During the COVID-19 pandemic, physical activity levels declined due to community-level mitigation strategies, such as stay-at-home orders and business closures, which restricted access to places for adults to be active.1 As a result, many organizations shifted to remote work. At the close of 2022, an estimated 25% of all professional jobs in the United States were remote and it is projected that remote opportunities will continue to increase through 2023 (3, 4). With increases in remote work came increases in sedentary behavior. A study from Stanford University showed that working from home was associated with an additional two hours of sitting time compared to employees working entirely in-person (9.2 vs. 7.3 hours of sitting time, respectively). This study also reported that employees who work completely remotely are more likely to report an increase in sedentary behavior and a decrease in exercise time from their pre-COVID level compared to adults that work entirely in-person.3
This reduction in physical activity associated with remote work has public health relevance, as physical inactivity is associated with poor health outcomes including the development of non-communicable diseases, as well as more severe COVID-19.1 Past research has reported that the number one barrier to physical activity participation is time and pointed to the employer’s role in combating physical inactivity by offering opportunities for employees to be active during the workday.5
Data from Version 5.0 of the HERO Health and Well-being Best Practices Scorecard in Collaboration with Mercer (HERO Scorecard) has shown substantial differences in the six sections of the Scorecard (Strategic Planning, Organizational and Leadership Support, Programs, Program Integration, Participation Strategies, and Measurement & Evaluation) as well as overall score in organizations with different proportions of remote workers.4 This commentary aims to compare physical activity practices and policies implemented by organizations with different percentages of their workforce working remotely. Further, this commentary aims to assess differences in organizational physical activity practices offered by industry type. In order to examine these aims, data from 246 organizations that completed the HERO Scorecard between November 17, 2020 and December 31, 2022 were assessed. Physical activity practices analyzed from the HERO Scorecard included written policies supporting physical activity and a physical work environment that supports physical activity. Organizations were classified as having <25% remote workforce (n=150), 25-74% remote workforce (n=59), or more than 75% remote workforce (n=37).
Results showed that organizations with ≥ 75% remote workforce were less likely to have written policies supporting physical activity in their workforce when compared to organizations with a smaller proportion of their employees working remotely (<25% remote workforce – 43%, 25-74% remote workforce – 44%, and ≥ 75% remote workforce – 33%). Additionally, organizations with a higher proportion of employees working from home reported their physical work environment to be less likely to support physical activity with amenities such as onsite fitness centers, walking trails, and standing desks compared to organizations with a lower percentage of remote workers (<25% remote workforce – 73%, 25-74% remote workforce – 76%, and ≥ 75% remote workforce –58%). Data are presented in Figure 1.
As noted above, the industry in which individuals work impacts how and where they work. HERO Scorecard data showed that the technical/professional services industry to have the largest proportion of employees working remotely (≥ 75% of employees working remote – 44%), followed by government (16%) and the financial services industry (15%). Not surprisingly, manufacturing (3%), transportation (0%), and healthcare (10%) all reported lower percentages of employees working remotely. When organizational support for physical activity was analyzed by industry type, retail (11%), healthcare (24%), and manufacturing (21%) industries were less likely to have written policies supporting physical activity in their workforce compared to technical/professional services (50%), financial services (50%), education (50%), and government industries (50%). Further, the technical/professional services (71%), financial (92%), and education (82%) sectors also reported having the highest percentage of organizations that have physical work environments that support physical activity opportunities, whereas the retail (56%), communications (60%), and manufacturing (57%) sectors reported to have the lowest percentages.
Data from the HERO Scorecard also show that small organizations (more than 75% of employees working remote – 21%) are more likely to have a higher proportion of employees working remotely compared with midsize (15%) and large (9%) organizations. Further, discrepancies are seen between small, mid, and large size organizations in their support for physical activity. Large organizations are more likely to have written policies supporting physical activity (44%) and have a physical work environment that supports physical activity opportunities (86%) for their workforce compared to midsize (40 & 77%, respectively) and small (31 & 52%, respectively) organizations.
The reported decline in physical activity brought on by the pandemic and remote work is a public health concern given the importance of physical activity on overall health and disease risk. Employers should act by promoting physical activity to both in-person and remote employees, as a way to preserve their health and well-being. In doing so, it could help to improve work productivity and engagement, as well as to prevent absenteeism.6 Actionable steps include having written policies that support physical activity for both in-person and remote workers, such as short activity breaks, paid time to exercise, flex time for physical activity, and physical activity programs implemented as policies.5 Another opportunity for employers to support and promote physical activity is to provide a physical work environment that supports physical activity opportunities. This could include having onsite fitness centers or providing referrals/memberships to local recreation centers, providing employees with a park directory, and offering standing desks or other work equipment that supports activity (stability balls, resistance bands, etc.). Finally, employers can show their support for physical activity by signing the CEO pledge for physical activity. The CEO pledge is a social movement to make physical activity and healthy movement a cultural norm in workplace environments.7
- Sallis JF, Adlakha D, Oyeyemi A, Salvo D. An international physical activity and public health research agenda to inform coronavirus disease-2019 policies and practices. J Sport Health Sci. 2020;9(4):328–334.
- United States Census Bureau. (2022). The Number of People Primarily Working from Home Tripled Between 2019 and 2021. News Releases, U.S. Census Bureau. https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2022/people-working-from-home.html
- Streeter J, Roche M, Friedlander A. From Bad to Worse: The Impact of Work-From-Home on Sedentary Behaviors and Exercising. URL: https://longevity.stanford.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Sedentary-Brief.pdf
- Kelley E, Imboden MT. A comparison of health and well-being scores based on employer-reported remote workforce. Available at: https://hero-health.org/blog/a-comparison-of-health-and-well-being-scores-based-on-employer-reported-remote-workforce/
- Ablah E, Lemon SC, Pronk NP, Wojcik JR, Mukhtar Q, Grossmeier J, Pollack KM, Whitsel LP. Opportunities for Employers to Support Physical Activity Through Policy. Prev Chronic Dis. 2019 Jun 27;16:E84. doi: 10.5888/pcd16.190075. PMID: 31255184; PMCID: PMC6638587.
- Aldana S.G., Pronk N.P. Health Promotion Programs, Modifiable Health Risks, and Employee Absenteeism. Occup. Environ. Med. 2001;43:36–46. doi: 10.1097/00043764-200101000-00009.
- About CEO. Physical Activity Alliance. (2022, October 27). Retrieved May 5, 2023, from https://paamovewithus.org/ceopledge/