How can employers use physical health as a portal to good overall wellbeing?


Physical activity can be used as a gateway into other pillars of wellbeing because there’s less of a stigma around physical health than, say, mental health or having issues with financial wellbeing. The recognition of the importance of physical wellbeing could be one reason that the Mental Health Foundation has chosen ‘movement’ as its theme for Mental Health Awareness Week this year, which takes place from 13-19th May.

Companies like Jaguar Land Rover have found physical health can be a good “entry point to introduce other services that people may feel stigma in coming forward to use”, says Dr Steve Illey, Chief Medical Officer, Jaguar Land Rover.

He says that it’s essential to recognise the interrelated nature of the pillars of wellbeing:

“We know that chronic physical disease can influence mental health and vice versa. We know that good physical health is protective for good mental health. We also know that good physical health supports good safety which is a bedrock of looking after people.”

BAM has also 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:

“This is to ultimately improve their physical and mental health and reduce our employees’ personal risk to the plethora of lifestyle related illnesses (stroke, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, dementia, etc),” says Ruth Pott, BAM UK & Ireland’s Head of Workplace Wellbeing.

As part of this, there’s a well established annual event – BAMathon, created by its HR Team, – run in the month of June, with all employees invited to make teams of up to 10 to run, walk, cycle or swim, which means the activity also taps into social wellbeing. “We have high levels of engagement with this event – 1 in 6 of our employees participated last year,” says Pott.

Given the fact physical health seems to increasingly be seen as a good ‘glue’ for other facets of wellbeing, we asked some employers who are active in this space to share their tips on getting this approach right…

Acknowledge there are health inequalities that might make keeping physically fit harder for some people than others 

The Guinness Partnership has been doing some work around the menopause, as well as cancer, and for both of these physical conditions has been acknowledging intersectional differences.

 “One of the key things we wanted to get across was that, not only are there health inequalities in the UK, but cancer affects different ethnic groups differently. We actually had a guest speaker from Bupa coming in during Black History Month to make this link and we talked about prevalence across different groups,” says Liz Skelton, Director of Health and Safety at The Guinness Partnership.

But be careful about how you make the link between different groups of people and health inequalities – rather than rely on anecdotal evidence, Skelton has found the best way to make these links is through robust data, like national statistics and published data. For instance,Cancer Research has published this research about ethnic disparities in cancer: First data in a decade highlights ethnic disparities in cancer – Cancer Research UK – Cancer News.

Volunteering can be a good way to link physical wellbeing with social wellbeing

Some employees will be put off by ‘traditional’ exercise, like the popular ‘couch to 5K’ or ‘fun runs’. This is where volunteering can be a really effective way to get people moving.

The Guinness Partnership, for example, has run volunteering days around activities like working in a food bank, which involves physical activity but isn’t labelled as ‘exercise’, which could alienate some employees. 

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“Things like company ‘fun runs’ are potentially not inclusive but volunteering activities can be more inclusive,” says Skelton.

Make any exercise groups as inclusive as possible

Further to her last point, The Guinness Partnership has also set up a Strava group to get people moving and there are hundreds of employees signed up.

However, key to its success has been the fact that the group description makes clear that you don’t have to a be a runner, or a cyclist, or a ‘serious’ sports person to be part of the group and it welcomes everyone. As a result, people are happy to post about walking for ten minutes, or doing a bit of stretching too. 

“We have employees logging a little lunchtime walk, but also those cycling-crazy sportspeople who log 50 miles at the weekend,” says Skelton. “Everyone supports each other and the group has a really good vibe. I think what’s important is welcoming a spectrum of activities.”

Skelton adds, too, that often colleagues will meet up to do physical activities together and there’s a social element after.

“My advice would be, if you’re doing socials after physical activity to not focus them all around alcohol,” she says. “We’ve really tried to do different socials after team activities, like a pizza night instead of just going to the pub.”

Similarly, BAM is keen to make its physical activities as inclusive as possible and one way it’s done this is through its varied online digital programmes which include accessible fitness such as sitting yoga and those which vary in level and pace.

Signpost the Stairs

Sounds simple, but sometimes the simplest things work the best, advises Skelton. A gentle nudge from a poster by the photocopier, can be enough to remind people to get in their steps by taking the stairs rather than the lift. 

Consider QR Codes & Health Machines 

The Guinness Partnership is also just about to put QR code stickers on its desks to nudge people towards wellbeing content, the thinking being that, despite hot desking, they can still have easy access to this information. 

It’s also introduced health machines where people can measure their blood pressure and BMI, hooking into ‘Know Your Numbers’ week to raise awareness of the importance of tracking physical stats. 

“We’ve seen some real, tangible benefits from these like some of our people finding out they have high blood pressure and needing medication,” says Skelton. “What I would say is that you need to do quite a bit of publicity around these machines to generate the buzz to interest people.”

Add the fun factor

One of the biggest learnings that BAM’s Pott has gleaned so far is the importance of making physical activity events fun (and, just because you put ‘fun’ before ‘run’ does not necessarily make this the case for everyone!).

To do this, at its events BAM has previously included a photography competition and a Strava art competition. It’s also awarded a monetary donation to a charity of choice of the winning teams in its BAMathon (all employees are invited to make teams of up to 10 to run, walk, cycle or swim) which takes place across the month of June.

“The main challenge is getting those who do little or nothing to be involved and not feel intimidated by the competitiveness of others – the Team Captains are tasked with ensuring all in the team feel valued and part of the team, and that they enjoy it and hopefully feel fitter and better at the end of June,” she says. 

After June, the next challenge is then encouraging employees to continue with their fitness and exercise goals. To this end, BAM has created its ‘Get BAM Moving’ programme which includes walking clubs and online/live/on demand fitness programmes.

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