Stressful Days At Work Leave Us Less Likely To Exercise

By Emily Reynolds

After an incredibly stressful day of work, which are you more likely to do: walk several miles home, or get on a bus straight to your door? While the first option certainly comes with increased health benefits — including, potentially, decreased stress — many of us would choose the second anyway.

A new study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, seeks to understand why, even when we know how positive exercise can be, we often fail to be active after work. It could come down to how high-pressure your job is, according to Sascha Abdel Hadi from Justus-Liebig-University Giessen and team — and how much control you have over your work.

In the first study, 100 participants took part in a workplace simulation. Adopting the role of a call centre worker, participants answered emails from customers, solved maths problems related to product pricing and promotions, and answered a live customer call.

In the low demand condition, emails and phone calls were from friendly customers, while in the high demand condition, customers were disgruntled; maths problems also ranged in difficulty based on condition. High demand participants were also explicitly instructed to “serve with a smile”, while the low demand condition only required “acting authentically”.

Following these tasks, participants were invited to ride (up to a maximum of fifteen minutes) on a static bike in the break room, for as long as they wanted, after which they could read magazines in a seated position. As expected, those in the high demand condition spent significantly less time on the bike than those in the low demand condition.

A second study, conducted with 144 participants, sought to expand on these findings — only this time, there was an additional focus on the control people had over the choices they made during the job. In addition to the high and low demand conditions  from the first study, participants were assigned to a high or low control condition. Participants in the high control condition could select which emails they responded to and in which order, which arithmetic problems they wanted to solve, and which customer requests they picked up via call. Low control participants could do none of these things.

Again, participants with a more demanding job spent less time on the bike. And while there was no direct relationship between levels of control and time spent on the bike, there was an indirect effect of job control on cycling time through its impact on participant’s feelings of self-determination — their beliefs that they are autonomous and able to freely make choices. People in the low control condition rated their self-determination as lower, which in turn led to reduced time cycling. This suggests that high levels of control can improve self-determination — and, indirectly, increase self-motivated behaviour, even outside of the workplace.

This last point is key. What we do at work (or perhaps more accurately, what is done to or imposed on us) doesn’t just affect the hours we spend in the office, in the factory, or on the shop floor. Rather, these things seep into our personal lives, making us more or less likely to use leisure time the way we might want. The team suggests that other mechanisms could also play a role in the link between job demands and exercise: for instance, if people are unable to “switch off” from work demands, this may hamper motivation to engage in activities like working out.

Either way, it is clear that jobs with high levels of demand can impact not only our overall wellbeing but our motivation outside of work. The team suggests that employers should place greater importance on self-determination and participation; and, as other research suggests, this could also change how democratic, just and participatory workplaces are.

Experimental evidence for the effects of job demands and job control on physical activity after work.

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest