Why workplaces must bridge the gap between physical and mental health


The importance of a healthy workforce cannot be oversold.

Healthy staff are more engaged and productive. They’re less likely to be absent and will likely stay longer with an organisation, reducing the need to recruit and train new people.

But there’s another, crucial reason to help a team remain healthy too. Namely that our physical health is intrinsically linked to our mental health.

We understand the need for good mental health in the workplace. Just as, we understand there is a stigma that often prevents men in particular, from seeking help when they’re struggling. In fact, according to a 2019 Mind report, the fear of being told they were mentally ill would be a top-three reason for one-in-ten (10%) men to not seek support. This is worrying, given that the same report found 43% of the men surveyed regularly feel worried or low, compared to 37% in 2009.

Clearly more needs to be done to break this stigma, and to help men see that admitting vulnerability doesn’t make them weak. And this is something the workplace can play a key role in achieving, by encouraging leaders to talk about their own mental health and creating safe spaces for conversations about both physical and mental health to take place. However, as we embark on Men’s Health Week, we also need employers to understand the essential role that our physical working environments can play too on our mental health.

What’s the connection?

There are plenty of physical factors in the workplace that can impact our mental health. For instance, without an upright chair or a monitor fixed at eye-level – something which, during the pandemic, many of us had to swap for spare-room desks and kitchen tables – office workers can easily suffer from bad backs. If left unattended, an issue like this can begin to affect our sleep, which can in turn drastically impact mental health too.

Light is important, too. During the winter months, the lack of natural light can cause many of us to struggle with seasonal affective disorder, while poor indoor lighting can contribute to stress and anxiety all year round.

Interestingly even something as simple as a messy office can impact mental wellbeing as well. A cluttered space can cause feelings of anxiety, while tidy spaces do the exact opposite, providing something of a soothing effect. Likewise, crowded or loud spaces can easily lead to feelings of overwhelm.

What can employers do?

The kinds of problems we’re talking about here might sound small. But the potential knock-on effect can be large, and crucially, they’re all things that can leaders and HR can affect both quickly and easily.

For instance, if a team member is suffering with a bad back, it isn’t enough just to encourage them to visit the doctor to get a diagnosis. An employer could also support them with ongoing physio appointments, encourage them to be more active during the day and should provide an ergonomic set up. It’s this kind of holistic approach that will have a long-term impact and help to preserve that employee’s physical health as well as their mental health too.

Likewise, there are preventative measures that can help to avoid problems occurring in the first place. Increasing the amount of natural light in an office or making sure working areas are properly lit would be a great place to start.

There are even ways to make an office more soothing. You might struggle, in an inner-city location, to provide a view that offers plenty of greenery. Instead, you could consider bringing potted plants or flowers into the office, so that team members have some contact with nature. Likewise, consider the colour scheme in your working environment. Colour affects mood, so consider painting your office a bright, light colour. Soft shades are particularly good, and might even help reflect to light.

Finally, do what you can to keep the office tidy. Encourage team members to organise their space and regularly get rid of as much clutter as you can.

Putting words into action.

For those who are still getting to the grips with the idea of a link between physical and mental health, it might be difficult to imagine how measures like these – some of which may seem small – could have a significant impact.

But we should bear in mind, particularly during Men’s Health Week, whether a male colleague, who might worry about being labelled as weak, is likely to ask for help if they believe they’re stressed as a result of clutter or lighting. What they’re feeling is perfectly valid, but with conversations about male mental health still proving particularly difficult, it seems likely they would sooner suffer in silence than speak up.

Let’s make no mistake here: this is a piece in a wider puzzle. We’re finally seeing workplaces begin to tackle female health issues, providing greater support for women who, for instance, are going through the menopause or embarking on fertility treatments. But we mustn’t lose sight of the challenges surrounding male mental health either.

I believe that workplaces must create psychologically safe spaces – spaces where individuals can bring their whole selves, feel valued, and have difficult conversations without fear of judgement. It’s no good sandwiching intense conversations about health and mental health between meetings, leaving colleagues no time to reflect on or gather their thoughts. Nor can we expect them to simply hide their feelings under a cloak of composure. The key here is to be transparent, offer an element of choice to team members in terms of where and when they meet, and commit yourself (as a leader) to the conversation. Crucially, however, an employer needs to ensure this a space in which a team member can talk in equal measure about their mental and their physical wellbeing.

Now is the time to start thinking about thinking of healthcare holistically; looking at all of the possible factors that might negatively affect someone’s health and understanding that what might impact someone physically will also likely impact their mental health too. This is how we will ensure good mental and physical health in our male colleagues. And ultimately, this is how we’ll ensure we all be able to bring our best selves to work.

Author: Tom Bivins, Head of Ergonomics and Wellbeing at Vita Health Group

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Vita is an award-winning, CQC registered healthcare provider