Last week, I had the privilege of attending the Cigna Healthcare launch of The 5% Pledge – an inspiring movement that encourages senior leaders and managers to commit 5% of their annual working hours to support positive mental health in the workplace.

It is so refreshing to see more awareness and discussion about the importance of mental well-being than ever before, in and outside of the workplace. However, for some, there are still a lot of grey areas about how to take the first steps toward improving mental health, or where to begin.

  1. Communication as the Foundation

Before delving into the benefits of physical activity, it’s vital to recognize that communication serves as the cornerstone of any successful professional initiative.

However, communication in many organizations often lacks the depth needed to build trust and strong relationships required to support a mental health initiative. Corporate communication can sometimes become a mere checkbox exercise, devoid of genuine connection and vulnerability. To truly make a difference, we must foster organic relationships through authentic and intentional communication.

  1. The Power of Listening

One of the best ways to create authentic and intentional communication is through the art of active listening.

Beyond formal roundtable discussions, we should actively listen to nonverbal cues that indicate when a colleague or employee may be struggling or not performing at their best.

Rather than criticizing or ignoring these signs, we should approach individuals with empathy and inquire about their well-being.

Listening without judgment allows us to create a safe space for open dialogue and fosters a supportive work environment.

  1. Flexibility and Empathy

One of the key aspects of empathy at work is flexibility. It took the corporate world far too long to recognize that employees have lives beyond their desk. Acknowledging and respecting this fact demonstrates genuine empathy.

By offering flexibility, we enable our employees to attend to personal responsibilities and emergencies promptly. Embracing work-life balance or integration goes beyond mere rhetoric; it requires a flexible workplace that values personal well-being as a priority.

  1. Supporting Physical Health

While the focus on mental health is growing, it is crucial to remember that physical health plays a significant role in overall well-being. Physical health is key to nurturing our mental health. When you support your employees’ physical health you are also supporting their mental health.

Consider implementing some physical wellness initiatives in the workplace like:

  • Fitness challenges, such as step competitions or virtual races, to encourage active lifestyles and build camaraderie.
  • On-site fitness classes like yoga or strength training, during lunch breaks or before/after work hours to make exercise easily accessible.
  • Walking or running groups where employees can exercise together, promoting physical activity, social interaction, and a supportive community.
  • Wellness challenges and rewards that focus on physical activities, offering incentives for participation and achievements.
  • Wellness subsidies that provide discounts or reimbursements for gym memberships, fitness classes, or sports club fees, demonstrating commitment to employees’ well-being.
  • Active commuting to encourage employees to commute by walking or biking, providing facilities and flexible scheduling to accommodate these options.
  • Health screenings and assessments for periodic health screenings and assessments, that offer personalized recommendations and resources to support employees’ physical well-being.
  • Healthy snacks in the office to promote a healthier work environment by providing nutritious snacks, fueling employees’ physical and mental well-being.


What’s Standing in the Way?

Despite doing some or all of these things, you might feel that these initiatives don’t work, or you doubt the effectiveness of physical wellness initiatives in your workplace. If this is the case, it’s crucial to dig deeper. Ask yourself:

  • Is there a lack of commitment and involvement from leadership? Sustainable change starts from the top, so it’s essential for leaders to actively participate and support these initiatives.
  • Are managers and supervisors engaged and encouraging participation? Their involvement sets the tone and influences employees’ willingness to participate.
  • Are negative attitudes or cynicism present? If you’ve overheard dismissive comments or negativity regarding health initiatives – especially from leadership – it may indicate a need to address the corporate culture and promote a more supportive and open-minded environment.


Scientifically Proven Benefits of Physical Activity on Mental Health

Physical activity is not a frivolous or “soft” approach to mental health or employee well-being — it is a scientifically proven foundation. By addressing the concerns and misconceptions surrounding physical wellness initiatives, we can reshape corporate cultures and prioritize the well-being of employees.

There are countless studies and organizations that support the notion that physical activity has a profound impact on mental health. The evidence is clear: incorporating physical activity into our lives promotes better mental well-being, reduces the risk of developing mental health disorders, and enhances overall psychological resilience.


Statistics on Exercise and Mental Health

The statistics speak for themselves:

  • Individuals who engage in regular physical activity experience 43% fewer days of poor mental health, according to a study published in The Lancet Psychiatry.
  • The American Psychological Association confirms that just 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise can immediately reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.
  • Research published in JAMA Psychiatry indicates that regular exercise can reduce the risk of developing depression by as much as 25%.
  • The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry reveals that exercise can be as effective, if not more effective, than medication in treating mild to moderate depression.
  • The Anxiety and Depression Association of America highlights the stress-reducing and mood-enhancing effects of regular physical activity.
  • The Mental Health Foundation emphasizes the positive impact of physical activity on self-esteem, cognitive function, and overall psychological well-being.

With such compelling evidence, why are so many companies and leaders still so cynical about the benefits of physical activity for employees?

It’s Time to Recognize the Power of Physical Activity in Promoting Mental Health

By implementing and supporting initiatives that support both physical and mental health in the workplace, we can create an environment that fosters well-being, resilience, and success.

Let’s break down the barriers, challenge the sceptics, and embrace physical activity as the foundation for mental health.

Building cultures that empower individuals to thrive both professionally and personally is perhaps the most critical thing you can do now to get the bottom line results you need.