By Claire Stewart 03 October 2017

“All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking,” famously observed Friedrich Nietzsche. It’s a declaration being tested by the increasing number of office workers who are choosing to conduct walking meetings. 

For companies looking to boost wellbeing among their staff, the walking meeting is one option in a growing arsenal of ideas to help improve not just the physical but mental wellbeing and resilience of employees. 

Reports suggest it’s not just the implicit health benefits which come from walking, but that the action of getting out in the open and walking side-by-side stimulates creative thinking, more personable interactions and better outcomes than meetings held across a board table or in a coffee shop. 

People prone to multi-tasking stay more engaged on the discussion and use their devices less during walking meetings, and senior management as well as employees believe walking encourages more honest engagement, and breaks down hierarchical barriers. 

In Australia, absenteeism accounts for more than 88 million days of lost productivity for business. For small and medium sized businesses, the NSW government suggest that adds up to more than $100,000 per business over five years. 

But presenteeism, the phenomenon of workers being physically present but mentally and emotionally detached, is an even greater issue, and one that is spurring forward-thinking organisations to make wellbeing programs their priority.

Walking meetings stimulate creative thinking, more personable interactions and better outcomes than meetings held across a board table or in a coffee shop.

A culture of health

It’s difficult for companies to find a plan that suits staff and provides a tangible – better still, a measurable – uplift in performance and satisfaction ratings. 

A report by the Institute for Health and Productivity Studies at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health says that comes when companies intentionally develop “a culture of health”. 

The 2015 report emphasises the need to ensure individual health goals are made part of the overall corporate objectives to increase program effectiveness: that means making physical activity, nutrition, stress management (including personal financial stress), stop smoking, social connectedness and alcohol management part of an organisation’s commitment to a health culture. 

The NSW government estimates that the resulting improved morale, increased retention rates and higher productivity equates to a return on investment of between three and six times every dollar spent on wellbeing programs. 

But where to start? Health scans, discounted gym memberships, lunchtime yoga or Pilates, and corporate sports teams are all now considered baseline offerings.

Integrating technology is a good first step to enable staff to log healthy habits, enter into friendly competition with workmates, and in some cases compete against bosses to achieve health goals. 

Fitness tracker company Fitbit offers group health products to help companies create effective wellness programs. 

It counts Bank of America, IBM, BP and Time Warner among its US customers and in 2016, Target bought 335,000 trackers for its employees. The devices come with tools for employers including webinars, dedicated service support and dashboards where people can monitor sleep and activity goals. 

 
Higher productivity equates to a return on investment of between three and six times every dollar spent on wellbeing

Mix it up

Still, not everyone is enthusiastic about having health and wellbeing data collated through workplace programs. Experts suggest any program that may have a competitive angle to it, even if it is meant in a collegial atmosphere, should be carefully managed to ensure it doesn’t alienate, ostracise, or stress less healthy employees or those managing chronic diseases such as diabetes or arthritis.

That’s where less overtly competitive programs such as lunch-time walks, or meditation programs can be useful. Google implemented a Googler-to-Googlers education program where one employee teaches others classes from kickboxing to parenting, to public speaking. Chade-Meng Tan, a Google engineer, started classes on mindfulness which were so well received they became his official job – and led to a book. 

It’s also why walking meetings work so well. It’s a non-competitive activity, provides incidental health benefits and ensures employees don’t feel like they need to choose between work and health. What’s more, it forces people out of the office, a critical issue for wellbeing, particularly as increasing numbers of workers say they’re too busy to leave the office even for a short break. 

Presenteeism, the phenomenon of workers being physically present but mentally and emotionally detached.

Organisations that find office locations close to biking and walking tracks, parks and gardens and which allow easy and fast access out of the building to green areas are already a step ahead in laying the foundation for employee wellbeing. 

Ex-AFL footballer turned tech start-up entrepreneur James Podsiadly and his business partner started the Wellbeing Challenge, an online offering that assesses people in eight areas: career, leadership, social relations, exercise, nutrition, finance, mindfulness and sleep. The program then tailors 10-week long challenges to help improve aspects of each where needed.  

“If you really want to look at someone's wellbeing you've got to approach it like a dashboard," Podsiadly says. 

"Someone could be a really active person but they could have a lot of financial stress in their life or they could have relationship stress. You've got to improve all areas of your life."

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