The loneliness of the GFI (and how to minimise it)

Despite surrounding ourselves with people, a life teaching group fitness can be a lonely one, says Mel Morony. So which strategies can help us feel part of a group too?

The play out track begins, the class concludes. The Group Fitness Instructor (GFI) starts packing up. If there is another class immediately following and a crossover of GFIs happens then there may be a Hi/Bye between the two colleagues. The finishing GFI hurries toward the exit, possibly stopping at reception to complete any necessary administration for remuneration purposes, before jumping in their car and heading for home or to the next facility where the process will likely be repeated.

I have just described a small snippet of a GFIs day. Delivering several classes at multiple facilities daily, often returning to a home office to answer emails and prepare new sessions, with limited interaction with the staff of the clubs they have been in, can lead to a sense of isolation. This isolation can become a mental health hazard.

The irony of Group isolation
Why would we feel isolated when we are surrounded by people – our class participants – all of the time? The answer is, because participants are not our friends, nor our work buddies. They are people who come to us because they believe that we can help them achieve their own health and fitness goals through the service we offer. They did not come to hear about our lives, whether personal or professional, and while some may ask, it is important to exercise care in our self-disclosure. In fact, some facilities have policies that require staff and contractors to keep patrons at a professional distance. Thus, while we should seek to inspire and build rapport with participants, it is important to be mindful of these parameters.

Hazard identification
Unlike physical OH&S, where we can be objective toward hazard identification and risk management, often due to legislation, mental health OH&S can be a lot more subjective. As I mention in this article on GFI mental health, with the exception of discrimination, bullying and not aggravating an existing condition, there is no further legislation on mental OH&S. This is because no two people are the same from a mental and emotional point of view. We have all been through different experiences, and even two people who have been through the same experience may perceive it differently; these experiences and perceptions will be what inform our perception of our present reality.

Managing the hazard
When I realised that I was at risk of going nuts (my exact thoughts) from the isolation of being a GFI, I knew I would have to find ways to manage it. I knew that it would take initiative on my part. While I supposed my Group Fitness Managers (GFMs) may have been concerned about mental health OH&S beyond what was legislated, I also knew that expecting those GFMs to provide solutions was unrealistic. Lets face it, most GFMs are employed for a limited amount of time each week and have very large teams to facilitate. So I decided to be proactive in managing the risk.

The 30-second article

  • The nature of much Group Fitness Instructor work means that there is little opportunity to bond as a team, and this can result in a sense of isolation
  • Group Fitness Managers may be sympathetic to concerns of loneliness, but it should be the GFIs prerogative to put strategies in place to manage their own risk
  • Strategies include spending time in facilities you teach at during times when you arent instructing; face-to-face professional development; getting involved in all workplace meetings and social activities; and choosing to work at clubs that not only claim, but actively practice, a culture of inclusivity.

These are the strategies I put into place:

1.Get out more

This was the advice I was given in my early 20s when I wanted to meet someone. The same is true when it comes to developing friendships with our industry colleagues. Despite the prevalence of social media and its role in connecting people, there is nothing quite the same as face-to-face human interaction. So, I resolved to make an effort to spend some time in the facilities I teach in when Im not actually instructing classes. This is usually under the guise of doing something else such as a weight training session or getting to the club early (where practical) to have a coffee or bite to eat between classes and maybe prep sessions (or draft articles like this). Of course, I have to respect the fact that the staff on duty have work to do, soI ensure I dont hinder them. However, this strategy has enabled me to get to know the staff, initially as faces and gradually by name as well, which allows for moments of banter when they arent busy.

2.The staff that learn together...

As fitness professionals we need to undertake continuing education in order to remain registered. Face-to-face professional development (PD) also provides an opportunity to spend time with fellow industry professionals, but these networks may be short-lived depending on whether we swap contact details and make an effort to keep in touch afterwards – particularly so if we have travelled for the workshop. Compare that to a PD being hosted by a club that you teach in. Over the years I have found this type of PD to be the most beneficial from a staff camaraderie point of view. In one instance, a club at which I had taught for two years but barely knew the staff, hosted such an opportunity. That afternoon workshop resulted in friendships being initiated that have continued long afterwards.

3.Meetings are parties in work clothes

Meetings and parties put us in contact with our colleagues, enabling us to feel part of a larger team and build friendships within that team. For me, attendance at as many of these as possible became a part of my risk management plan. Nevertheless, there have been plenty of parties at which I have felt like a fish out of water because I did not know many people and struggled to feel part of the group, resulting in my being glad to trot out the teaching a class first thing tomorrow morningexcuse for an early departure.

Personally, the social occasions that have been most enjoyable have either been at clubs where I have developed friendships with the staff via the methods discussed above, including meeting attendance, or at events such as sit-down meals or fun activities like lawn bowls, which can mitigate the awkwardness of barely knowing anyone.

4.Pick and choose your clubs

The risk management strategies that I have discussed do not work at every club. This may be due to a combination of factors, including our own schedules, the layout of a facility and the culture of a club. In the case of the latter two, it is important to recognise what we can and cannot change. It is likely that there will always be some clubs that fall into the arrive, teach, leave category, and feature very little in the way of staff interaction. That said, if a club does claim to have an inclusive staff culture, but that isnt being experienced by the GFIs who want to be part of it – whether due to the inclusive culture not existing at all or it being cliquey – then it is fair to bring that to the attention of the GFM. In such instances it should be appreciated that the GFM may have an insiderperspective which differs from that of those who feel excluded. It is therefore important for both sides to be as objective as possible when approaching and discussing such issues. The GFM may not be able to fix the problem, but they should be in a position to raise the issue with the management team so that steps can be taken to bring about a culture shift.

Since reducing isolation is not a legislated mental health issue, we also need to accept that some businesses will not seek to act on our concerns. That said, if such inaction was evident in a club that claimed to have an inclusive culture, it would raise questions concerning the integrity of that club, and, personally, would make me question whether I wanted to continue teaching there. In my experience, the clubs at which I feel I am part of a team are the ones at which I am better able to cross-promote their programs and products. While it is a topic for another article, from a secondary spend and staff and member retention perspective, it may well be in the best interests of the business to proactively address the hazard of isolation for all of its staff and contractors.

Have you experienced isolation in your role as a fitness professional? If so, what strategies have helped you? Share your experiences in the comments section below.


Mel Morony is a group fitness instructor based in Eastern Melbourne. She is presenting in Aqua HIIT at the Women's Health and Fitness Summit in Melbourne, 28-29 October 2017.