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Study supports the link between mental and physical wellbeing… but how can employers tailor their support?


         Two-thirds of employees feel uncomfortable raising mental (34 percent) or physical (39 percent) wellbeing issues with employers

         Almost half of people say physical health issues have impacted their mental health, with only 13 percent planning to speak to a mental health or emotional wellbeing expert

         Twice as much time is spent looking after physical health than mental health

Findings from Nuffield Health’s ‘Healthier Nation Index’ – an annual review of the nation’s physical and mental health – support the link between mental and physical wellbeing, with two-thirds of individuals uncomfortable talking about either within a workplace environment.

While mental health has long been seen as the ‘unspoken topic’, the narrowing gap between the ‘stigma’ of talking about mental and physical wellbeing to almost identical levels reflects the relationship between the two and their intrinsic link. 

The study also revealed almost half of people (46 percent) say physical health issues have directly impacted their mental health – however, only 13 percent plan to speak to a mental health or emotional wellbeing expert.

The findings emphasise the need to move away from the traditional unhelpful way in which many compartmentalise health – split into physical and mental wellbeing – instead of addressing it as a holistic entity. A connected approach needs to be taken to health, proactively helping people to stay physically and mentally healthy throughout their lives to prevent long-term health conditions, rather than just providing reactive care to pre-existing or preventable conditions.

And with so many individuals unwilling to seek support for their health risks, employers have a responsibility to promote a healthy workplace that encourages and supports all aspects of wellbeing.

Marc Holl, Head of Primary Care at Nuffield Health commented on the findings:

“It’s worrying that so many individuals feel uncomfortable speaking to their employer about their wellbeing. And while it’s encouraging to see the gap between physical and mental health conversations continuing to narrow – with similar figures reported across both categories – it’s alarming that two-thirds of people still feel uncomfortable seeking support for either.

“We must remember we cannot treat physical or mental health alone. Taking a holistic view on health – including offering interventions that cover the full range of risks – is the only way to get back to maximum wellbeing and create a healthier nation.”Marc offers advice on how employers can play their part in creating holistic health interventions rather than taking a siloed approach to physical and mental wellbeing:

  1. Consider your benefits offering

A comprehensive and effective employee wellbeing offering is one which supports the full range of health risks – physical and mental

This may include subsidising gym memberships to encourage regular exercise or offering full health MOTs in the office where health professionals can identify individuals’ physical risk factors. Similarly, access to CBT and Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) allows employees to speak with mental health experts to understand and combat negative thinking patterns.

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Less formal benefits can equally encourage healthier behaviours. For example, flexible working allows individuals to spend more time exercising, connecting with family or pursuing interests that improve their physical or emotional wellbeing. 

  1. Watch your language!

Language plays an important role in how we view health. So, we must move away from language that emphasises the divide between physical and mental health, towards a more holistic view that recognises the intrinsic link between the two.

Employers can play their role by moving away from medicalised language that focuses on diagnoses and focusing on more general language around wellbeing. For example, finding an appropriate moment to ask individuals open questions such as ‘how are you?’ or ‘what can we do to help you return to your maximum wellbeing?’ gives them the freedom to speak about their experiences on their terms and reflects the fact that wellbeing encompasses all aspects of health.

  1. Assess the office

The average UK worker spends over 36 hours per week at work, with roughly half this time spent in the office. So, it’s critical the space provides a comfortable experience. Unergonomic workplaces not only risk injury but we know that this can, in turn, impact our mental health – with pain and low mood among common experiences of injured individuals.

Employers are encouraged to work with a physiotherapist to assess the workplace and suggest interventions to avoid musculoskeletal injury. This may include physical amendments like introducing active desks or simply promoting the idea of positive physical changes employees can make – for example, walking to work or taking the stairs over the lift are among small changes that add up to yield significant health benefits.  

  1. Personalised data

Nuffield Health’s findings suggest twice as much time is spent looking after physical health (64.65 minutes) than mental health (32.79 minutes) per week. However, it’s important we take a balanced and holistic approach to our wellbeing.

We must remember, though, that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to employee health. What one person experiences today may have a less significant impact tomorrow or may affect someone else. And someone at peak physical wellbeing may see their situation change next week.

So, it’s important to tailor solutions to the individual – combatting their current symptoms as well as identifying their risk factors and offering relevant support. And many businesses are now harnessing the power of data to offer unique, personalised support.

For example, Nuffield Health’s PATH tool allows individuals to input personal data and receive suggestions based on their individual risk factors – including both physical and mental interventions.



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