Sweating the assets – exercising at work

Achieve more at work in less time
Ian Locke
Ian Locke
Nov 24, 2020

Exercise during the working day

In the late ’90s, I worked at a FTSE 100 company’s HQ in Oxfordshire. It was a great job, but it came with some outdated office rules, including that of having to stay at your desk until 6 pm even if you have nothing to do. The premise was that should the finance director walk past, he would be impressed that we were still working. The fact that he was based in London and was rarely in our office was irrelevant.

Whether or not employees have rules or unwritten expectations on desk-time today, the ability of employees to exercise during the working day is often restricted and rarely promoted as a positive habit (although Covid-19 home working may have started to change this). However, numerous research studies have concluded that exercise during the working day benefits the employee, their colleagues and the organisation.

Benefits for the employee

Taking the typical health and well-being benefits of exercise as given, employees who exercise during the working day can expect:

  • Improvement in mood, regardless of the type of exercise completed. Incidentally, those who don’t exercise report a worse mood by the end of the day.
  • Increase in resilience as people were better able to deal with issues, colleagues, deadlines, etc. after exercise.
  • Greater satisfaction with their achievements.
  • Less post-lunch fatigue. You really do have to expend energy to create more.
  • Higher levels of wellness at the end of the day and a better work-life balance. Most people cram their exercise into their pre-or post-work schedule, but by exercising during the working day, they have more time at home, sleep better and eat better.

Studies also recorded how those benefits translate into productivity improvements:

  • 89% of people reported increased performance in at least one measure. 57% reported improvements in all three measures tested.
  • 72% of people reported improvements in time management.
  • More deadlines were met than before.
  • Concentration and mental sharpness improved post-exercise.
  • People were more creative after exercise.

The subjects of one study all admitted that before the research started, they thought they were already doing a great job. It just goes to show how inefficiencies can creep into people’s work routines and how people don’t function at their best every minute of the working day.

As an employer, which of these will benefit your organisation most:

  • Allowing employees to exercise during the working day, bringing the post-exercise boost to energy, creativity, performance, etc. back to work; or
  • Causing people to exercise on the way home, with much of the benefit being directed at home life?

Benefits for colleagues

Worktime exercise is the gift which keeps on giving.  Not only do participants improve their performance, but team dynamics also get a lift:

  • Tolerance of others’ shortcomings improves.
  • 79% in one study reported better interpersonal performance.
  • Teams are better able to deal with the pressures of the job.
  • Those who exercised were better equipped to buffer the negative effects of management’s stress levels.
  • The link between stress and abusive behaviour weakens.

Exercise can be contagious. I suspect that as non-exercisers observe positive changes in those who do exercise, others may well decide to exercise too. Whilst organisations can’t force people to exercise, humans are competitive and working in an environment which promotes healthy living may be the nudge people need.

Benefits for the organisation

No matter what type of organisation you have (business, charity, governmental, collective, etc.), it does not exist with the main aim of making its workforce fit and healthy.  Consequently, there needs to be an overall objective which worktime exercise contributes to.

Studies have observed the following benefits for organisations:

  • Performance of individuals increased by 15% on average, including those who already believed they were doing a good job.
  • Increased productivity of both individuals and their teams.
  • Reduction in sickness rates and sickness-related absenteeism. Of the 137.3m days of absenteeism in 2016, 34.0m were due to minor illnesses, 30.8m to musculoskeletal issues, and 15.8m to mental health.

Each of these can be positively affected by exercise.

  • Little evidence of post-exercise fatigue impacting output.
  • Employee retention increases.
  • Employee morale improves.
  • There may be scope to negotiate savings on company health insurance premia.

And remember that these results are possible without changing the length of the working day.


What can you do?


As an employee, you could start by checking employee policies or talking to management to establish what flexibility is available. Yes, there will be roles where it’s not appropriate to leave mid-shift, or times when work absolutely needs to override exercise plans, but the important thing is to agree what is possible.

Many of the benefits identified are independent of the type of exercise completed. It could equally be a walk around the park for 15 minutes or an hour’s gym session. Even small amounts of exercise can deliver benefits.

Health should be a priority, not a luxury


Organisations should review their policies to allow employees to be absent during the day without fear of retribution. In the CIPD 2016 Policy Report looking at building the employee wellbeing agenda, the link between employee wellbeing and organisational health was made clear, as was the need for effective programmes to be more than one-off initiatives. It should be the way business is done.

Thrive’s view is those general organisation-wide policies are great for empowering people to exercise during the working day, but it could be taken one step further by creating employee-specific options to raise uptake.

For example, we know that gym membership rates are high (31% of employers offer subsidised gym membership and 1 in 7 adults in the UK have a gym membership), but only 10-15% of people regularly get to their gym. If employers switched from universal gym membership to subsidising focussed personal training sessions during the day, more effective exercise would happen, and they would be better able to control costs and track return on investment.

Final thoughts

Whichever way you cut it, exercising during the working day is good. It’s good for those doing the exercise. It’s good for their colleagues and team dynamics. It’s good for the organisation’s productivity, creativity, absenteeism through sickness, staff retention and its bottom line.

The tide is changing, and the more people are allowed to treat health as a priority rather than a luxury, the better for all.

Are you ready to thrive?

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