Are You Human or Employee?

With Walk to Work Day approaching on 6 October, Diabetes Australia are encouraging people to allow “no more excuses!” to get in the way of their daily exercise. I have to wonder, though, if it’s really our excuses that are the problem.

Most of us know regular exercise, wherever the heck you can get it, is fundamental for good bone health, good brain health, and keeping the muscles working (as the saying goes, “either you use it, or lose it”). But do our current workplaces encourage us to maintain our health?

I’m fortunate enough to work in an environment that does allow a reasonable amount of flexibility. I cannot emphasise enough the difference this has made to the quality of my life, my mindset, my stress-levels. I don’t take it for granted that I’m seen as a real-life human, and I know not everyone is afforded this luxury.

I remember how nerve-racking it was in old workplaces when my son was in primary school – working through my lunchbreak in order to go to school presentations, parent days or book parades, coming in early to meet unreasonable targets, staying back late for the same reason. There was no room to even consider something like daily exercise! And by the time I got home to take care of the parenting, cooking and cleaning duties we all have, I was stuffed.

These days, I can take my lunchbreak early to allow me to get to a group fitness class on time, on the days I choose to do so. I don’t feel like it’s a huge deal (it’s still the same amount of time), but it wasn’t something I’d dare consider at many of my previous workplaces, where even taking the same hour (or for many workplaces, half hour) later or earlier in the day provoked a response akin to if I was asking for a kidney.

Not only can I shift my lunch break on occasion, but on return to work I eat lunch at my desk – meaning I actually get move around for close to the full hour. I’ll admit, eating lunch at my desk isn’t the most productive of things to do; while eating I do not work at optimal speed. But is that 5-10 minutes of less-than-exceptional productivity a cost to the business, or an investment? I think we all know the answer to that.

The problem is, many work places don’t allow that kind of flexibility. If you want to look after your body and stay alert and healthy, you madly squish it into your lunch break and inhale your lunch quickly before returning to your office (no eating at desks!), to resume your robot-like duties. You have heart palpitations over your kids getting another merit award or certificates, and never for the right reasons.

These kinds of workplaces are the first to promote “work/life balance” and plaster motivational memes about their fantastic workplace culture all over their walls, but the staff are well aware the “work/life balance” really only applies to the bosses.

Meanwhile, the employees spend their days from 8:30 to 5:30 (or later) deteriorating in their chairs. Add other dehumanising factors such as “hot desking” to the mix (“you don’t even have a place here, you will never feel comfortable”) and things are even worse – who the heck came up with that idea?

The truth is, our society generally doesn’t really operate in a way that supports people staying active and healthy. We are living to work, not working to live, and our physical and mental health does not (in the short term) impact the profits of a business. And let’s face it, many employers lack the foresight to consider the long-term financial benefits or (shudder), just think of their staff as real-life people.

Of course, we could just get up earlier and “walk to work”, as Diabetes Australia suggests, but most people are getting kids organised and are stressed already at 6am at the thought of making it through another day – for many it’s not feasible. We could also exercise later, but really, for most people who spend 8 hours a day or more working in not-so-great workplaces, then come home to tend to cooking, cleaning, homework and kids, it’s quite understandable that they melt into bed absolutely buggered.

I think the key is for more employers to start thinking of ways of ensuring staff are working hard but still afforded time to look after themselves. If it means eating at their desk or leaving for lunch 5 minutes early, so be it. I do think when you employ the right staff, these small gestures are returned tenfold with loyalty and hard work.

You could look at it from a business-minded view and note that the staff will be healthier (less downtime) and more efficient (lovely post-exercise hormones), but I’d rather bosses consider that just like them, their employees are human.

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