Mental health transparency at work continues to rise, but employees call for more time for physical activity

Crowds of people hurrying to catch a train to work during morning rush hour at a subway station. Frantic passengers taking public transport at a underground metro station, rushing to board their ride.

A survey of 8,000 UK adults has highlighted an increase in mental health transparency in the workplace.

This year, 32 percent of UK employees said they called in sick due to poor mental health but gave another reason*. While this is still over a quarter, it’s lower than the findings from Nuffield Health’s 2023 report, with the percentage last year being 35 percent.

Nuffield Health’s 2024 Healthier Nation Index, which draws on research undertaken between 14 February and 1 March 2024, also revealed that 56 percent went to work despite poor mental health – down seven percent from last year (63%).

Step forwards

While it’s clear that stigma still acts as a barrier to open discussions between employees and employers about their mental health at work, the improvement indicates a positive step towards better communication, with people getting more comfortable admitting they need rest, emotional support and time away from their desks.

But, in line with this year’s theme for Mental Health Awareness Week, Movement, where people are being encouraged to move more for their mental health, Nuffield Health’s 2024 Nation Index revealed that while mental health transparency is on the up, there’s a lack of support in regards to time to undertake physical activity. Nearly half (45.70%) of respondents said that lack of time due to work acted as a barrier, with 42.91 percent stating more time should be put aside for it.

With low physical activity and poor mental health undoubtedly linked, employers must listen to their needs to foster a positive and more transparent culture.

In our article “How can employers use physical health as a portal to good overall wellbeing?”, Ruth Pott, from BAM UK&I explains that she has found physical health to be a great gateway to general wellbeing, recently launching ‘Get BAM Moving’ with the sole purpose of inspiring and engaging its employees to take ownership of physical health.

Lisa Gunn, Mental Health Prevention Lead at Nuffield Health, commented: “We call on workplaces to encourage their employees to look after their bodies and minds”, explaining how spending just five extra minutes on personal wellbeing a day can significantly boost mental and physical health.

Three ways to help employees get moving

Here, Lisa offers advice on how employers can approach the situation at hand:

1.    Take a holistic approach to fitness

In the past year, 46.20 percent said work had negatively impacted ** their physical/mental health, so companies recognise the connection between physical and mental wellbeing.

While the benefits of regular exercise are well documented, there is less awareness and understanding of this inextricable link.

It’s well known, for example, that physical exercise releases ‘feel good’ chemicals such as endorphins and dopamine, which make us feel positive and relieve stress. The benefits of ’emotional fitness’ on physical health are less widely known.  

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There is an inseparable link between physical and mental health, and, as such, a holistic approach is much more likely to result in healthier outcomes than by making artificial distinctions between mind and body. Focus on one above the other can lead to unhelpful behaviours and negative cycles, which can be difficult to break.   

Spending five minutes talking to employees struggling with their mental health and discussing their preferred methods of coping can have a positive impact. This may allow them to reflect on their needs for increased physical activity and allow you to accommodate those needs where necessary.

2.    Consider flexible working solutions

It’s encouraging that more employees feel comfortable admitting they need time off work due to mental health. However, it’s no coincidence that those with flexible working admitted to better physical fitness (43.60%) and better physical (42.58%) and mental health (38.77%).

Our study shows that most working individuals agree that employers should make work patterns more flexible to allow more time for exercise (46.81%).

While flexible working patterns have been a contentious subject post-COVID, with many employees forced to return to the office, they give people more freedom to fit in time to move their bodies.

Workplaces should recognise that not everyone has free time to exercise in their average day, particularly those with additional responsibilities, such as working parents or part-time carers.

Not only that, offering flexibility can enhance employee-employer relationships, as employees granted flexibility are more likely to feel like their needs are being heard, which has not only proven to increase productivity but can also help to increase transparency in future situations.

3.    Promote movement

According to the World Health Organisation, individuals of all age groups are advised to target a minimum of 150 active minutes per week. For added health benefits, this duration can be increased to 300 minutes weekly.

While some employees are actively asking for more time for physical activity, our study revealed that 39 percent say they want employers to do more to support them to exercise.

This can be as simple as promoting regular exercise in morning meetings, sharing information about local gyms or fitness classes to be distributed around the office or over email, or even organising company socials that involve physical activity.

In just five minutes, managers can also arrange, or raise awareness of, employee wellbeing offerings. This may include subsidised gym memberships that encourage regular exercise or 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. 

You can see the full findings of Nuffield Health’s latest Healthier Nation Index here.

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