Combining Fitness and Career Development to Improve Job Seeker Self-Efficacy and Motivation


Michelle Braham is the CEO of Employment Options. She is a collaborative leader who explores new and effective ways to achieve outcomes for clients by inspiring her team and organisation to seek innovative ways to support people’s transition pathways in life, learning and career. As a qualified career practitioner, Michelle believes career development is an important social justice and equity strategy for those finding it difficult to access the labour market. Michelle is a member of the National Executive Committee for CDAA. In this post, Michelle writes about a new program they are trialling, Fit2Work. 

Fit2Work is a small group program for job seekers living in the Murraylands’ region of South Australia. Aimed at tackling “mind, body and soul”, it looks to improve participant self-efficacy and intrinsic motivation to achieve an employment outcome using targeted fitness and career development coaching. The program is aligned with our organisation’s overall purpose “everyone deserves a working future” where we assist people who are disadvantaged in the labour market.

The Murraylands characterises regional Australia well. The 2016 Census revealed that in the region: 

  • 17.4% of young people aged 17-24 years and 20.5% of people aged between 25-54 years are classified as disengaged from employment and/or education 
  • 38.5% of the region’s population left school prior to completing year 10 
  • More than 52% of the population do not have a post school qualification
  • 22.6% of the population earn less than $500 per week

The main service centre of the region is Murray Bridge. It is recognised as having a high level of social disadvantage (SEIFA index 894) meaning residents are more likely to have poorer physical and mental health. The SEIFA index is derived from attributes that reflect disadvantage such as low income, low educational attainment, high unemployment, and jobs in relatively unskilled occupations. 

Jobs growth in the Murraylands is expected to be in the low skilled employment areas, with 4.3% of jobs in labouring occupations, 8.8% in machinery and plant operations, 6.8%  in sales work and 7.4% in community and personal services (TASC Murray Mallee Regional Profile report June 2018). These occupations are suitable for many of the job seekers as they require a lower skill level and educational achievement. These jobs however generally require a higher level of physical fitness to be eligible and sustainable. Research by Kreuzfeld et al (2012) showed that people who are unemployed long term have poorer health outcomes and benefit from interventions including physical activity programs.

The idea for Fit2Work came about during a conversation with Christine Willersdorf, who is the Employment Facilitator for the Regional Employment Trials in the Murraylands. This is a government initiative coordinated through AusIndustry with funding from the Department of Education, Skills and Employment. The Regional Employment Trials was introduced in recognition that some Australian regions are more disadvantaged and face challenges in terms of employment opportunities and growth.  

Christine had been instrumental in developing a pre-employment program in conjunction with Regional Development Australia called the Jobs for the Murraylands. This program prepared job seekers through an individual fitness program, employability skill development and achievement of relevant licenses, including forklift and white card, to take up employment opportunities in the food industry, which is a key employer in the region.

Through my conversation with Christine, I became intrigued about the idea of combining fitness with career development. Each activity is recognised in its own right as being a catalyst for improving individual wellbeing and motivation. By combining these interventions, Fit2Work aimed to increase participant self-efficacy and enable intrinsic motivation to pursue a career goal and develop the self-belief that they are capable of meeting job demands. 

Timing can be everything! We were fortunate to receive funding to implement Fit2Work through a Regional Employment Trial grant. However, COVID19 stopped us in our tracks, with gyms closing and mutual obligations and face to face services for job seekers being suspended.

Never wanting to stop trying to make a better future for people, we quickly went to plan B, which was to convert Fit2Work into an online fitness and career program delivered via Zoom. Our staff (Aiden and Sasha) and partners Job Prospects (employment services provider), Inner Soul Physical Rehabilitation (fitness provider) and Career Partners Plus (career services provider) have been incredibly resourceful, adaptable, and innovative. It has been a journey of logistics and new experiences for many but a privilege to see participants grow and feel good about themselves.

To evaluate the impact of Fit2Work, the Work Star assessment tool was used to measure participant progress on a 5-stage journey of change in different areas of their lives including:

  • Motivation and aspiration
  • Job search skills
  • Stability
  • Basic skills (literacy, numeracy, and IT)
  • Workplace and social skills
  • Health and wellbeing

Work Star is a holistic and empowering tool that is designed to measure both outcomes of a service and show participants how they can improve their lives by taking small steps forward. Over a period of 5 weeks, all participants experienced positive change, with the largest progress being in the aspiration and motivation, job search skills and health and wellbeing scales.

To genuinely appreciate the effectiveness of Fit2Work, I thought the words from Erin, a participant, tells the story:

“My name is Erin and I'm 23. For the past 5 weeks I have been part of a group for a Fit2Work course. Twice a week I participated in a fitness class and a career development class. At the beginning I was hesitant to be part of this program but when Aiden, the coordinator, first got in contact with me he listened to where I was in my life and showed understanding and support. This made me relax and ready to be a positive participant.

Before this course, I was looking for a fitness program that would help me get fitter and I have found that the sessions perfectly met my needs. The trainer, Donna Jaensch-Brown, was a massive help to keep me motivated and when I needed it, to adjust the workout to the level I was at.

I also had doubts as to the benefit of the career development classes as I am on the path to my chosen career. But with the help of Hilary Healy and Greg Hatcher, I have gained lots of insights to help me understand how I can get a job after I've finished my study.”

Erin was an ideal participant for Fit2Work as she was already on a pathway and the program aligned with her goals. Despite COVID19, her story tells how Fit2Work benefited her by improving her self-efficacy and belief she will achieve her career goal.  At Employment Options, we have a simple values statement which is “we help people grow, feel good about themselves and hopeful for the future”. Erin’s testimonial says it all.

We would like to continue our trial of this methodology when normal services can resume. I am interested in hearing from other career practitioners and organisations who have trialled a similar approach to improve our program. Please get in touch as I would love to hear from you.