Participant demographics and workplace characteristics
A total of approximately 3358 employees across 46 worksites were employed at the three organisations at the time of the study although not all were invited to take part. Existing work break schedules varied both between and within organisations. One organisation had considerably better provision of onsite sports and PA facilities than the other two sites. All had sheltered bike rack spaces and links to external sports and PA providers within 2 miles of the workplace. Of the 63 participants who chose to take part in the study, 42 were female and 21 male (employee focus groups and manager focus groups/interviews both 67% female). Additional socio-demographic characteristics of employees are presented in Table 2. Only 27 participants returned the questionnaire. Of these, the median age was 43 years (23 to 58 years), with the majority living in affluent areas (80%) and University educated (81%). Most participants worked full time (81%) spending a mean of 35.9 hours per week at work. Participants mostly worked in open plan offices (85%) and had no line management responsibilities (93%), with 67% describing themselves as having flexible working hours. Participants were largely in sedentary jobs and spent the most of their day sitting (87%). None of the participants reported any heavy labour at work. Leisure time PA varied greatly ranging from zero to 16 hours per week, with participants achieving a mean of 3.1 hours per week.
To place the results in context, we first explore attitudes towards the workplace as a setting for PA in general before discussing the specific concept of PA during paid work time.
The workplace as a setting for physical activity
If they choose to, most employees agreed they could already be active on a work day in unpaid time such as immediately before or after work or during lunchtime. Participants’ previous or current experiences of PA in this time were discussed and it was typically ‘exercise’ type activities (i.e. swimming, exercise classes or cycling) that were undertaken. Some of these were opportunities available at onsite facilities. For these sorts of activities on a work day, participants discussed potential barriers such as logistics of needing to bring a change of clothing, time to shower and change as well as the location and provision of facilities (e.g. availability of showers).
In addition to these logistical considerations, for many, the idea of being active even if during unpaid, discretionary time but whilst at work such as during lunchtime, generated further barriers. For instance, feelings of guilt for not working were discussed:
“I know I should go to the gym and such like, but I just feel that there’s never enough time to fit it in by the time you go down the sports centre, change, do your stuff, have a shower, change, it just completely eats over the hour and you feel that you’re…you know, somewhat taking the Michael for your hour and a half lunch, so it’s not great.” [Employee, site 3]
This flagged up a key overarching issue regarding attitudes towards the workplace as a setting for PA and the cultural norms and attitudes towards this idea. This issue became even more pronounced when we went on to consider the concept of PA during paid work time.
Physical activity during paid work time
An overview of the themes relating to PA in paid worktime is presented in Table 3. Whilst questions on acceptability and feasibility were discussed, concepts raised were largely related to the main themes of benefits and barriers and are presented in this way.
Both employees and managers discussed the anticipated benefits that could be gained as a result of being physically active during paid work time. These could be typically be broken into benefits for the employees and benefits for the organisation. Whilst some benefits were noted more by employees than managers (employees noted the physical benefits whilst the managers placed less emphasis on this), they were generally in agreement. Benefits noted typically included improved productivity and mental health, reducing stress, reduced sick leave and employees having more favourable perceptions of their employer. In relation to improved productivity one manager said:
“You might well — I'd hate to promise this — but you might well get back the investment of time” [Manager, site 3]
Despite widespread agreement of the anticipated benefits of PA in paid work time, the idea of actually participating in it was viewed on the whole problematic. This was for three key reasons: (i) Structure and nature of the working day; (ii) Workplace culture and norms, and; (iii) Organisational concerns.
(i) Structure and nature of the working day
High workload: One of the main barriers mentioned by employees was workload. Adding extra time in for PA without reduction of workload was seen as a challenge. One employee said there would be no point in taking the time for PA if a longer day is required to achieve the same work volume. Others mentioned that the main anticipated benefit they saw from this initiative, improved mental health and reducing stress, might be comprised if they were worried about their work output when away from their desk.
“Yeah, an awful lot of people would see that yeah, this is a nice idea, but you'll still be expected to do this, this, this and this and you know “it's window-dressing” em, would be I think the criticism made, that you make this available but you don’t really, the workplace doesn't really believe, it's not going to create extra time, it's not going to ease off on the pressures on you…” [Manager, site 3]
Frontline job requirements and scheduling of breaks: Having a frontline job where you are required to be present at your workstation was perceived to be a significant barrier. Often these roles are structured, with breaks having to be taken at set times. Employees in such roles noted issues such as requiring cover for their position from another member of staff and needing to have time scheduled in advance. This was seen as a significant problem in areas which are already understaffed and where resources were stretched
“We're really thinned down, so on a normal day, we've just got enough people, but, for example, someone calls in sick, we're at a crisis point if someone calls in sick…… I think you might get the staff would want to do it, but the fact is that there might not be people to cover if people are going to go and do exercise.” [Employee, site 3]
Not knowing current break entitlement: Some employees were unsure of their official break entitlement and different departments in the same organisation had different break schedules. They discussed that such discrepancies would make it difficult to operationalise a new break allowance and it would be important to articulate what this new break would mean in practice. When discussing their current break schedule one employee mentioned having 50 minutes for lunch but not any other break. A colleague then responded:
“Is it not an hour for lunch and two ten or 15 minute breaks, depending on how long you work?” [Employee, site 3]
Existing flexible working arrangements: Participants mentioned that many of their colleagues work condensed hours or have arrangements in place to leave early for personal reasons like collecting children from school. These employees already work through breaks to have more time out of work. Some were also concerned that formalising PA in paid work time might result in a reduction in existing privileges relating to breaks (some of which were not formally recognised) and these existing working arrangements.
“I mean, I do fixed hours so I work 8.30 till 4.30 because I have kids to collect, and I don’t want to be late out of the office because then just snowballs out of control otherwise, so I can manage to have one break, maybe, before lunch or whatever, but if I had another break I would be like, well that’s taking the Michael a bit, really, because I’m working those hours and I don’t really have capacity to stay on an extra hour at the end of the day, because I would feel if I’ve had another break I need to work longer, so it kind of defeats the purpose.” [Employee, site 2]
(ii) Workplace culture and norms
As with the idea of PA during the workday, existing workplace culture and norms would underpin whether PA during paid work time would be a feasible arrangement
Resentment from colleagues: There was a perception that colleagues who feel very stressed and overworked would be particularly resentful towards other colleagues taking part in PA in paid work time. A view was expressed that if a colleague has the time to participate in PA then they must not have enough work on.
“...you can be very, very busy, and you know, and there could be resentment when somebody is sitting there, really up to here with work. And then they see, oh that's their turn for getting off for their 20 minute exercise.” [Employee, site 1]
Physical activity not accepted in the workplace: Some participants questioned whether the workplace was an appropriate setting for PA, irrespective of the type of PA e.g. walking, desk based stretching, or traditional exercise.
“I like the idea though of the desk based ones where you can just do something. Though having said that I do remember a time when I was sitting doing my neck rolls because I was getting quite stressed and the person opposite he goes, what on earth are you doing? So that just totally broke my thing.”[Employee, site 3]
” A business is a business at the end of the day… that was what I would argue, there are limits to what you can support” [Employee, site 1]
A no break, be at your desk culture: Employees discussed the idea of a ‘look busy’ culture. There was a feeling that employees at their desks are working hard and those who appear to be in for long days and not taking breaks are working the hardest. There was a concern that people who took up the opportunity to be active in paid work time would be perceived as not hard working.
“It’s more if there’s an expectation of you to be at your desk and if somebody comes and needs some information urgently which is the kind of responsive mode we’re in, I wouldn’t want anybody to say to those people, she’s off on her exercise break. That would be a barrier to me taking an exercise break.” [Employee, site 3]
People also reported a ‘no break’ culture and not making use of existing break entitlements. Merely providing these people with more time even if specifically for PA is not likely to make any difference to their behaviours.
“I feel like this is, speaking for myself, this (PA in paid work time) would be like a secondary step. The first step is to be really proactive in getting people to use their lunchtime properly.”[Employee, site 3]
Employees expressed feeling guilty about taking existing breaks they were entitled to and even more guilt if this time were to be used for PA. The idea of a break for PA in addition to their existing break time generated even more discussions of guilt and being away from the desk at unexpected times.
“It would be nice to be able to fit it (PA) into your work day without feeling guilty that you’re not at your desk.” [Employee, site 3]
However, quite often when people talked about the guilt, this fear was internalised. Even those with colleagues and managers who were perceived as potentially supportive expressed some ambivalence. When asked who they thought would be disapproving one employee responded:
“No-one, I think it’s your inner voice really, isn’t it? You’ve just got to work...” [Employee, site 3]
(iii) Organisational concerns
Cost of time lost: Managers more often that employees reported financial cost to the organisation from potential time lost to additional breaks as a significant barrier. It was often described in terms of man hours or ‘full time equivalents’ that would be lost.
“I mean if you add 30 times 1,200 people it's quite a lot of time, you know, every day, or twice a week; you know if you do the maths it looks like a lot of time” [Manager, site 1]
Public and media perceptions of spending funds: Executive non-departmental public bodies at both a managerial and employee level had concerns over public and media perception of spending public resources on employee PA (even when the potential benefits and financial cost savings to the organisation were acknowledged). This was not a consistent theme raised by those at the University.
“Even if we do change the culture and do 15 minutes of exercise, it’s the public perception, as well as an organisation, you are there to provide a service … we are paid by public funds and we need to be seen to be working.” [Employee, site 2]