Feeling stressed? Tired? Depressed? Burnt out at your job? Conventional wisdom would suggest that you need more sleep or at least a more tranquil environment. However, new research (Toker & Biron, 2012) would suggest a very different and somewhat more surprising prescription: physical exercise.
THE RESEARCH STUDY
In their article, the authors define depression as “global psychological dysfunction” and employee burnout as “chronic, job-specific strain;” two characteristics that are hypothesized to feed off of one another in a downward negativity spiral over time. It works like this: if you continually experience a lot of stress at your job and it becomes unmanageable, this stress is likely to manifest itself in other parts of your life, often as depressive symptoms (e.g., insomnia, lack of energy). At the same time, depression is defined by a lack of interest or motivation in general, which can certainly have implications for one’s perceived workload, contributing to burnout. This is exactly what the researchers found, in a large study that tracked more than 1,600 individuals for an average of about 3 years. The findings? Employees who reported an increase in burnout in the first phase of the study also reported an increase in depression in the second part, and vice versa.
HOW EXERCISE HELPS
This study also found that physical exercise (anything that increases your heart rate and breaks a sweat) stops the depression-burnout relation in its tracks. Those who exercised very little were the most likely to fall victim to the negativity spiral and those who exercised frequently experienced virtually no relationship between burnout and depression over time. This makes sense because physical exercise can (1) distract employees from their work duties, (2) increase feelings of self-efficacy, self-worth, and body image, (3) give employees a chance to recover from negative events at work, and (4) increase resiliency to psychological stressors. In fact, physical exercise releases endorphins (natural mood enhancers) and research has shown that regularly stressing the body through exercise makes people better able to withstand psychological stresses.
THE BOTTOM LINE
So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, it might not hurt to try scheduling time for exercise. Too often we take care of other obligations before taking care of ourselves. In the long run, this research suggests that routine maintenance of one’s psychological well-being (through exercise) can help employees avoid more major negative consequences. Organizations are already offering gym memberships, extra time for exercise, and other health-related perks. Employees may want to consider taking advantage of these perks, if they haven’t already.
Toker, S., & Biron, M. (2012). Job burnout and depression: Unraveling their temporal relationship and considering the role of physical activity. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97, 699-710.