What can employers do to improve their employee physical wellbeing offering? What routes and methods can they apply to ensure employees can better their physical and mental health at work? And what can employees personally do to live a more active life in a largely sedentary working world?
To help answer these questions, we spoke to a group of three physical wellbeing enthusiasts and entrepreneurs.
Why is physical and mental health important at work?
First up, we heard from Sally Lovett, founder of Stretching the City, certified yoga teacher, nutritional health coach and author of “The Wellbeing Guide to London”. Sally has hosted yoga and wellbeing retreats all over Europe, written for the Guardian, The Times and Code Nast Traveller and regularly speaks about wellbeing at workshops and events for the likes of Capital FM and Deloitte.
Here’s what we learned about why physical wellbeing is important at work:
Sally hit us with some hard facts. The current workforce works harder and longer than ever before, with the boundaries between work, life and sleep becoming increasingly blurred.
“1/4 of British people are obese, a third of us get less than six hours of sleep a night, and a quarter of us will experience a mental health problem in any given year”.
Although neck and back pain has historically been the leading cause of workplace absence, it has now been usurped by mental health. With sick days costing employers a yearly average of £554 per employee, now more than ever, company bosses and managers need to ask themselves why employees are feeling the mental strain and what they can do to change it.
“It’s not just broccoli and burpees”: how to monitor the physical wellbeing of your employees
Sally believes in a 360, holistic approach to physical wellbeing in the workplace. She explained that if we’re not addressing the various touch points of physical, mental and emotional wellbeing, then we aren’t as well as we can be.
1. Physical Exercise
With 20 million Brits found to be physically inactive, providing employees with the opportunity to move at work physically is a no-brainer to get people going and motivated.
Sally listed Yoga, Pilates and running groups as potential easy wins to introduce into the working day. She’s gone into plenty of workplaces where clients have complained there’s no space to do any physical activity but has found that most can find room for chair yoga or even use YouTube videos of stretch workouts to invigorate and engage their staff, even whilst at their desks.
“People who exercise 3-5 times a week show an increased productivity level of around 70 percent, whilst their sleep quality is proven to improve by an average of 65 percent”
She also noted the invaluable resources most of us will already have in our offices. Most companies will have a yoga enthusiast or keen runner in their midst. Reaching out to these physically active employees and asking them to champion their sport of choice is a great way to engage employees in a more active work day.
Of course, physical wellbeing doesn’t stop at exercise and with neck and back pain still holding on in the top 3 causes of workplace sick days, ensuring the ergonomics of your office are optimal for your employees’ occupational health.
Stretching in the City hold posture clinics, and Sally advises consulting an ergonomics expert or researching ways to limit these occupational hazards. Invest in standing desks, supportive chairs, and laptop stands.
Sally explained to us (as we scoffed Whey Hey ice cream) that what you eat directly correlates to your mood and performance. Sally has found that the key to healthier eating habits is often just education and inspiration.
“What you eat at lunch might ruin your day”
She suggests using some of your company’s social budget to order healthier eating options, all sitting down away from your desks, or even learning to make a new fresh recipe together.
She said it’s important to acknowledge that not everyone wants to do Pilates or meditate, but everyone is going to eat something at lunchtime. Think of nutrition as fuel but also as a way of connecting people, especially when studies show eating alone regularly can contribute to loneliness.
3. Sleep and self-care
Sally highlighted findings from the Great British Sleep Survey that found a third of us are getting less than the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep per night.
Lack of sleep is proven to increase feelings of helplessness, increase lapses in concentration and measurably lower our mood. More frighteningly, it also increases our risk of developing diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Diabetes and even the common cold. Sally explained that people may dismiss themselves as not being ‘good sleepers’ despite there being many practical things we can do to improve it.
Sally referenced our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) versus our parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) and explained that nowadays, we’re spending too much time in the fight or flight phase. We are constantly switched on, and continuous exposure to the blue light emitted from LED screens means when our heads hit the pillow, our brains aren’t ready to mellow easily into sleep.
Employers can help this by implementing walking meetings, encouraging regular breaks, ensuring people take their full lunch hour and providing chill-out zones where the lights are lowered so employees can switch off.
4. “We can’t be switched on 100% of the day”
Sally has found it’s as simple as instigating a workplace culture where it’s okay to take a break, it’s okay to send an email outside of work hours but it’s also okay not to reply straight away. She explained that this constant pressure strains our mental health, and physical improvements can lighten this load.
Self-care is inherently personal, but employers can encourage it by contributing to things like office massage costs and promoting a rest culture.
Sally finished her discussion with some quick tips on monitoring the physical wellbeing of your employees and implanting your new workplace culture of workplace wellness:
- Create a buzz around it by creating a launch day or week.
- Use internal comms and get senior team members on board to shout about your new offering.
- Advertise around the office and have your senior team sponsor and lead the first activity or introductory event you hold.
- Choose times that fit in with your company culture; if everyone leaves early, hold your activities at lunch or in the morning.
- Find out exactly what people want. You can’t please everyone but don’t assume you know; chances are you work in a multi-generational workspace.
- Do taster sessions and organise a range of events at first.
- Ask for feedback.
- Include physical wellbeing perks in the personal and company review process.
- Find metrics to measure before and after. It will help to ensure your company takes it seriously.
Physical wellbeing in the workplace: an expert discussion
We invited an expert panel to visit our Work.Life shared workspace hub to give us even more insight into why physical well-being is important in the workplace. Our host for the evening was About Time Magazine founder, journalist and host of our Work.It podcast series, Angelica Malin. Angelica sat down with Sally, alongside GoSweat co-founder Alex Hind and Men’s Health UK contributor and journalist, Jamie Millar.
Alex Hind, CEO and Co-Founder of GoSweat believes there’s nothing more important to a business than the wellbeing of its employees. GoSweat for work is a wellness platform for businesses where employees can book anything from meditation to spin to quidditch. He and his team are constantly innovating the employee well-being industry, helping organisations empower and inspire their workforce, offering something for the majority, rather than the same old activities.
Jamie Millar is a freelance journalist and contributing editor to Men’s Health UK magazine, where he was on staff; before that, he was an online style and grooming editor at British GQ. He also regularly writes for publications such as Mr Porter, FashionBeans, Thread, The Jackal, SoccerBible and BBC Focus, plus consults for agencies and brands. He does his best to practice what he preaches, from five-a-side football to callisthenics and Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Angelica broke the ice by asking the panel about their personal wellbeing journey. Jamie boldly admitted it was watching Fight Club at sixteen that brought him into the fitness fold:
“I realised that if I had a six-pack like that then my life would be so much better! So, I started to read Men’s Health and got into the journalism industry. Now I also write a lot about fashion, but fitness and health will always be a real passion for me”.
Alex said that his journey started even younger, explaining he was never a happier child than when he had a ball in his hands:
“I started going to the gym at 14 and now do a whole range of activities. I’ll do whatever I can fit into my schedule”.
Why is physical wellbeing important in the workplace?
Sally said simply, “Being happy and healthy means looking after all aspects of wellbeing at work because our work and home life is now very blurred”. She’s found as she’s gotten older that she is more intuitive about what her body needs: “Sometimes I need to go for a run, and sometimes I just need to sit down for half an hour and have a coffee”.
Alex explained that part of the reasoning behind GoSweat is that they felt wellbeing in the workplace was broken, “We found it was a ‘box ticker’”. Alex found companies felt obliged to pay lip service to it but that, actually, “there’s no one size fits all. That’s why our platform gives access to multiple physical activities, so individuals can pick what they want to do”.
He then references a BBC study on the relationship between physical activity and illness that found if regularly physically active people take an average of two fewer sick days a month compared to their less active counterparts; “It isn’t the cure but it’s a great way of avoiding a downward spiral”.
And, as Jamie bluntly put it, “health is life and death”. Beyond the necessity, he believes, “if you want to do your best work, be productive and creative, then putting yourself in the optimum place to do that is where you should begin. Whether it’s walking to work for more sun exposure or taking a break in the middle of the day”.
Alex agreed, explaining that he conducts all his interviews over the phone and that one of his employees finds a day without exercise makes his brain feel “like a radio that’s not quite tuned”.
Jamie finds “mood follows movement […] even looking at a picture of green space on screen is proven to improve your mood”. Sally agreed, saying that London struggles with a “nature deficit” and that this time of year, “doctors find a high increase in patients deficient in vitamin D”.
“The best exercise is the one that you actually do.” – Jamie Millar. All our panellists agreed that it’s important to find the exercise that suits your body’s rhythm. Alex said, “I probably should run more but I hate it. It’s better to find something that resonates with you”. Jamie explained it’s also about striking a balance, “If you do lots of cardio, fit in some strength training”.
Host Angelica mentioned the rise of short, high-intensity classes, and Sally said she’s spoken to people who’ve struggled with sleeping due to intense workouts that leave them buzzing; “if you feel you can’t sleep, swap out some HIIT classes with a yoga. If you’re feeling lethargic, try a more active class as well”.
How to monitor the physical wellbeing of your employees
Jamie explained that “exercise is a form of stress” and that although athletes train very hard, they spend the rest of their time resting, getting massages and eating really well; “that doesn’t apply to most of us”. Alex said he’s exercised every day for over two years and it’s now as ingrained in his daily routine, just like brushing his teeth: “If you care enough and understand the benefits, then you can fit it in”.
Angelica asked our panellists about the increase in home workouts and the correlation between spending money and getting a good workout. Jamie said that, as a freelancer, all human interaction is great, “especially if it’s at the gym!”. Alex agreed, encouraging everyone to find a workout buddy, “one of the biggest benefits of exercise is that it can be social. Going to the gym alone can be a very lonely place”.
All our panellists agreed that that’s what makes exercising at work such a great activity for team bonding and can be a way of combatting ‘cake culture’ in the office.
Alex explained it’s important to give employees leeway, “If they want to take a class in the evening or come in late because they’ve been exercising then that’s okay. They might stay an extra hour or come early, or maybe not. If you’re micromanaging them, they won’t trust you care about their wellbeing”.
Sally agreed, saying it again comes down to flexible working: “People thrive at different points of the day, some are larks, some are owls. Wouldn’t we all be so much more productive if we all worked out at our best times?”.
How can corporates be convinced that physical and mental health is important at work?
Jamie has found calculating ROI is the biggest challenge when approaching bigger companies: “it usually comes down to one individual and if you can get them on board, then you’re on your way”.
Sally said Stretching the City have ways of recording qualitative and quantitative feedback, “we have forms, do interviews and provide monthly and quarterly reviews for our clients”. Alex said GoSweat are currently looking at new ways of measuring statistics before and after, “a/b testing is inherently difficult to do, and you need a lot of time”.
All agreed that the sticking points are priorities, time and budget but that having a physical wellbeing champion- not necessarily someone in HR- is an important step.
Jamie said it’s worth pointing out that workplace wellness can be many things, not just exercise: “it might be going home on time or getting enough sleep. Lots of us feel guilty if we aren’t staying as late as our colleagues or bosses, and that’s silly. If you think of work as a form of training, you need to go home and recover before the next session. Part of being a responsible employee is to go home and get some sleep”.
Can you imagine a world where alcohol culture is taken over by exercise culture?
Sally thinks it depends on the younger generations, and as they’re drinking less it could definitely be a possibility, but it may vary between industries. Jamie noted the rise in ‘sweat working’ where people meet for a class instead of a boozy lunch.
He cited Joy of Work by Bruce Daisley, podcaster, writer and VP of Twitter. He writes extensively on socialising without alcohol, “simple things like ‘crisp Thursdays’ which is nothing crazy or expensive but is a recognised time every week where the office downs tools and chats and eats together. Rather than losing the benefits of alcohol culture, it’s transferred”.
Quick tips on creating a heathy work-life balance?
Sally finds, as a mum, it’s taken her time to put less pressure on herself: “I felt when he was in child care that I had to be working every minute, but actually doing something nice only for yourself is key to balance. I teach these things but it’s not always as easy to practice what you preach”.
Alex thinks the secret is “not feeling guilty when you don’t have it perfect”. He said, “I’m not a massive fan of social media. If you’re constantly flicking through perfect images of fake perfect lives or comparing your boots meal deal to someone’s avocado on toast, then you’re left feeling terrible”. Jamie agrees, explaining that he turns off his phone notifications most of the day, “Whatever job you’re in, the vast number of notifications will not be relevant or life or death. Even just checking every hour or once in the morning or evening will improve your mood”.
Sally said she’s seen a rise in Out of Office emails which explain people are busy and won’t necessarily get back right away, “people are taking back control, which is great”. Alex’s company take that one step further and have a ‘tech bucket’ to hold people’s phones during meetings.
How Work.Life supports physical wellbeing in the workplace
Work.Life is focused on providing happy shared workspaces. All our locations across London, Reading and Manchester offer bike storage for you to safely store your bike after an active and healthy commute, and our members enjoy free weekly yoga classes to both energise and unwind from a productive day.
Interested in joining a Work.Life space and gaining access to our member perks? Book a tour of a workspace here.