Corporate America agrees that employee wellness programs are good for business. According to the 2011 Employee Benefits report by SHRM, 60% of firms surveyed currently offer some type of employee wellness programming. Fitness center reimbursements are offered by 30% of the organizations surveyed, while 24% provide an onsite fitness center.
The case for employee wellness programming includes favorable data on reduced health care costs and increased worker productivity, among other metrics.
The usual data, however, may be failing to capture two of the most profound benefits of physical activity based employee wellness programs: improved mental health and increased mental performance.
As a result, many firms may be missing an opportunity to implement physical activity-based worksite programming that could lead to greater innovation and execution.
Two recent articles illuminate this opportunity.
A McClatchy commentary by IHRSA’s Executive VP of Public Policy notes: “The benefits that exercise brings to mental health are just one more reason why we need to implement public policies and community strategies that facilitate physical activity…When an individual is both physically and mentally well, he or she is more productive, more innovative, takes fewer sick days, contributes more to the gross domestic product, and collects fewer employer and government-paid disability and unemployment claims. In short, investing today in America’s physical and mental health is investing in our country’s future prosperity.”
A paper by Jack Groppel and Ben Wiegand of Wellness & Prevention, Inc. dives deeper into the biology of business performance and the relation to physical activity. “Remaining sedentary for extended periods (e.g. sitting at a workstation or in meetings for long periods of time) impairs the flow of blood and oxygen — particularly to muscles — which can often lead to fatigue,” write Groppel and Wiegand. “Engaging in physical activity can create brief periods of hyperoxygenation in the brain and increasing oxygen intake has been shown to enhance energy, mental performance and memory recall.”
In fact, Groppel and Weigand cite data suggesting that mental performance-enhancing biochemical changes in the brain may be spurred by as few as three hours/week of brisk walking.
As the health club trade association, we know there is a great opportunity for fitness centers to position their programs and facilities as evidence-based outlets for improving the mental health and performance of employees. But there are, of course, other practices that an employer can adopt, such as conducting walking meetings and encouraging employees to take fitness breaks throughout the day. Maybe even a little Instant Recess?
We’d love to hear from any organization that has had success marketing physical activity as a valuable tool to increase employee mental health…