Two-thirds of employees feel uncomfortable raising mental and physical health issues with employers – here’s how employers can improve their support
Almost half of all individuals report their physical health issues have impacted their mental health – with only 13% planning to speak to mental health or emotional wellbeing expert. This is partially due to work culture, and employers not providing enough support to their employees to discuss their issues comfortably.
Findings from Nuffield Health’s ‘Healthier Nation Index’, which is an annual review of the nation’s physical and mental health, supports the link between mental and physical wellbeing.
Mental and physical health has frequently been seen as an unspoken topic of discussion in the workplace. The ‘stigma’ of talking about mental and physical well-being reflects the relationship between the two and their intrinsic link.
This emphasises a 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.
Twice as much time is spent looking after physical health than mental health
Researchers recommend employers take an approach to better improve and promote 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, suggesting 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 Holl provided his own advice on how employers can play their part in creating holistic health interventions rather than taking a siloed approach to physical and mental wellbeing, these include:
Consider your benefits offering
A comprehensive and effective employee well-being 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.
Less formal benefits can equally encourage healthier behaviours also. For example, flexible working allows individuals to spend more time exercising, connecting with family or pursuing interests that improve their physical or emotional wellbeing.
Watch the language you use
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.
Improve office spaces to promote health
The average UK worker spends over 36 hours per week at work, with roughly half this time spent in the office. Therefore, it is vastly important that office space provides a comfortable experience.
Unergonomic workplaces not only risk injury but we know that this can, in turn, impacts 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.
Use personalised data to help
Many businesses are now harnessing the power of data to offer unique, personalised support.
Though 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. Someone at peak physical well-being may see their situation change next week.
The researchers entail that it is important to tailor solutions to the individual – combatting their current symptoms as well as identifying their risk factors and offering relevant support.
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