Get your employees on their bikes - Business Works
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Get your employees on their bikes

Adi Gaskell, PEX The findings of a study just published in the British Medical Journal rebuffed claims that exercise can help with depression. This flies in direct opposition to other research published recently suggesting that exercise is a powerful aid not just to mental health but workplace productivity.

The research suggests that stressed employees are on a slippery slope, starting out with depression before moving onto workplace burnout, which in turn makes them more depressed. It literally becomes a vicious cycle that is difficult to break out of. However, exercise offers a way out of this cycle, at least that is the claim.

The researchers assessed visitors to a medical centre over a 40 month period. At each visit their levels of burnout, fatigue, cognitive weariness and emotional exhaustion was measured alongside their levels of strenuous exercise in the preceding week.

They found that burnout increased across subsequent visits, which in turn led to an increase in depression over time. Why? These concepts are understood as related but distinct, with burnout reflecting strain due to the quality of the social situation at work whereas depression is a global state that involves a range of symptoms and an intense experience of sadness or diminished pleasure.

The research does make clear however that both burnout and depression require mental energy and resources to combat and that this energy is not infinite. When it runs low it can easily lay the groundwork for other issues.

So how does exercise help?

The researchers believe that exercise acts as a sort of bulwark against this vicious downwards spiral. For instance, exercise is known to improve sleep, whilst also reducing the physical consequences of sustained stress.

It can also produce psychological benefits such as better body image and mood states. Moreover, it can be a useful way to take our mind off things, distracting from specific concerns (such as work challenges) or global cognitions (negative thoughts).

The research suggests that the more exercise you do, the milder your symptoms of burnout and depression, which then means there are less worries for other conditions to build upon.

They conclude that, as well as considering the larger links between job burnout and global depression, employers should recognise the benefits of exercise 'as an important means of preventing the build-up of work-related or general distress'.

Adi Gaskell is Head of Online at Process Excellence Network.

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