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Leveraging Movement to Improve Mental Health in the Workplace

25 October 2021

In recent years, the discussion around mental health has become increasingly mainstream. With 1 in 5 U.S. adults experiencing mental illness each year, a shift in our cultural perspective towards mental illness is a welcomed change. Hardships associated with mental illness don’t stop at the individual. An estimated 8.4 million Americans provide care to an adult with an emotional or mental illness. This unpaid commitment to care is estimated to average 32 hours per week.


The Impact of Mental Illness on the Workplace


The ripple effect of mental illness doesn’t stop at the family level. Each year depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy an estimated $1 trillion in lost productivity. These disorders are commonly found in working U.S. adults who may be suffering in silence. Major depressive disorder is estimated to have a total economic burden of $210.5 billion per year with nearly half (48 – 50%) of that loss being attributed to the workplace. Research published by the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry further examined workplace losses due to depression. Their findings explained that financial ramifications are incurred due to absenteeism, presenteeism, direct medical costs and sadly, about 5% of the expenditures were related to suicide.


An employee is suffering from a headache on his office desk.The cost of mental illness to a businesses’ bottom line is a tremendous concern; but for many employers who are genuinely committed to the well-being of their workforce the concerns run much deeper. Team members attempting to “push through” mental illness while on the job are likely to have poor performance. Hallmark symptoms of depression and anxiety include cognitive decline, excessive fatigue, irritability and lack of motivation. Anxiety and depression are also associated with increasingly high rates of long-term disability in comparison with other illnesses. Additionally, increased turnover becomes a concern. This is due to workers often citing their job as a main source of stress or simply struggling to manage the demands of a full-time role while coping with mental illness. To further compound the issue, when an employee is struggling with mental illness the ripple effects of increased workload and stress will often be felt by the entire team.


Organizational Opportunities to Improve Mental Well-Being


Luckily, with the cultural pivot of increased awareness surrounding mental health our individual cognizance has also peaked. Many of us are already attuned to how factors such as: social support, financial stress, sleep habits, nutrition and movement influence how we feel on a day-to-day basis. Exercise, or preferably the larger catch-all phrase “movement”, is proven to improve mental health by reducing anxiety, depression and negative mood through improvements to self-esteem and cognitive function. Movement is also clinically proven to be effective in supporting the treatment of more serious mental illnesses, reduce the already elevated risk of chronic illness such as diabetes or cancer and offset the risk of cardiometabolic disease which is twice as high in adults with mental illness.


Employees raising hands around a table in the office.According to a publication by Primary Care Companion Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, aerobic exercises, including jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, gardening, and dancing, have been proved to reduce anxiety and depression. The article supported that thirty minutes of moderate-intensity movement performed three days a week was enough to achieve a therapeutic threshold. Additionally, this activity did not need to be performed all at once and could be broken up into 10 minutes bouts of brisk walking, gardening, housework, etc. Additional benefits from regular movement included but were not limited to: improved sleep, stress relief, improved mood, increased energy and stamina, reduced feelings of tiredness and increased mental alertness, weight reduction and reduced cholesterol.


Clearly, there is a huge opportunity here to compassionately boost human performance and offset the impacts of mental illness. How can employers harness the superpowers of movement to help make their workforce more resilient, more productive, happier and healthier? Numerous ways! The following are a few strategies for incorporating mental health awareness and movement into the culture of your organization. Since each workplace is unique, it is important to look for opportunities to customize these approaches in ways that will best benefit your employees.


Strategy I: The Free Resilience Program


This strategy, possibly more so than others, requires around a top-down approach. Leading by example is crucial for any company-wide policy. Top leadership must take visible steps to open up a dialogue about mental health. This can be in the form of company briefings promoting available EAP resources, social media posts recognizing various mental health annual observances, a compassionate blurb in the company newsletter speaking to the value of resilience and mental well-being. But actions speak louder than words and employees will often mimic the behaviors of their top executives.


A hand holding a yellow ball with a smiling face. Behind is a laptop and office desk.Take action by turning a short weekly meeting into a walking meeting. Pace the perimeter of the building or hallways, encourage managers to do the same for at least one meeting a week. Recruit the office fitness-fanatic or a local fitness professional to lead a short 5-to-10-minute stretch before the daily shift starts. Get involved with local adult sports leagues and encourage team members to join in on the after-work fun. Organize, publicize and participate in a lunch time walking group that meets daily for a brisk stroll. To reiterate, the most important factor to ensure the success of this approach is: leadership buy in. Executive level personnel truly need to be engaged in a visible, authentic manner for this approach to be successful.


Strategy II: The Budget Friendly Resilience Program


Ready to make a small investment for big improvements to the well-being of your workforce? Great call. The approaches listed in strategy I still apply. However, the likeliness of them being successfully started and maintained drastically increases with the presence of a designated Workplace Wellness Committee. Seek volunteers that will be willing to advocate for the well-being of their workplace. These individuals should be capable of organizing, planning and communicating ongoing movement initiatives and mental-health information. Neither mental health or movement are one-size-fits-all concepts. This is why it is important to recruit team members from different backgrounds and departments. Make an effort for this group to be diverse, inclusive and structured. The group should meet on a weekly basis and while their roles are voluntary, management should treat this as an aspect of their job. The time committed to Workplace Wellness Committee duties should still be relatively minimal, but should be respected just as any other facet of one’s job duties would be.


Strategy III: The Ideal Resilience Program


A hand holding a printed paper that says wellbeing before other employees who are smiling.Finally, for organizations truly committed to boosting the resilience of their organization through movement and mental health awareness there is an ideal option. Hire a workplace wellness professional to facilitate cultivating an organizational culture of wellness. These professionals come from a variety of educational backgrounds including health promotion, kinesiology, psychology and dietetics. Their roles typically involve additional certifications in health coaching, fitness training or nutrition counseling. A properly qualified workplace wellness professional will be a force multiplier for your organization’s resilience program. Look to this person(s) to organize the initiatives previously reviewed,
find fresh new ways to market the information and increase participation, lead onsite yoga or other fitness classes, teach healthy lifestyle lunch and learns with plenty of movement breaks and most importantly – become an ally and accountability factor to help your employees get
moving and boost their mental well-being.


ROI on Workplace Mental Health Programs


Though aspects of these strategies can be implemented at no cost, it is worth noting the proven return on investment (ROI) of workplace mental health programs. International research has revealed that companies with mental health programs in place for one year had a median annual ROI of $1.62 for every dollar invested. Companies with programs in place for three or more years have a median annual ROI of $2.18 for every dollar spent. In summary, investing in the mental well-being of your employees is just good business.



About SiteWell Solutions

SiteWell Solutions is committed to supporting business and organizations with health, wellness and injury prevention services. A healthy workforce is proven to be more engaged, productive and happier. It is our mission to deliver these outcomes to every organization we serve. Our services include onsite and virtual corporate wellness programs, industrial athlete training, injury prevention services, chronic disease management, employee resilience support services and much more. Contact info@sitewellsolutions.com today to find out how we can optimize your organization.

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