Companies embrace stretching programs to prevent workplace injuries – but are they worth it?
It’s not a flash mob. But the scene unfolding each morning at the Mall of America could easily be mistaken for one.
In a hallway outside the mall’s administrative offices, a large crowd forms. Music blares and the men and women assembled start bending their bodies this way and that, stretching to the beat.
Some perform their moves in pencil skirts and heels. Others get limber in shirt-and-tie combos. When the music stops, they disperse and go back to their desks.
For almost a year, employees at the shopping destination have been doing mandatory stretching exercises before their shifts. Whether they work as ride operators at Nickelodeon Universe or as maintenance crew members or as desk jockeys in the finance department, they begin their workday the same way — with 10 to 15 minutes of stretching.
“We’re all aging,” said Sue Amundson, the mall’s director of human resources. “It makes a difference for people to start their day with some basic stretching.”
Many companies have started stretching programs in recent years to reduce the number of workplace injuries. The trend comes at a time when the merits of stretching to prevent sports injuries is under debate. Recent studies suggest that “static stretching” before exercise — extending a muscle and holding the stretch for a few minutes — doesn’t minimize the risk of injury and can even hamper an athlete’s performance.
Some critics also question whether workplace stretching programs are cost-effective, noting the time employees spend each day stretching instead of working. A report by the Labor Education Research Center in Oregon concluded that there’s not enough evidence yet on either side of the workplace stretching debate to judge its worth.
“The few available studies specific to workplace stretching programs suggest that stretching at work enhances worker health and decreases the severity and cost of treating [injuries], but fail to definitively prove the case for or against stretching,” the report said.
The Mall of America’s Stretch It Out program was inspired by similar ones at two large construction companies, Mortenson and PCL, Amundson said. Mortenson construction workers stretch twice a day — in the morning and after lunch. “By warming them up, by loosening their muscles, we started to see a reduction in soft-tissue injuries,” said Chris Tschida, the company’s safety director.
While most of the mall’s employees don’t spend their time operating heavy machinery, they’ve adopted several health and wellness programs to increase range of motion and flexibility.
But selling the idea to employees took time. Mall executives have been known to conduct “sweeps” of the office around stretch time to make sure everyone is participating. “We were kind of mad at first,” said Sarah Schmidt, a media relations specialist for the mall. “We thought, ‘How dare they?’ ”
Soon, however, Schmidt came to enjoy the routine. She said she feels better after doing a few stretches. She also enjoys the camaraderie that comes with doing the activity with different departments.
Each department takes a turn leading the morning stretch and choosing the music. The musical selections are distinctive for each department, Schmidt observed. The finance office likes classic rock. Human resources favors Top 40 or indie rock. And the construction guys are country music fans.
“When you hear the music, you come out,” Schmidt said, noting that there’s less resistance now. “It’s something that’s caught on.”
Allie Shah • 612-673-4488