Study: Exercise Might Not Boost Productivity for Overwhelmed Employees

If employees work out frequently in order to counteract high job-related stress levels, their productivity may suffer instead of improve, a new study indicates.

Researchers studied the relationship between stress, physical activity and productivity in a sample of 2,823 Minnesota workers. They found that employees with high stress levels who maintained a high level of physical activity experienced increased loss of productivity. In contrast, for workers with relatively low stress levels, physical activity had less effect on productivity.

Employees with higher body mass indexes exhibited less productivity regardless of other factors.

Putting Exercise Over Work

The study authors, led by Jeffrey J. VanWormer, Ph.D., of Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation, pointed out that worksite wellness programs that improve employee health generally lead to increased productivity. But the study provides new insights into how stress affects productivity, particularly in combination with exercise and other lifestyle factors.

For example, overweight, highly stressed employees who exercised 7 hours per week lost an estimated 11 percent of productivity. Workers with low stress levels who exercised, meanwhile, lost only 2 percent of productivity. The results suggest that, when stress levels are high, increased physical activity is linked to decreased productivity.

“This may indicate that some individuals essentially cope with high levels of stress by exercising more and working less,” the authors concluded. They therefore called stress management “at least as economically relevant” to promoting worker health and productivity as compared to more traditional lifestyle factors.

The study appeared in the October Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, the official publication of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM).

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