Sport and mental health in the workplace - what links them? | Tom Keya
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Tom keya - sport and mental health

What is the link between sport and mental health in the workplace

I’m a big believer in corporations taking responsibility for the mental health of employees. Having worked in the corporate and legal sector for many years, I have seen just how little support there often is for employee mental health.

Mental health issues are major threats to our collective and individual wellbeing. And particularly over the last 18 months of the pandemic, mental health issues are very much on the rise.

Without appropriate support from the corporation, mental health issues are only exacerbated. I’m a firm advocate for facilitating sport and exercise within the workplace – pandemic allowing, of course – in order to mitigate mental health problems and promote wellness.

Employers should utilise the link between sport and mental health

Firms must open up channels of communication between management and staff to discuss mental health issues. People should feel supported and free to discuss their personal battles. The most important thing is not to allow anyone to feel isolated.

This has been particularly difficult for corporations during lockdowns. There are many positives surrounding remote working, but it can lead to feelings of isolation. And for some employees this can adversely impact their wellbeing.

During my career, I have brought in psychiatrists to talk with my team. Regular communication about our mental health can go a long way to breaking down barriers, so that people feel comfortable asking for help.

Another tool I have often used is to implement sports activities for everyone to get involved with. By stepping away from their desks on a regular basis and exercising in a fun and inclusive way, employees can find that their mental health improves.

There is a well-documented link between sports and mental wellbeing. The Royal College of Psychiatrists officially deem prescribed exercise as a treatment for a number of the most common mental health conditions. This is important progress, but often misconceptions surrounding mental health still rule employer decisions about supporting employee wellbeing.

Mental health concerns are increasingly common among the general population

Statistics from The Faculty of Sport & Exercise Medicine (FSEM) show that mental health issues are extremely common. They are responsible for 23% of all disability reported in the UK. In England, 5.9% of people live with generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), 3.3% with depression, 0.6% with panic disorder and 7.8% with mixed depression and anxiety.

By mental wellbeing in the workplace, I’m referring to a mix of factors. These include:

  • The team member’s ability to work to their potential.
  • Forging positive and strong relationships with other team members.
  • Able to contribute to the community.
  • Able to work creatively and productively.
  • Feeling optimistic and generally satisfied.
  • Having a generally steadfast feeling of self-esteem.

Studies show that regularly taking part in some kind of physical activity or team sport can help to improve the wellbeing of those dealing with mental health issues and prevent them from developing in others.

There is evidence that physical activity alone can help to treat depression. When combined with some form of therapy and/or medication, it can help enormously. Studies show that adults who exercise every day experience a reduction in depression symptoms of up to 30%.

Evidence also exists – albeit in a more limited form – for physical activity and sport participation’s efficacy in reducing anxiety levels in people who are dealing with mild symptoms.

This is why employers can do so much more to help their employees manage mental health issues by promoting some form of physical activity in the workplace. This could be a team sport that everyone plays regularly, or it could be a step challenge using a tech wearable provided by the company.

Breaking down barriers in business

While some companies are entirely on board with exercise and sports to boost employee wellbeing, statistics show that others remain reticent. According to a survey by risk management company Gallagher, three in five business leaders remain uncertain of their responsibility regarding the mental health of their employees.

The survey asked 1,000 business leaders across various sectors about employee wellbeing and found that 58% feel unsure about their responsibilities or jurisdiction in this area.

Gallagher points out that in the UK, employers are legally responsible for the health and safety of their workforce under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations. This includes stress and mental health issues and applies to employees working remotely or away from company premises.

Despite this being enshrined in law in the UK, 31% of business leaders confessed they were unaware of this. This brings in a whole other concern for managers and business owners – that they could be considered negligent and risk a lawsuit against them.

A separate survey was undertaken of 2,000 employees. Around 40% of those employees said they had never had any mental health or wellbeing support from the employer. Of these 2,000, 15% were working from home and reported their mental health had deteriorated due to feeling isolated.

Steps employers should take to support employee wellbeing

As the world emerges from the pandemic, there is a mental health crisis. Millions of people have reported feeling more anxious and depressed during COVID-19, and we are now seeing remote working transition back to the office.

Employers must act in a systematically supportive way to employees and understand the different challenges individuals are facing. As part of their wellbeing plan for employees, there are several practical steps employers and business leaders can take:

  • Deal with each team member individually, confidentially and sensitively.
  • Consider accessing occupational health consultation to determine whether an employee needs reasonable adjustments to make their working life more manageable.
  • Offer paid for counselling or psychiatric support of some kind, depending on the company’s size and resources.
  • Communicate regularly with employees, including when they are off sick. Feeling isolated or forgotten can hugely exacerbate symptoms.
  • Ensure that an equal opportunities policy is in place and understood by all. It should ban any kind of discrimination against colleagues who are dealing with mental health issues.
  • Offer training to managers and team leaders in how to deal with employee wellbeing.
  • Offer time off during the day for employees to exercise in a way that suits them, such as jogging at lunchtime, walking during breaks or some kind of team sport.
  • Include gym or sports club membership as part of the benefits package and give employees time to use it.

Sport and mental health are closely linked, and business leaders can utilise this to support their team and help them through any mental health problems they are experiencing. It’s not always appropriate for every individual, but employers have a lot of scope to ensure that exercise and physical activity are incorporated into people’s working day.