By Emily Reynolds
What are you more likely to do after an incredibly stressful day at work: walk several kilometers home or get on a bus right in front of your door? While the first option is certainly associated with increased health benefits – including potentially reduced stress levels – many of us would choose the second anyway.
A new study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Appliedtries to understand why, even when we know how positive exercise can be, we are often inactive after work. According to Sascha Abdel Hadi from the Justus Liebig University Giessen and team, it could depend on how high your job is – and how much control you have over your work.
In the first study, 100 participants took part in a workplace simulation. Attendees took on the role of a call center rep, answering customer emails, solving math problems related to product pricing and promotions, and answering a live customer call.
In the low demand situation, emails and phone calls were from friendly customers, while in the high demand situation, customers were angry. The math problems were also difficult depending on the condition. High demand participants were also specifically directed to “serve with a smile” while the low demand condition only required “authentic action”.
Following these tasks, participants were invited to ride a static bike in the break room for as long as they wanted (maximum fifteen minutes). After that, they could read magazines in a sitting position. As expected, those in high demand spent significantly less time on the bike than those in low demand.
A second study, conducted with 144 participants, attempted to expand on these results. Only this time, there was an added focus on the control people had over the decisions they had made during the job. In addition to the high and low demand conditions from the first study, participants were assigned a high or low control condition. Participants with high control conditions could choose which e-mails they answered in which order, which computing problems they wanted to solve and which customer inquiries they answered by phone. Little control participants could not do any of these things.
Again, participants with a more demanding job spent less time on the bike. And while there was no direct link between level of control and time spent on the bike, workplace control had an indirect impact on bike time as it affected participants’ self-determination – their belief that they were autonomous and free to make choices . People with a low level of control rated their self-determination as lower, which in turn led to a shortening of the time cycle. This indicates that a high degree of control can improve self-determination and indirectly increase self-motivated behavior outside of the workplace.
That last point is key. What we do at work (or more precisely what is done or imposed on us) doesn’t just affect the hours we spend in the office, factory, or workshop. Rather, these things invade our personal life and make it more or less likely that we will use our free time as we wish. The team suggests that other mechanisms could also play a role in the link between work demands and exercise: for example, when people are unable to switch off from work demands, this can affect motivation to engage in activities such as exercise.
In any case, it is clear that high-demand jobs can affect not only our general well-being, but also our motivation outside of work. The team suggests that employers should place more emphasis on self-determination and participation. and as other research suggests, this could also transform democratic, fair and participatory workplaces.
– Experimental evidence of the effects of job demands and job control on physical activity after work.
Emily Reynolds is an associate at BPS Biomedarticles