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How employers can support employee wellbeing through sport and physical activity

Tom Keya — How employers can support employee wellbeing through sport and physical activity

Employees struggling with mental health problems will generally find that the less support they get from the firm they work for, the worse they feel. This can have long-term repercussions for all involved.

But there are some simple steps every employer can take to help their employees deal with stress and mental health issues and promote wellness in the workplace.

Employers are responsible for the mental health of employees

Communication is, of course, key. There must be a flexible and non-judgemental ecosystem to encourage employees to ask for help when they need it. Employees should feel supported and free to express their needs without fear of it backfiring on them.

The pandemic has, of course, further impacted the mental health of millions of people around the world. And remote working has also exacerbated this for some, with growing feelings of isolation and loneliness taking their toll.

During my years working for law firms, I have used various supportive techniques for my teams. These range from bringing in a psychiatrist for anyone to speak to regularly to implementing weekly team sports activities.

There is a strong link between regular physical activity and improvements in mental health issues, which employers should take advantage of. Allowing employees time during the working day to either play a team sport with each other, attend the gym or go for a run will go a long way to helping their wellbeing.

The strong link between physical activity and mental health

It’s worth examining the link between mental health and physical activity in more detail. Scientifically and medically speaking, exercise is used as a prescription to help with mental health conditions. For example, the Royal College of Psychiatrists considers the prescription of exercise as a promising treatment for mental health problems.

And while I welcome this as significant progress, there are still many barriers to accessing the help people need due to the stigma of mental ill health in the workplace.

This is despite the fact that mental health problems are widespread. In England alone, 7.8% of people suffer from depression mixed with anxiety, 5.9% live with generalised anxiety disorder, 3.3% with clinical depression and 0.6% with panic disorder.

Plenty of scientific studies show that regular physical activity helps many people improve their mental wellbeing. Evidence shows that exercise can treat and improve depression, even without medication or therapy mixed in. Studies show that adults who take some form of exercise every day report a 30% reduction in symptoms of depression.

Therefore, a simple way for employers to take a positive and meaningful step in supporting the mental health and wellbeing of their workforce is to ensure regular physical activity is on offer.

Breaking down barriers about mental health in the workplace
Some corporations are fully on board with the necessity of supporting employee mental health. However, according to research by risk managers Gallagher, a significant number are unsure of their responsibilities in this area.

A survey of 1,000 business leaders found that almost two-thirds (58%) aren’t sure of their responsibilities — or even whether they have any — to the mental health and wellbeing of their employees. This is despite the fact that employers are responsible for the health and safety of the workforce in the UK through the Management of Health and Safety at Work act. This includes mental health too and applies to employees regardless of whether they’re working on the company premises or elsewhere.

A separate survey was carried out, asking 2,000 employees how supported they feel by their employers. Approximately 40% say that they have had no mental health support at all from their employer. Of these 2,000, 15% who were working remotely noted that their mental health had suffered because of this.

As we all emerge from the pandemic, it’s clear that there is a mental health crisis growing all the time. People report feeling more anxious and depressed since the start of the pandemic, and this is likely to increase even as people begin to return to the office.

What should employers do to support employees with mental health issues?

Employers and business leaders should actively support their employees’ mental health and take the time to understand the challenges individuals face.

This is not a ‘one size fits all solution, and employers must be careful to help people individually. Here are a few steps employers can take to do just that:

● Deal with people individually.

● Always make it clear that they are treated sensitively and confidentially.

● Take advice from occupational health professionals on how best to help employees with specific needs and make reasonable adjustments to do so.

● Offer counselling or psychiatric support if possible and necessary.

● Communicate regularly and curate an atmosphere of trust and non-judgement.

● Ensure that employees are not left out of the loop if they are off sick.

● Stay in regular touch with people who are still working remotely — it can’t be emphasised how much increased isolation can take its toll on some people.

● Have an equal opportunities policy in place and understood by everyone at the firm — helping to ban discrimination against colleagues dealing with mental health issues.

● Put in place training and support for managers and team leaders.

● Offer time and space during the working day for employees to exercise in some way, whether team sports at lunchtime or just time to take a walk during their breaks.

● Include a sports club or gym membership as part of the employee benefits package and encourage them to use it.

Mental health and physical activity are very closely linked, and employers can take advantage of this link. Supporting employees in taking regular exercise can go a long way to ensuring they feel mentally stable and improving the general atmosphere at work, even in times of stress.

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