Colleagues stretching at work

Exercise incentives to boost mental health

Mental Health Week – Mind. Body. Environment.

5 minute read
Colleagues stretching at work

Not only a way to help you look good but to also feel good, exercise offers a wealth of benefits to the mind, body and soul.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, more than two in five people aged 18-65 are estimated to have experienced a mental health disorder in their life, with anxiety disorder being the most common – affecting 17 per cent of Australians.

Said to improve mental health, studies show exercising regularly can reduce stress and symptoms of mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.

Published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, the Effectiveness of physical activity interventions for improving depression, anxiety and distress: an overview of systematic reviews corroborated this school of thought.

The results showed physical activity is effective for reducing mild-to-moderate symptoms of depression, anxiety and psychological distress, with different forms of exercise being beneficial such as resistance training having the largest effect on depression, while yoga and other mind and body exercises being more effective in reducing anxiety.

On the back of these findings, the review recommended for physical activity to be a mainstay approach in the management of mental health, indicating that smaller weekly interventions had significant positive outcomes.

However, for busy professionals, “finding your 30” can be a challenge.

So, how can exercise be incorporated into a business to foster a happy and healthy workforce?

Win-win situation

With exercise paying off when it comes to an individual’s mental health, the effect can benefit both the employer and the employee.

Peace Be The Journey Wellness Owner Jordan Doropoulos, who runs wellness programs for companies big and small, said for individuals, it helped them to manage their stress and release tension. At the same time, the business benefited from a team that was more alert, switched on and productive.

“From the employee’s point of view, they have a lot more clarity and awareness in their mental and physical state, so the body feels more open and they feel more energetic instead of being lethargic,” he said.

“The big picture is people become a lot more productive and a lot more responsive.”

Accessibility and convenience

To take advantage of the perks that having a mentally healthy workplace could lead to, companies are encouraged to offer incentives to promote wellness and put their staff’s wellbeing on the agenda.

However, for those working nine to five while juggling little ones and other personal commitments, exercise is something that often gets put on the backburner.

HFRC Senior Exercise Physiologist and Metabolic Health Specialist David Beard, who is also a Consultant Presenter for AIM WA + The University of Western Australia Business School Executive Education, said employers could support staff to exercise by making it convenient.

“End-of-trip facilities or onsite gyms make it less time-consuming for staff to exercise around their work and family responsibilities,” he said.

“Providing time during work hours for staff to exercise is also a good investment, as improved mental health and productivity gains will pay for itself.”

Mr Doropoulos agreed, saying he has seen success in these forms of wellness programs first-hand.

“For it to really work, and to be consistent and continually ongoing for companies and their employees, is allowing something to happen during work hours, where it is an in-house incentive and you do it onsite,” he said.

“The response I have had from employees is they feel like the company is valuing wellness and mental health by allowing it to be within work hours, instead of saying there is a consultant but you have to see him after 4pm when you finish work.

“Whether it is a half-an-hour slot, one hour a week or three hours a week, the consistency of having someone who comes in and delivers a program will give the whole company a bit of a top-up, so you don’t get overwhelmed when you are at work and things start to pile up.”

Mr Beard said education sessions by qualified exercise professionals were also important, helping staff to identify how to get the most from their exercise.

“There is no escaping the fact that workers in companies need to exercise if they want to look after their mental health – there are no shortcuts,” he said.

“The goal is to exercise as effectively and efficiently as possible, but the challenge for companies is trying to help their staff do this.

“What I have seen work is providing education to develop a culture where being active is highly rewarded and highly valued within the company.”

What incentives work?

From free gym memberships to workout classes being offered, there are a range of incentives implemented by companies – but what actually works and what doesn’t?

According to Mr Beard, continuing programs are better than something provided one time.

“This builds some accountability into the incentives,” he said.

“Reward people for building the exercise habit, don’t just fund the program right upfront.

“There should be small incentives to keep people in their routine or to help them build the exercise routine, rather than just giving a one-off free gym membership.

“The companies which are the most successful are those that build, or support their staff to build, an ongoing exercise routine and habit.”

Mr Doropoulos said interaction and community delivered the best results.

“The connection and community is sought-after from employees and from everyone,” he said.

“The programs working really well and those I find with better engagement from employees have been the 12-week or six-month programs, which continually extend from there.

“Big corporates have always had smaller wellness incentives onsite but now I feel like they are expanding that a bit more, where it’s not a small wellness program but it is starting to be bigger and more consistent.

“They are starting to become a lot more aware of how important it is for their physical and mental health to have forms of exercise to get them out of work mode and regulate their nervous system to feel good and feel healthier.

“Whereas, before, it wasn’t on the company’s radar at all.”