The internet and social media were abuzz earlier this month when Web Developer Madalyn Parker posted the response from her CEO when she emailed giving notice that she would be taking two days of sick leave due to mental health reasons.
Her CEO’s Response:
“I use (your email) as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health – I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organisations. You are an example to us all, and help cut through the stigma so we can all bring our whole selves to work.”
This CEO turned into an overnight internet hero as his response hit a cord. Our society is suffering from an unspoken pandemic that is affecting all walks of life and ultimately affecting the bottom line of business across all industries.
As a Sports Coach and Personal Trainer, I have written this article to look at some of the common mental health issues faced in today’s society and more specifically, to highlight how physical exercise can be used to mitigate or prevent such conditions.
My goal at the very least, is to have you reconsider your own priorities when it comes to your mental health and work life balance, and perhaps even look at how you may influence your organisation to do the same.
It’s my belief that we need to start holding a mirror up to mental health issues and realise that stress in the workplace is a huge contributor to people’s overall mental state. As individuals and organisations, we need to devise actions plans to first acknowledge the problem and then prevent, reduce and support people suffering from these conditions, whether through leave policies, as Madalyn’s company, or through exercise as I will suggest.
A 2012 report investigating job stress in the workplace by the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VHPF) found that there were many contributing factors to mental health conditions in the workforce. Some of the key stressors included workplace bullying, effort-reward imbalance, injustice at work, discrimination in the workplace and sexual harassment. As well as external factors such as the state of the economy and the contractual arrangements.
One of the major mental health issues related to job stress is depression. This is of significant concern because, as identified by the World Health Organisation, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide and is predicted to be the second largest contributor to the global burden of disease by the year 2020. Yes, you read that right, depression contributes to disease i.e. it makes people sick!
And this is of particular relevance to the business community as job stress (which has been seen to contribute to mental health concerns and depression) has a direct impact on turnover and absenteeism.
The VHPF report found that up to 40 per cent of staff turnover was attributed to stressors at work. For example, effort-reward imbalance and job strain were linked to higher employee turnover. A meta-analysis reviewing 175 studies that examined the relationship between stress at work and absenteeism concluded that stressors cause illnesses which then result in increased absenteeism.
It is for these reasons that individuals and organisations need to establish greater management systems for dealing with and preventing job stress. One of the simplest and most effective ways to do this is by engaging in regular physical exercise and promoting it throughout your organisation.
In 2014, Yale University School of Medicine, published a research paper looking into the relationship between stress and exercise. They found that exercise was associated with less subjective stress, a finding that has been observed in numerous populations from athletes to older adults to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. They also concluded that exercise is an effective method for improving perceived stress, stress symptoms, and quality of life. More specifically, regular physical activity neutralises the effects of psychological stressors on cardiac reactivity and dampens stressor-evoked increases in stress hormones and serotonin.
When looking more closely at depression, it is clear that physical activity should be an integral part of any management or prevention program. A literature review published in 2013 on behalf of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that reducing physical activity over time increases the risk of developing depression, whereas increasing physical activity over time reduces the risk of depression.
So why does exercise have antidepressant effects? Proposed physiological mediators include changes in serotonin metabolism, improved sleep, as well as endorphin release and consequent “runner’s high”. Psychological factors include enhanced self-efficacy and self-esteem, interruption of negative thoughts and rumination.
The positive effects that exercise has on reducing cognitive decline should also be mentioned as this would appear to be of critical importance to workplace productivity and the quality of work produced. A 2010 study in the Journal of Internal Medicine found a 38% reduced risk of cognitive decline in subjects with high levels of physical exercise, compared to sedentary subjects. Moreover, low-to-moderate levels of physical activity similarly resulted in a significantly reduced risk of deterioration of cognitive performance. Several explanations for the protective effect of physical activity on cognitive functions have been suggested. One such explanation is that physical exercise helps to maintain cerebrovascular integrity, by sustaining blood flow and the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the brain.
The findings highlighted above represent only a minuscule sample of the vast amount of compelling research available on the positive effects of exercise on mental health, depression, cognitive performance and productivity.
18th century German writer, Johan Wolfgang Von Goethe, once wrote that “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least”.
Based on these words it’s time we seriously reflect and ask ourselves, is working ourselves into a state of poor mental and physical health more important than embracing the benefits that exercise can have on our personal health and the health of our workforce?
After all, if your health and the health of your staff is what matters most to the health of your business, then health shouldn’t be at the mercy of anything and we should take head of the words of wisdom Johan Wolfgang Von Goethe once scribbled.
Van Marinos – Senior Coach Brooks Performance