Decoding the Mind-Body Connection: Harnessing Physical Activity for Enhancing Mental Wellbeing the Workplace 

Culture & employee experience
Mental health

By Mary Marzec, PhD and Jeff Jacques, MD 

Organizations worldwide are experiencing unprecedented levels of mental health concerns, creating a significant – and under-recognized – cost to organizations in the form of quiet quitting, reduced innovation, and even spiraling healthcare costs. Today, addressing mental health needs doesn’t lie solely with the individual; employers must play an active role in fostering a healthy organizational environment and driving business growth. Our recent research highlights the psychological, physical, and organizational factors affecting employees and offers actionable insights for leaders to better support them.  

The Overlooked Impact of Emotional Wellbeing 

In the U.S., one-third of adults report anxiety or depressive symptoms. The US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recently released its review of guidelines pertaining to depression and suicide screening within the primary care setting, calling for screening for depressive symptoms for all adults. Common screening methods consist of a few questions pertaining to mood or anxiety levels currently or in the past couple weeks. This recommendation highlights emotional wellbeing as an item of national concern.  

Mental and emotional wellbeing is also top of mind for employers. In the 2023 Virgin Pulse global HR survey, 38% of employers rated mental wellbeing as a key priority to address. Yet, the root causes of the modern stress and anxiety epidemic are as complicated as the conditions themselves. Some factors impacting employees include workloads, job insecurity, and balancing needs of work, family, and extended family. Many also feel financial pressures in today’s inflationary economic climate. Other trends negatively impacting mental wellbeing include screen time, technology replacing in-person interactions, and sedentary lifestyles. Anxiety and depression can affect the individual’s ability to focus, prioritize and complete tasks, and communicate with others – making support for employee mental health a key area for employers. 

Physical Activity and Breaking the Cycle 

While not a cure-all or replacement for medical treatment, regular exercise plays an important role in mental health. Just a few hours per week of exercise can diminish anxiety and depressive symptoms. Unfortunately, only 24% of adults in the US get the recommended levels of physical activity. It can be a vicious cycle where poor emotional wellbeing reduces motivation to exercise and lack of physical activity negatively impacts emotional health. While regular exercise improves both physical and emotional wellbeing, making it a consistent reality can be challenging. It’s human nature to put self-care behind other priorities when schedules are tight or things feel overwhelming.  

Supportive Employers Make a Difference, But Challenges Remain 

Virgin Pulse recently conducted research into companies’ Culture Check scores (a measure of employer culture for wellbeing supportiveness), plus workers’ physical activity and depressive symptomsi, controlling for gender, age, job class, and culture of health score. Data showed that employees in more health-supportive workplaces tended to report less stress and less likelihood of depressive symptoms. Employees with supportive workplace cultures are also more likely to meet CDC guidelines for physical activity compared to those in less supportive companies. The research revealed that people with depressive symptoms were 56% less likely to engage in physical activity. For those with depressive symptoms, a health-supportive work environment improved physical activity rates with – interestingly – the impact being greater for men than women. Men were nearly twice as likely to meet the physical activity criteria than women. With increasing Culture Check scores, rates of physical activity also increased for men, but not women. This suggests depressive symptoms manifest differently for men and women, and may be more likely to attenuate physical activity among women than men.  

The differential findings by gender and depression risk illustrate the complexity of engaging in healthy behaviors. Those at risk may be more likely to isolate and harder to reach. This underscores the need for employers to be intentional and create a culture that supports health and optimizes uptake of wellbeing offerings, including the following recommendations.  

Five Strategies for Creating a Supportive Culture 

Contextualizing Insights to Drive Organizational Success 

Promoting mental health in the workplace is essential, and employers must not overlook it. It’s important to recognize the connection between the mind and body and to create a sustainable work environment that encourages physical activities, emotional support, and provides the necessary resources for employees to succeed. When employees are thriving, their business thrives as well – making it a virtuous circle. 

Don’t miss the on-demand replay of Culture Check: Getting a Pulse on Your Culture. In this webinar, experts from DTE Energy and Virgin Pulse share valuable strategies to forge organizational alignment. The discussion focuses on transforming workplace cultures, reducing employee stress, and seamlessly integrating culture and business objectives.  

In addition, the Mental Health in the Workplace guide has a wealth of strategies designed to cultivate a healthy work environment. By leveraging these insights, companies can adapt their benefits to modern challenges and weave them into their corporate culture to optimize employee engagement and ensure cost-effectiveness in their initiatives.   

Jeff Jacques, MD is chief medical officer at Virgin Pulse, and Mary Marzec, PhD, is a senior scientist. Both are members of the Virgin Pulse Science Advisory Board.