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Exploring the Relationship Between Productivity and Health

Productivity means different things to different people.

The Cambridge English dictionary defines it very technically, as 'the rate at which a company or country makes goods, usually judged in connection with the number of people and the amount of materials necessary.' Merriam Webster more broadly describes 'productive' as:

  • 'having the quality or power of producing, especially in abundance'

  • 'effective in bringing about'

  • 'yielding results, benefits, or profits.'

This week I attended the Cornwall Chamber of Commerce's Productivity Conference at Scorrier House, where our focus was on productivity in the workplace. I imagine that most other attendees, like me, were predominantly imagining intellectual and business productivity, usually to increase financial return. How can we be more productive in our work, optimising what we do to get 'most' out of our efforts?

We heard from the University of Exeter's Evolve Futures programme about their research into workplace wellbeing, and from the Growth Hub about business support available in Cornwall.

Wellbeing at Work

Pleasingly, the event also held space for wider discussions of health and wellbeing and the ways that they is crucial components of 'good work'. People can't 'produce' at their most efficient rate when they are unwell, and in my eyes health (both emotional and physical) directly correlates with productivity and output.

Therefore, the productivity conference actually felt like a wellbeing at work conference in disguise...


However, the flip side of this was the workshop that explored Artificial Intelligence. An inevitable addition to workplaces of the future, AI can enormously enhance productivity and will complete tasks without variations in efficiency depending on personal circumstance.

In an ideal world, we will outsource mundane tasks to AI so that our creative, complex, fragile, inspiring human beings have more time to work on things that they can do much better than a machine. Reducing human workload would probably mean a higher quality of work gets done.

My Best Creative Conditions:

In my own experience, this is certainly the case. If I have a half day to do a project that feels manageable in the timeframe, the quality of work I produce will be so much higher (and therefore probably reap better rewards) than work I have done late at night when I'm feeling overwhelmed and stressed.

My best hour is my first one of the day, and my second best hour is the one after I've had a significant break. Not everyone is the same, but this is how my brain works.

My freelance lifestyle allows for this, but most jobs don't. Office culture usually doesn't integrate movement breaks and it's not 'normal' to stop and stretch or do a breathwork session at your desk. An interesting question was posed yesterday: if the office didn't already exist, would we invent it today? I think this is super interesting in light of the rise in remote working.

People are craving connection and community, but on their own terms. Being in the office because you have to be doesn't create agency and empowerment amongst workers, and disempowered people generally don't work at their best.

A recurring theme through the day was the need for individuals to feel heard, understood and trusted at work - these conditions are a huge indicator for engagement. 'Quiet quitting' isn't done by people who feel valued and in control. Perhaps for many, this is the draw of freelance and self-employment.

Physical Health and Work Productivity

I think this is such an interesting discussion as we open a whole can of worms by asking whether an employee's physical health is any of their boss's business. There is so much research to suggest that physical activity and exercise help people to perform better on 'mental' tasks, so is it reasonable for your employer to request that you get moving for fifteen minutes in the morning before you sit at your desk?

Sedentary behaviour is a major problem in office culture: caused by desk jobs but also negatively impacting the work itself. Who on earth is at their most productive after eight hours of sitting still, staring at a screen? However, someone at the conference anecdotally described the way that Björn Borg makes team workouts a compulsory part of his company culture, and the backlash in the room was palpable. People didn't not like this idea - "isn't that some form of discrimination?"

Personally I think it totally depends on the conditions of the 'compulsory workout'. If it's a 30 minute HIIT workout, I would not be impressed. However, a stipulation that some form of workout is done for the first hour on a Friday - and each employee gets to choose what theirs is - that allows agency and I personally would really like that. Some weeks I might do something more energetic, other time it might be a stretch session. That doesn't seem like too much to ask...

Several of the speakers I heard from stressed the importance of choice when implementing any workplace wellbeing or productivity policy. You can give employees a free gym membership but if they don't use it then it's not working. By listening to them, you might discover that - for example - they are completely uncomfortable going to the gym alone, but would love a team walk for half an hour on a weekday afternoon.

Education & Empowerment

Employee choice and self-empowerment is where workplace wellbeing education comes in (and this also applies if you're self-employed and implementing plans yourself). Previous generations haven't optimised health and wellbeing at work, and the research is saying that future generations won't put up with it being as bad as it is. Genuine interest in healthy workplaces is an absolute game changer, and there have been many examples of this being done really well.

I could repeat the facts about stress and burnout, but you've probably already heard them. We all know by now that this is an important topic, both emotionally and financially, for businesses of all sizes.

The solutions to a lot of workplace productivity problems really aren't rocket science, but they do need insightful change in order to implement them effectively. I really enjoyed the way that Josh and Jack from RDA System approached the topic of stress management in their workshop. Starting conversations about body awareness, mindset, language and environment can be a real catalyst for change in workplaces, but whether you're having conversations like this with your team, or a personal self-reflection if you work alone, the insights can be powerful.

I'm looking forward to having more conversations about optimising health at work, and doing so through the lens of productivity seems like a way to engage a wider range of people - including those who might be put off by the word 'wellbeing'....


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