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Columns: Worksite Health Promotion

Emotional Fitness at the Workplace

Pronk, Nico P. Ph.D., FACSM, FAWHP; Pronk, Stephanie J. M.A. Ed, FAWHP

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doi: 10.1249/FIT.0000000000000329
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“When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion.”

Dale Carnegie


What do we mean by emotional fitness? What are we talking about when we refer to “organizational and work force emotional fitness?” Emotional fitness is a new term that is intended to bring together typical aspects of physical fitness — traditionally considered in the domains of cardiorespiratory and metabolic health, body composition, strength, flexibility and agility — with the mental and emotional aspects of human performance. Here, we define emotional fitness as a state of being that represents a dynamic balance between managing essential needs, cultivating feelings of belonging and purpose, and flourishing at the individual level. From an organizational perspective, emotional fitness in the workplace is achieved when a company cultivates workers’ essential needs, belonging, purpose, and opportunities to help employees thrive.


Emotional fitness is slowly emerging as a focal point of employer well-being and benefit programs. While stressful factors can lie outside of worksite control (e.g., family life), many employers understand the far-reaching potentially negative effects of employees who are struggling to cope with both work and life stressors. Various sources indicate this as a major issue. More than one third of American workers experience chronic work stress, with low salaries, lack of opportunity for advancement, and heavy workloads topping the list of contributing factors (1). “Sandwiched” employees, defined as those who are responsible for child care and the care of parents, are at a greater risk for depression (8). Depression and anxiety affect more than 55 million American adults, nearly 25% of the adult population (9). One in 4 adults in the United States experience mental illness in a given year (2). Sixty percent of Americans with a mental disorder get no treatment (7), and by 2030, the World Health Organization states that depression will be the most costly disease in the world in terms of both social and economic costs (5). Just over half of employees report that their supervisors support their work-life balance (57%) and that their organizations value work-life balance (55%) (1). It is of interest to note that negative attitudes most often come from family and close friends (70%) and coworkers (40%) (2). Clearly, emotional fitness is affected greatly by the daily interactions with coworkers and the organizational environment as well as the experiences of family and community life.


Emotional fitness also has a tremendous economic impact. Major depressive disorder is now estimated to cost $210.5 billion a year (1). Serious mental illness costs America $193.2 billion in lost earnings every year (7). Each year, 217 million workdays are completely or partially lost due to mental disorders (5). Anxiety disorders cost the United States more than $42 billion a year (7). Medical cost for employees with depression is $2,185 higher as compared with employees without depression (6).

At the workplace, certain symptoms associated with emotional fitness may have directly observable impacts on work productivity. For example, sleep problems may lower quality of work, may increase safety-related mishaps, or reduce alertness at work. Lack of concentration can turn into procrastination or more accidents on the job. Slowed thought processes may exacerbate indecision or induce difficulty in decision making. Aches and pains may increase trips to the doctor and increase unnecessary and preventable health care costs. Forgetfulness may increase poor quality work, and self-medication may affect missed deadlines and absenteeism. Irritability or tearfulness may negatively affect relationships with coworkers, clients, or the boss, and low motivation or morale may increase presenteeism.

As noted, one of the most significant areas of loss related to emotional fitness for a business is missed work days and presenteeism. Whether the source of the lost days is burnout/stress at work or personal issues, the amount lost by businesses due to low levels of emotional fitness should be cause enough to make this a point of emphasis for employers. Consider the following statistics:

  • [Black Square] According to the Disability Management Employer Coalition’s survey on behavioral health, the three most prevalent return-to-work barriers for mental conditions are
    • [Black Square] Doctors providing unclear return-to-work timeframes (61.8%)
    • [Black Square] Employees using a primary care physician instead of a mental health specialist (58%)
    • [Black Square] Doctors’ lack of return-to-work planning (55.7%) (3).
  • [Black Square] Positive moods improve productivity by 12% (10).
  • [Black Square] Positive-to-negative emotion ratio correlates to high- and low-performing teams, with high showing 6:1 and low showing 1:1 (4).
  • [Black Square] Job stress is estimated to cost U.S. industry more than $300 billion a year in absenteeism, turnover, diminished productivity and medical, legal, and insurance costs (4).
  • [Black Square] Mood disorders are estimated to cost more than $50 billion per year in lost productivity and result in 321.2 million lost workdays (11).


So what comprises emotional fitness? Based on the aforementioned definition, emotional fitness has some key elements including: the essentials, belonging, purpose, and flourishing.

  • Essentials include things such as 1) being able to manage one’s finances to afford food, clothing, shelter, and emergencies, 2) healthy sleep, physical activity, and social interaction, 3) safe living and working environment, and 4) job security and satisfaction.
  • Belonging refers to factors such as positive work relationships, the feeling of being valued and accepted, and one’s degree of company loyalty.
  • Purpose includes how well a person feels about him or herself, the degree to which people are recognized and rewarded for the work they do, and the confidence they have in themselves.
  • Flourishing refers to the feeling of fulfillment the job provides, helping others, participating in community, and the pursuit of personal growth and development.


The worksite environment plays an important role in the emotional fitness of individual workers as well as the work force when considered as a population (Figure 1). But can something be done to address the problem and provide solutions? As presented by the American Psychological Association, a meta-evaluation of 56 peer-reviewed journal articles on worksite health promotion programs shows an average 26.8 % reduction in sick leave absenteeism, an average 26.1% reduction in health costs, an average 32% reduction in workers’ compensation and disability management claims costs, and an average $5.81 savings for every dollar invested (1). Whereas it may be true that work and the work environment may generate stress and emotional health concerns for workers, it also seems that the workplace can have a positive effect when emotional fitness becomes a focal point to bring about positive impacts. Factually, employees spend the majority of their time at work. Work can often be a primary source of stress and often encourages poor lifestyle choices, and the workplace surroundings and ergonomic factors may play a role in productivity and overall health. So what can a company do to make a difference in the emotional fitness of its work force?

Figure 1:
Emotional fitness continuum at the workplace. Reprinted from: Aon Health Transformation. 2016. Used with permission.

Unique and innovative approaches to creating a supportive workplace environment for emotional fitness may include the following actions and ideas:

  • Establish a total workplace health and well-being policy
  • Establish a social vision or Culture of Health statement
  • Proliferate a culture of fast failure
  • Allow for mistakes, learning, and career growth
  • Designate quiet space for reflection and reenergizing
  • Provide tech-enabled remote care space to support caregivers
  • Install a coloring wall; team billboards
  • Implement a gratitude station, a chalkboard for employees to write what they are thankful for
  • On-site pet therapy
  • On-site music therapy

What happens when companies become deliberate in addressing emotional fitness at the workplace? What happens when stigma is being eliminated or at least reduced? Reducing access barriers to needed medical and behavioral health services, stress reduction, and more general programs that optimize well-being is often a much-needed benefits design consideration that can have significant impact on individuals and the population. What happens when a company intentionally invests in the emotional fitness of its people? The Table presents a set of observed impacts between companies identified as being an “emotionally fit workplace” as compared with average statistics from across the United States. The differences are impressive and will have a clear impact on both health and well-being of people as well as the performance of the company.

Performance of Emotionally Fit Workplaces Compared With National Averages


From a corporate perspective, emotional fitness represents a terminology that allows for addressing emotional, mental, and behavioral health issues in a nonthreatening manner. To do so in an efficient and effective manner, several steps may be taken that summarize this column in the Figure provided. When thinking about the words of Dale Carnegie, let’s be sure to remember we are creatures of emotion. Optimizing our emotional fitness may have a profound positive effect on all other aspects of our lives (Figure 2).

Figure 2:
Summary steps for an emotional fitness in the workplace.


1. American Psychological Association. By the numbers: a psychologically healthy workplace fact sheet. [cited July 12, 2017]. Available from:
2. Centre for Addiction and Mental health, University of Toronto. Time to change, mind, Mental Health Foundation. [cited July 12, 2017]. Available from:
3. Disability Management Employer Coalition. 2016 DMEC Behavioral Health Survey White Paper. [cited July 12, 2017]. Available from:
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5. Funk M. Global burden of mental disorders and the need for a comprehensive, coordinated response from health and social sectors at the country level. [cited July 12, 2017]. Available from:
6. Goetzel RZ, Anderson DR, Whitmer RW, Ozminkowski RJ, Dunn RL, Wasserman J, The Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO) Research Committee. The relationship between modifiable health risks and health care expenditures: an analysis of the multi-employer HERO health risk and cost database. J Occup Environ Med. 1998:40(10);843–54.
7. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Mental health by the numbers. [cited July 12, 2017]. Available from:
8. Neal MN, Hammer LB. Working Couples Caring for Children and Aging Parents: Effects on Work-Family Fit, Well-Being, and Work. Mahwah (NJ): Lawrence Erlbaum Associates; 2007.
9. National Institute of Mental Health. SAMHSA NSDUH mental health findings. [cited July 12, 2017]. Available from:
10. Oswald AJ, Proto E, Sgroi D. Happiness and Productivity. United Kingdom: University of Warwick; 2014.
11. Rosch PJ. The quandary of job stress compensation. Health and Stress. 2001;3:1–4.
© 2017 American College of Sports Medicine.