Published on 13 January 2014
University of the Sunshine Coast research has found that mandatory workplace exercise programs work best when bosses lead by example and encourage their staff in physical activity.
The study was conducted by Psychology Honours student Matt Jenkinson, 36, who now lives in New Zealand, and supervised by Lecturer in Psychology Dr Prue Millear.
It has been accepted for presentation at the European Academy of Occupational Health Psychology conference in London in April.
It found that the leadership style of employers and the way in which programs were delivered (mandatory, voluntary or unstructured participation) strongly influenced their overall effectiveness.
Dr Millear said while most people knew that exercise was important, employers still needed to exercise caution when attempting to regulate employee participation in workplace health programs.
“There is plenty of evidence suggesting that those who are physically active and participate in workplace health programs are usually happier in their roles and have greater job satisfaction,” Dr Millear said.
“Research also indicates that as employees are healthier, they also tend to take less sick days and are generally more productive.
“So with exercise having benefits for both employees and the workplace, we decided to look at what would happen when an employer decides to make exercise mandatory.
“We found that it isn’t as easy as making everyone go outside and do laps.
“The success of these programs for both employers and their staff largely comes down to the leadership style of managers and the participation guidelines.”
Mr Jenkinson said he chose this research topic because of the importance of the intersection between work and health.
“Most people spend a significant part of their lives at work, so any insights that can be gained about how to make that experience richer and healthier for employees and employers is beneficial,” he said.
“I've always been interested in health and wondered how you could motivate large groups of people to benefit from preventative health measures like physical activity. The answer, it turns out, is transformative leadership.”
The study looked at three types of leadership styles: transformative, in which employers encourage and set examples to staff; laissez faire, in which employees have the flexibility to follow any model that suits them; and authoritarian, in which staff are expected to perform strictly in a certain way.
Each of the leadership styles were combined with the three types of participation (mandatory, voluntary, or unstructured) in a proposed lunchtime walking group.
Dr Millear said these styles and the ways in which the programs were delivered could make a big difference between positive or negative experiences for employees.
“We found that a transformative leadership style using voluntary or unstructured participation in this simple workplace health program generated the highest level of job satisfaction and staff commitment,” she said.
“The most ineffective method was using an authoritarian leadership style, especially with mandatory participation.
“This research will hopefully show employers how to make changes to their workplace, improve the happiness and health of their staff and how to adopt the most effective leadership style and participation method to achieve the best results.”
— Jessica Halls