You surfing is making your employer more money

You surfing is making your employer more money

When I plunge into the sea for a surf, a lot of it isn’t even pleasant.

First there’s the cold shock – ugh – then the long struggle to get out past wave after wave through the break.  Then there’s ‘being dumped’ – the bane of the family beach trip – and yes when surfing I get that horrible can’t-breathe-out-of-control feeling multiple times.  I get scared, sometimes terrified. 

So why even do it?

Because when you are in it, this literal immersion in nature, your mind cannot be anywhere else.  In my ‘year horribilis’ of intolerable pain, this battle with ocean elements was the only time, other than on skis, when I was briefly pain free.  And when you catch a good wave, the flying exhilaration is so intense you remember every part of that short ride to the tenth of a second.  And all that, new research shows, adds up to profound benefits not just for you, but for your employer.

An exciting Australian study suggests surfing can increase productivity at work by at least 10% and reduce the need for mental health services by the same amount – meaning surfing contributes billions in economic value to the Gold Coast alone. 

The scientists calculated that if surfing reduces stress from high to low levels … it would amount to $7700 per person per year.

“On average, if you’re a surfer, you give your employer an extra 40 bucks worth of work a day,” says lead author Ralf Buckley.  But while the research focusses on those whose joy is chasing the perfect wave, it can equally apply to many of our supposedly ‘frivolous’ leisure pursuits. 

Unsurprisingly, Emeritus Professor Ralf Buckley of Griffith University is a surfer.  He’s also an ecologist, considered one of the world’s most influential researchers on parks, nature and ecotourism. 

In 2022 he and his colleagues published a massive study of 20,000 people who visited national parks.  They’d collected data on park visits going back to childhood, on how often people used mental health services, on time taken off work, output of work per hour and much more. 

This deep granular dive meant for the first time the scientists could put a dollar value on the health and workplace benefits of parks – and it amounted to a 10% gain in work productivity and a 10% reduction in mental health costs – worth trillions worldwide.

After publication, the professor had a brainwave.  If just visiting a natural setting has such an impact, then surely an activity which immerses you in nature, adds exercise, and then dials it all up to 11 with the addition of thrill and skill must have at least as much economic value. 

We’re based on the Gold Coast and there are more than 130,000 surfers here so it seemed a good place to start.

Professor Ralf Buckley

So why pick surfing? 

“Well it could have been any nature-based thrill plus skill activity, like skiing or horse riding.” says Professor Buckley. “But we’re based on the Gold Coast and there are more than 130,000 surfers here so it seemed a good place to start.” 

Using the figures so painstakingly extracted for parks, the scientists calculated that if surfing reduces stress from high to low levels, that equals a 10% reduction in mental health costs and a 10% increase in workplace productivity, amounting to $7700 per person per year.   

“But visiting a park can be quite passive,” I point out.  “Do you think surfing has an even bigger benefit?”

“Big time,” responds the Professor.  “I think it’s way bigger because you have to be totally focussed and in the moment and it’s so intense.  But since we didn’t have any data we couldn’t make that assumption in the article.” 

In other words, Professor Buckley believes the extra $40 a day provided to the employer via the stress-busting power of surfing is a substantial underestimate. 

“The reason there are such big numbers in the value of recreational activities like surfing for mental health is that for almost every kind of job, you have to pay attention: for safety, skill, service, or decisions,” says Professor Buckley said. 

“But our brains need a break – a reset.

“If you are stressed and not paying proper attention, your job performance suffers, and that costs money for your employer or your business.” 

So are all stress-busting activities equal?  Would jigsaw puzzling work just as well? 

“No!” is Professor Buckley’s surprisingly emphatic answer.  “In jigsaw puzzling you’re not paying attention to nature.  I do think the nature component is extra.  Not only me; there are lots of experimental studies that show that ” 

If gardening is what gives you peace, go gardening. If you’d rather walk down the creek looking for birds, fine.

Professor Ralf Buckley

The evidence is overwhelming now that mindfulness and meditation reduce stress and improve mental “flow” – that state of being wholly absorbed in what we are doing. There’s also ample proof for the benefits of exercise. But it does seem we gain an extra health zing when we add nature.  Studies show exercise in nature relieves stress better than exercise indoors. And just think how many yoga or meditation retreats are held in gorgeous landscapes. 

There are many theories about why. Psychologists use terms like ‘Attention Restoration Theory‘ to explain how natural settings re-balance the brain from the cognitive overload of modern life.  But the yearning we all felt for the balm of green spaces during the lockdowns, I believe, points to a deeper reason – one shaped by evolution. 

It’s called the ‘Biophilia Hypothesis‘ – the idea that we are attracted to natural settings that were essential to our survival.  We’re drawn to water views, fruits and flowers that signal food, a mix of open and closed spaces that offer shelter while giving us a view of approaching threats.  In other words, our genes are calling us to get outside.  Why else have wealthy people throughout history flaunted luxurious gardens?

But is there something extra extra about surfing?

“Surfing isn’t for everyone,” says Professor Buckley.  “If gardening is what gives you peace, go gardening. If you’d rather walk down the creek looking for birds, fine.”

Yet surfing does have a crucial extra element those other activities lack: thrill and skill.  Adrenaline.

It’s a supersized reset button for the brain.

Professor Ralf Buckley

“There are many activities that give you flow,” says Professor Buckley, “but combine flow with thrill and you get what we know as a ‘rush’.”

And like me, he’s found this thrill component so powerful, it even defies pain.

“I live with chronic pain too,” he explains.  “And what you told me about skiing and surfing is true for me.  Like, if I go kitesurfing, even when I know the pain will be worse after, I do it.  I don’t notice pain while I’m in it –  I’m too focussed on all the sensations; the wind, the wild setting, the skill it takes to fly across water.”

“Thrill and skill activities have everything,” he concludes.  “It’s total immersion in nature, it’s intense exercise, it forces you into the moment because otherwise you get hurt, and it’s a rush. Basically it’s a supersized reset button for the brain.”

In my year horribilis, when the pain was intolerable, and I had a full time, high stress television job, my enlightened employers understood what I needed to continue to perform.  They encouraged me to surf, to dance even in the middle of a crazy deadline day, to leave early on a Friday and drive to the snow.

They knew it would pay them back in spades when I returned: reset, revitalised and ready to do my best work.

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