Physical wellbeing: Navigating mental wellbeing and inclusion

Lorelei Bowman

We often discuss how employee wellbeing is, broadly speaking, divided into three main pillars: mental, physical, financial (and social, which is becoming more prominent). While this is useful for employers, it can also be helpful to consider employee wellbeing as a multi-axis graph – all employees will be affected by each area of wellbeing, but in differing ways and balances. Considering wellbeing in this context helps you deliver a more well-rounded scheme, and factor in the intersections between each facet of wellbeing.

For example, some individuals may have excellent knowledge of their financial wellbeing, but struggle with mental wellbeing. Another employee might be battling with their mental health, and as a result their finances or physical health take a hit. Every employee is different in where they plot on the wellbeing graph, and what they need from a wellbeing programme at work.

Be aware of nuances
While all pillars of wellbeing are multi-faceted and, in some cases, employees will need to seek professional help, physical wellbeing is often considered the ‘easiest’ to implement in-house. Physical wellbeing benefits like cycle-to-work and gym memberships are a must-have for many employees, and a fantastic way to spread financially-accessible physical wellbeing. However, it can be all-too-easy to focus on physical wellbeing as nothing more than gym memberships and eating your five-a-day. This can discourage participation and exclude people – not to mention, it misses out many more dimensions of being physically healthy!

There are three key points to be aware of when creating a physical wellbeing strategy:

  1. Everyone has different abilities. Whether this is due to experience, financial accessibility, or physical disability. But there is no reason physical wellbeing can’t be for everyone!
  2. Physical wellbeing doesn’t need to mean losing weight or getting ‘fit’ in the traditional way – being physically well is about moving your body in ways that are comfortable for you and make your body and mind feel good, rather than changing their appearance, whether this through a stroll on your lunch break, cycle-to-work schemes, taking up a dance or yoga class, using the stairs or rock climbing.
  3. Finally, it’s incredibly important that employers acknowledge the connection between physical and mental wellbeing. While we all know that exercise can promote good mental wellbeing, employers must also be aware of the unintended consequences of focussing too heavily on physical health. Specifically, the impact it can have on mental health.

Address assumptions & fight stigma
The workplace (especially in traditional office-based environments) is saturated in appearance-based and weight loss-oriented rhetoric. We often come to consider this normal, whether it’s Weightwatchers adverts or Instagram influencers pushing the latest protein shake. But for people struggling with body image or recovering from eating disorders, it’s impossible to avoid constant references to the latest fad diet, an exercise regime or how ‘bad’ someone was this weekend. But what we can do, as employers, is ensure we foster a positive, accepting and respectful work environment. Employers can nudge their people towards better wellbeing decisions, promoting all elements of wellbeing, tailored for each individual’s wants, needs and abilities.

In part two we’ll discuss how you can improve physical wellbeing in positive and effective ways, but first, let’s break down some common myths about physical wellbeing:

  • Weight reflects how healthy someone is
  • There is only one way to be healthy
  • BMI is an accurate way to judge health
  • Physical wellbeing means pushing weight loss

Wellbeing vs. weight loss
When promoting physical wellbeing, first employers must address what ‘physically well’ actually means – or rather, what it doesn’t mean. Often, the stereotypical image we think of is a slim and/or muscular person who likely goes to the gym and watches what they eat. A quick stock image search of ‘physical wellbeing’ will confirm this. But when it comes to designing a wellbeing scheme, holding onto this image can do more harm than good. Not only do you risk pushing down participation, but you exclude much of the workforce.

With physical wellbeing programmes – which often focus on exercise and diet as a means to lose weight – it can be easy to incidentally promote physical wellness as only existing in this one form, which:

  • Rules out much of the workforce as being able to be physically well.
  • Ignores the fact only 5% of women naturally possess the body the media portrays as ‘standard’.
  • Fails to acknowledge that ‘overweight’ people can be healthy, and that thin people can be ‘unhealthy’.
  • Implies there is only one way to be healthy.

You would never design your benefits scheme around a single employee, so why do the same with wellbeing?

We have a responsibility
As employers, we have a responsibility to be conscientious, critically aware, and ensure our representation of health and wellbeing is accurate and inclusive. This body image ideal is already spread across our society and culture, which is having a damaging impact:

  • 91% of women are unhappy with their bodies and resort to dieting.
  • 35% of British men would sacrifice a year of their life to achieve their ideal body weight.
  • 54% of women would rather be hit by a truck than be “fat”.
  • On average, girls start dieting at age eight.
  • Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, with at least one person dying every 62 minutes as a direct result from an eating disorder.
  • As of 2017, the diet and weight loss industry is worth $176 billion.

When you consider these statistics, it’s clear that employee wellbeing programmes must be more inclusive – they must acknowledge that there is more than one way to be healthy; that you can be healthy at any size; and that everyone is valid and deserving of respect, whether they are ‘healthy’ or not.

In part two, we’ll debunk BMI, discuss positive communications methods and how to improve mental and physical wellbeing simultaneously!