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Dodge Ball Anyone? When Work Becomes a 15-Minute Playground

April 6, 2012
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It's worked for school kids for decades. Who's to say adults wouldn't love another shot at recess?

That's the conclusion of a growing number of company leaders now giving recess a shot at reviving the morale of an overworked, stressed-out workforce.

For many companies, recess doesn't look a whole lot different than it did in childhood, complete with jump ropes, basketball hoops and four-square balls. For others, it's more structured, with 15-minute exercise routines, pingpong or miniature golf tournaments. In each instance, the goal seems clear: Entice employees with fun, even over-the-top activities that pull them away from their sedentary, computer-dominated days.

Blake DeMaso, who owns Summit Publishing, a Charlottesville, Virginia-based outdoor magazine company, was so committed to the idea that he designed a recess room with outdoor playground equipment—bikes, baseballs, basketballs and Frisbees, as well as darts and foosball. There are outdoor parks adjacent to the office to use the equipment, and various tournaments with prizes on Fridays.

"There's even a punching bag in the corner," DeMaso says.

Most importantly, DeMaso says he embraced recess himself, hoping to show employees just how valuable even a 15-minute outside break can be.

"At first, people were a little hesitant to jump in. It was like, 'Is the boss trying to trick me? Are we really allowed to do this?' " DeMaso says. "But I just felt that if the owner really gets involved in it, you can change people's perceptions. We have a great time, and I really believe it's important to disengage from the work at some point. I think disengaging from the computer is one of the most important things for me."

Benefits experts say recess at work may seem like a gimmick, but it's an important trend in wellness initiatives because so much more is needed to improve employees' health.

"The issue that everyone is faced with is our overweight and obesity problem in the U.S. and the fact that people are pretty sedentary," says Tim McDonald, vice president of the clinical health improvement practice for Aon Hewitt, the benefits consulting arm of London-based Aon. "Only 25 percent of people are really physically active and most of us fall far short of that. The result of that is companies are faced with what can the role of the employer be in facing this challenge."

Aon Hewitt advises clients to consider recess at work-type options as well as simple 10-minute walking breaks, or standing or walking meetings. "There's a lot of data out ... that sitting for too long is very dangerous to your health," McDonald says. "These are real opportunities for people to break away from sitting for eight hours straight."

McDonald says 18 percent of heart disease cases and 20 percent of diabetes cases are caused by inactivity, and those two conditions are major drivers for increased health care costs.

"Five to 11 percent of the increase in health care costs results from inactive employees," McDonald says. "And it's not going to get any better unless we start changing that inactivity problem."

Keen Inc., the Portland, Oregon-based outdoor and casual footwear manufacturer, launched its Recess Revolution program in 2011 to encourage more companies to adopt a 10- to 15-minute recess break.

Promoting its initiative, Keen visited cities across the country with a pop-up playground full of games and sample activities companies could use to start their own programs. Keen, with roughly 250 employees, has a recess room at its headquarters to model the idea.

Investments in recess programs can pay off in reduced health care costs and increased productivity, says Linda Balfour, Keen's marketing manager. She says the company modeled its program on research from Toni Yancey, a University of California at Los Angeles professor and author who estimates a $1.50 to $2 return from every dollar spent on implementing a recess program.

"When you talk to people about wellness, it's not really that fun. But when you talk to them about recess, nobody is going to say it wasn't one of their favorite times of the day as a kid," Balfour says. "At first, people think they can't get away for 10 minutes but when they do, they actually are so much more engaged."

Meg McSherry Breslin is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.

Recess at Work

If you're looking to start a recess-at-work campaign of your own, footwear manufacturer Keen has a free online tool kit to get you started. The Portland, Oregon-based firm is encouraging companies nationwide to consider recess at work as a way to improve employee wellness, happiness and productivity.

The tool kit—accessible at recess.keenfootwear.com—provides background information on the importance of recess programs, an implementation guide, ideas and tools for getting employees involved, tables for tracking employee involvement, and a cost-benefit calculator outlining the financial benefits of such programs.

"The tool kit gives you a return based on [factors such as] reduced insurance rates, reduced number of sick days, higher engagement at work and higher productivity," says Linda Balfour, marketing manager at Keen.

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