaces?

Consultation with the management team, supervisors and workers is essential to not only understand the need and where this may fit within the businesses risk management strategy but to devise a targeted program specific to the worker and workplaces needs. All workplaces are different – not just from a physical sense in terms of the environment and the physical and psychological job demands that a worker is exposed to, but also at an organisational level. How much is the business supportive of such initiatives and what type of resources they’re prepared to commit to; how much flexibility in the work flow is there to allow workers to undertake exercise programs; and at a cultural level – do workers and supervisors encourage participation in these programs? You must then consider marketing of the program, how and when it will run, who will run it, who will be the program champions, how workers participate and how to minimise attrition rates. And, of course, measuring the effectiveness of such a program.

Some great initiatives which are now widely available to workplaces are the Be Up Standing Campaign and Blueprint for an Active Australia through the Australian Heart Foundation. Action area 2 is all about physical activity in the workplace and action area 5 is about prolonged sitting. There is a plethora of articles in these documents available online.

We all need to consider more active and healthy lifestyles and workplaces should support their workers to pursue their goals whether it be as a an individual or a group. These initiatives can create opportunities for connectedness in a workplace, particularly in these days of lockdowns and isolation.

In summary, we should sit less, stand up and move much much more. And on the flip side, a physical activity program in the workplace just might provide a strategic business-enhancement opportunity.