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Whitepaper: Office employees are like professional athletes!

Dowload as PDF Organisations achieve results in the same way as professional athletes: They spend years completely dedicated to improvement in order to excel at certain moments. This whitepaper focuses on practical ways that organisations and their employees can use insights gleaned from professional sports in order to improve work performance and give employees time for achieving goals in their private lives.

Recovery: the crucial factor in success
Today’s employees are faced with the pressure of having to do increasingly more during their workday. At the same time, they are assuming more responsibilities that require more of their problem-solving and creative capabilities. How can these two issues be confronted simultaneously?

In pro sports, recovery is essential to achieving success. With sufficient recovery, athletes improve daily over longer periods of time. It’s this continuity that leads to their peak performances. Recovery is needed between two kinds of exercises within a single training session and between two training sessions on the same day. Insufficient recovery leads to interruptions in progress and to injuries.

Professional athletes recover by means of physical and mental rest. Getting physical rest, which includes 9 hours of sleep a night and a 90-minute nap in the afternoon, is also a general rule. Recovery times are included during each day of training so that these professional athletes can focus entirely on performing their exercises to the best of their strength and ability. Mental rest in the form of having time for family, friends and other important aspects of life is needed to process setbacks and to keep going long enough to make the necessary long-term investments worthwhile.

So if recovery is so important for pro athletes, what does this mean for office employees?

What happens to work performance with insufficient recovery
Much research has been conducted into the effects of insufficient recovery on work performance. It was found, for example, that after judges had been working for two hours, they no longer granted prisoners parole because they were suffering from decision fatigue (Danziger, et al., 2011). At the start of the day, 65% of the decisions approved parole. Within two hours, this dropped to below 10%. After a recovery time, the rate was back up to 65% The reduction in the number of decisions to approve parole could not be explained by other factors such as the seriousness of the offence, the judge, the lawyer or the prison location. It was their lack of energy that made the judges unable to arrive at well-considered decisions. Instead, they opted for the safer option: no parole.

This can also be observed in a factory environment. Two times as many accidents occur during the last half-hour of a two-hour shift than during the first half-hour (Tucker & Folkard, 2012).

This effect also applies to VDU users. Their attention fades after 20 minutes of VDU work. After an hour, their work performance is reduced due to a lower work rate or, if they continue at the same speed, they make more errors (Boksem, et al., 2005; Lorist, et al., 2000, 2005). If insufficient recovery leads to reduced work performance, can providing enough recovery times lead to improved work performance?

Improving the performance of office employees

Recovery times

Including recovery times during VDU work increases work rate and reduces the number of errors (Van den Heuvel, et al., 2002; Hedge, et al., 2001). If employees leave their workplace and take a walk during these recovery times, their energy level increases and they look at problems differently (Thayer, 2008). This results in more creativity and a better problem-solving capability (Oppezzo & Schwartz, 2014). In terms of the workplace, this means that VDU users can increase their work performance considerably by leaving their workstation for three minutes every hour to walk around.

Mental rest
Mental rest is as important for employees as it is for professional athletes. To achieve the right effect, however, requires providing enough free time when work is no longer on the employee’s mind. When the demands of work increase, it is important to keep employees from having to work longer hours. Telework can provide a solution since it reduces
commuting time. On the other hand, decisions to keep on working a little longer and to focus continuously on work are harder for employees to make. Another solution is to look at how employees could save time by making minor changes.

Saving time
It’s possible to save time by optimising the conditions needed for VDU work. Employees use a desktop computer, laptop, tablet and/or smartphone to do their VDU work. The number of hours we spend a day at this is increasing, and this doesn’t include the number of hours we use these devices for leisure-time activities. Having a large enough screen (at least 19 inches) is essential to be able to work quickly. The work rate is considerably slower on a smartphone, tablet or laptop because of their small screens (Raptis, et al., 2013; Findlater & McGrenere 2008).

In addition to their small screens, these devices have some more disadvantages. Typing, for example, is much slower on them than on a standard keyboard. Due to the lack of tactile feedback, typing on a tablet is 26% slower than on a standard keyboard (Chaparro, et al., 2014). Another factor is the colour of the keyboard: 80% of employees type faster on a light-coloured keyboard with dark characters than on a standard black keyboard with white letters (IJmker, 2015). The majority of employees make no use of the numeric section of the keyboard. Using a compact keyboard reduces the reaching distance between the keyboard and the mouse, so this saves time.

If a notebook stand elevates the laptop’s screen and employees use an external mouse and keyboard, the work rate increases (depending on the task) from 17% (Lindblad, et al., 2004) to 115% ( Sommerich, et al., 2001).

Uniting the goals of organisations and employees
Professional athletes ensure their physical and mental recovery so that they can improve every day and thus excel at crucial moments. Based on this model, employees could perform better by taking a 3-minute walk every hour and by making sure that they do their VDU work with a freely adjustable screen of at least 19 inches in diameter and an external keyboard and external mouse. Making use of these practical solutions makes it possible to reduce overtime and, at the same time, to achieve the goals of both organisations and their employees.

If you would like to know more about how these insights can be applied to practical situation, then read: A practical guide to improving work performance with insights from pro sports.
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