Physical activity programs at work may benefit employees’ mental health and well-being, and even improve their sleep, a new study has found.
Stress has been increasing among employees worldwide in the past decade, with a 2021 survey showing that employees reached record levels of stress, worry, anger and sadness in 2020. Australia, for instance, is also experiencing an “emerging mental health crisis” along with the rest of the world, said authors of the study published in Current Psychology.
“The majority of the world’s population (58%) spend one third of their life at work,” the researchers wrote. “Mental illness has an enormous economic toll on Australian workplaces, costing $12.8 billion annually through absenteeism, presenteeism and work claims.”
For their study, the researchers looked at the effect of a 50-day physical activity workplace program on employees’ mental health and well-being. The 2,903 participants were employees from organizations across Australia and New Zealand, with the result being collected from October to December in 2019.
The participants answered a pre-event questionnaire as well as a self-report of their health behaviors before the intervention began. This included information such as how much time they spent sitting and the number of steps they think they’re doing daily.
They then participated in the Moving Mindz online workplace wellness program, which encourages increasing walking as well as physical activity. In the program, the participants could participate individually or in teams of up to five members and are encouraged to aim for 10,000 steps.
The participants took note of their own as well as their team’s progress and completed a questionnaire at the end of the 50 days. Among the participants, 1,320 provided full pre-and post-program data on their mental health and well-being.
“Unlike clinical trials, this study looked at a real-world application to two very large problems, mental health and daily physical activity,” one of the study authors, Professor Anna Peeters of Deakin University in Australia, said in the university news release.
The researchers found that the participants had an 18.2% reduction in anxiety and a 13% reduction in stress. Depressive symptoms also improved by about 10% while their overall well-being saw a 6.7% improvement. Participants even had improved sleep, seeing a 6.9% reduction in sleep-related impairment.
Simply put, it appears that the participants had improved mental health, sleep and overall well-being over the course of the 50-day program, showing the effectiveness of such programs within a span of just about two months.
“Previous research has shown that physical activity is an important self-care tool for improving the physical and mental health of workers and this research shows that significant improvements can occur in a relatively short space of time,” Professor Peeters said, as per Deakin University.
“A health promoting workplace has the ability to enhance emotional, physical, and mental wellbeing leading to good quality job performance of its employees and the larger workplace communities.