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13 Dec 2021

The need to empower employees to take control of their own wellbeing

Supporting staff members with the knowledge and tools they need to look after themselves is not only good for them, it’s good for business and for wider society too. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), around four in 10 cancers can be prevented through healthy lifestyle changes. And four types of behaviour – poor diet, smoking, physical inactivity and excess alcohol intake – account for 80% of premature deaths worldwide.




Despite this, a recent report from the Vitality Research Institute revealed that people are spending longer in ill-health as a result of chronic diseases driven by unhealthy choices and lifestyle factors, such as diabetes, musculoskeletal conditions and mental health. As a result, people are living a greater proportion of their lives in ill-health than they were 30 years ago – on average 12 years (14% longer than in 1990), the research showed.

It’s widely known that lifestyle choices help us stay healthy, and while there can be many complex factors at play with a serious illness, making just simple and small changes to our lives can be enough to make a significant difference.

There are positive steps employees can be encouraged to take to preserve their mental health too. Empowering employees with the right knowledge and tools to allow them to preserve their own mental health and wellbeing is not only good for individuals, it benefits the business as a whole.

The UK is estimated to lose approximately £92bn a year to ill-health related absenteeism and presenteeism. Around 40% of this productivity loss, equivalent to £39bn per annum, is because of employee lifestyle behaviours and poor mental wellbeing. Here are just five things individual employees can do to take preventative steps in their owns lives and at work.

1. Physical activity

Physical activity can increase our lifespan, as well as reduce and prevent the development of serious and chronic illnesses. It is also effective at reducing fatigue, improving alertness and concentration, and enhancing our overall cognitive function. The NHS recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise for our overall health. Just a 10-minute walk can be as effective as a 45-minute workout in relieving symptoms of anxiety and depression.

2. Healthy sleep

Sleep is critical to our health and wellbeing. It affects almost every type of tissue and system in our bodies, including brain, heart, lungs, metabolism, immune system and mood. Poor sleep increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and lead to early death. There are also close associations between poor sleep and mental health issues. Historically, it was thought that where both are present, not sleeping well was a consequence of poor mental health. But increasingly evidence is showing they are connected – there is a bidirectional relationship between them, which means they influence one another.

3. Limit alcohol

Alcohol is a depressant and disrupts the chemistry of the brain by altering the neurotransmitters that influence our mood. Over time, this can worsen symptoms of anxiety and depression and can disrupt sleep which can have a negative impact on mental health. A 2018 study found that the more we drink before sleep, the greater the negative impact. For example, high alcohol consumption was found to decrease sleep quality by 39% - compared to 9.3% for low amounts. On top of this, it can put strain on other areas of our lives, such as work and relationships, which can also lead to mental health challenges.

4. Breathing exercises

When our stress response is triggered, our autonomic nervous system enters fight or flight mode. Stress hormones are released, and these create a set of physical reactions that change our state of mind. One of these responses is breathing and can induce faster, shorter breaths when in a state of greater stress and anxiety. However, we can change our breathing to influence our mind, prompting our body to revert to a state known as rest and digest. Engaging in this can also help distract us from troubling or repetitive thoughts which is a common Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) technique.

5. Mindfulness

Mindfulness is learning how to be fully present and engaged in the moment, aware of our thoughts and feelings without distraction or judgment. Through meditation and greater self-awareness, these practices can help us become more aware of our thoughts, feelings and body sensations, so that instead of being overwhelmed by them we are more able to manage them. Mindfulness was also found to have the same effect as anti-depressants in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety.

This article is provided by Vitality.

A version of this article also appeared on Vitality Insights Hub.

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