Our #1 Barrier to Healthy Living: Perception or Reality?

Ask employees their #1 barrier to taking care of their health, you’ll almost always hear time. If we work 8 hours and sleep 8 hours, that only gives us 8 hours to commute, eat, be with our loved ones, run errands and fit in a little exercise. Everyone has the same 24 hours in the day, so why do some people fit in healthy actions like exercise and others don’t?

A recent article reported that 55% of employees who have wellness programs to help them with their health, don’t use them. Why not? Here are some reasons listed in the article plus a few that I’ve heard –

  • Short lunch break
  • Bosses not supportive of working out during the work day
  • Perception of not being committed to the job
  • Lunch break is used for errands (or the most obvious one…eating)
  • High workload
  • Showers aren’t available post-workout

These are all valid reasons why an employee wouldn’t exercise or participate in wellness activities during the workday. We’re all very limited on time and when employers are asking employees to sacrifice the only free time (like lunch) they have to themselves, employees can become resentful. Who can blame them?

I typically write about what an employer can do to create a culture of health and wellness. Although I’ll discuss this, I also want to point out what an individual employee can do to take care of their own health. The employee/employer relationship is a mutually beneficial partnership where both parties have a role in health and associated healthcare costs.

If an employer is invested in offering wellness programming, it would make sense that employees are given company time to attend these wellness activities. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Employees have to sacrifice their lunch or break time to participate.

When I was managing wellness programs for employees, the production staff had the hardest time getting away for wellness activities. I acknowledge it’s not as easy in a production or call center environment but I’ve seen dedicated managers schedule around wellness activities employees wanted to join.

Ultimately, the culture a manager creates trumps any policy you put in place. And the cultural norm varies by department within the same organization. For example, in my last job, my boss could care less where I was and I felt fine about taking a walk during the work day, leaving 30 minutes early to go for a run or work remotely to skip the 45 minute commute.

On the other hand, in another department, it was common to have a meeting at 7 a.m. or at 7 p.m. (on the same day). The leader was like the Energizer bunny and he needed people to keep up with him. If you couldn’t keep up, you were left behind (and potentially too burnt out to care). There was no way those employees felt comfortable taking a break for a wellness activity or if they did, they were too overworked to step away.

So, what can an employer do to help employees infuse wellness at work? Here are 6 ways an employer can encourage healthy behaviors during work:

  • Give time at work to participate in company sponsored wellness activities. For the skeptics, you can cap the total hours if overuse is a concern.
  • Allow 30 minutes to participate and/or exercise during a defined period (such as a weekly). For example, employees get an extra 30 minutes a week to exercise on the clock. They can complete a form that says they agree to use the policy appropriately.
  • Have managers initiate walking meetings 
  • Encourage lunch away from the desk
  • Create a paved walking path that outlines the distance or map out and measure a route.
  • Watch making comments about employees slacking if they’re participating in wellness activities during the workday. My boss made a joke to someone about them slacking because she went out for a run with co-workers. Luckily she gave him a retort about being a “1980’s manager” and he backed off. Sometimes a harmless joke can deter employees from participating in wellness activities.

Bottom line, employers can make it easier to be healthy at work. At a minimum, don’t make it harder. It’s hard enough for the average employee to make healthy choices without additional barriers.

Let’s go back to the shared responsibility part. It is our responsibility to take care of our health….no one else’s…PERIOD. For employees who feel like time is their #1 barrier to fitting in exercise or eating healthy, here are a few tips to carve out time in your day:

  • Decide where health falls on your list of values. Many people say their health is their top priority but their actions don’t align with it. If your health is important to you, list actions you are taking to show this is true.
  • Instead of working out, think of adding in movement during the day. Simply moving more during the day will energize you and help increase your metabolism.
  • How much time are you wasting at work? We all know people who waste time complaining with how busy they are when they really need to quit talking and get to work. It is so easy to get hung up in a really long conversation or get distracted from focused work. Set a timer, shut down email and work for 45 minutes without distraction.
  • Are YOU standing in your way? Many times we are the ones feeling guilty if we are taking a walk instead of hunching over our desk working. As humans, we think everyone is focused on us but most of the time we self impose these guilty feelings.
  • Maybe you have a belief that if you leave to go home on time, you’ll never catch up on work. So, you stay late and miss your workout or time with your family. Write down why it’s important to leave work on time and leave it in a place you can easily review each day when you keep saying ‘just one more email’…..
  • How much screen time do you have at night? Some people easily spend 2 to 4 hours in front of the TV, phone or computer. Record how much time you are in front of a screen at night and see if it can be reduced and put towards something more productive.

We all know time is a limited commodity. When it comes to time think of this quote “Time has a wonderful way of showing what really matters to us”.