Doctoral Research Fellow Hilde Rossing studied 72 subjects over one year. Every week, they would have one hour of group training at their workplace. This was a chance for unfit employees to exercise. Rossing wanted to see if less active subjects took advantage of the initiative and if there were any social challenges related to working out with colleagues during office hours.
"For unfit employees, exercising at the workplace leads to a conflicting situation. They are highly qualified individuals doing well in their jobs but during group training they feel more incompetent," Hilde Rossing says.
Fear of being ridiculed
By working out they developed increased body awareness. Now, not only work capacity and results were recorded but also how they performed during group training.
They were worried about what their colleagues would think of them and how this could affect them as employees. Less active participants feared exercising at work could influence their status in the workplace.
One of the employees said:
"Sometimes, we can have heated arguments at work and then we risk seeing each other in group training later. It makes me uncomfortable and I worry that I could have less authority at work if I struggle to complete the training activities."
How did the participants deal with working out with colleagues?
During group training, the participants tried to avoid embarrassment by pretending not to know each other. They kept to themselves, did not interact much and tried to limit eye contact.
If one person admitted to be out of shape, many of them would say the same thing.
"I was surprised to see that many participants stayed clear of each other during group training. The atmosphere was tense and there was limited interaction between them. But, that was a way of protecting themselves," Rossing says.
No help from colleagues
Psychological studies have found social support and the ability to cope with stress to be important factors for people to start exercising. The less active subjects in the study did not report to have either of these factors in place. In fact, working out with colleagues had the exact opposite effect on them.
One of the subjects told Rossing:
"Working out at a public gym is something completely different and more straightforward. The other gym members are neither friends or co-workers, but total strangers. In this situation, I am not worried because it does not matter what people think of me."
The subjects had no problem saying that they were inactive or out of shape when going to a public gym. However, they became much more self-conscious about their appearance and performance when working out with colleagues as it could reveal something that would affect them at work.
"Today, there is a lot of focus on health and exercise. The body is seen as a reflection of being healthy or unhealthy. It is also an indication of how disciplined you are. Unfit individuals may be more apprehensive about undressing in front of their colleagues as they risk being labeled as unhealthy or lacking discipline," Rossing says.
Being self-conscious about your body can make you think that your colleagues are better than you. Among the less active participants, several of them said it was embarrassing and possibly stigmatizing.
Exercising during the work day is a commendable initiative, but it is not for everyone. It is important to take an individual approach in relation to exercising at the workplace. Hold talks to clarify what challenges might arise and what individual goals the employees have with their training.
"Motivational fitness ambassadors and appropriate training partners are key factors to get people to start working out. The executives should also be involved, not just ask the employees to be active. Their involvement sends a vital message; that exercising at the workplace is important and that it is nothing to be embarrassed about," Rossing says.
Rossing, H.:Role conflict, facework and vulnerable identity. Doctoral study at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, 2017.