Mind and body are often treated independently, and this has generally been the case in the NHS with physical and mental care largely disconnected.
But there is clear evidence to suggest that physical and mental health conditions can co-exist, while one problem can often lead to the other.
Poor mental health has been known to increase the chances of developing serious illnesses, including heart disease, cancer and diabetes, as well as contributing to higher levels of obesity (Mental Health Foundation). Depression, for example, has been linked with a 67% greater risk of death from heart disease.
In fact, 45% of people with a mental health problem also have a long term physical condition (The King’s Fund).
It’s perhaps easier to see how mental health can affect physical health, but the opposite is also true. Rates of depression are double in people living with diabetes, high blood pressure and heart problems, for example. While 30% of those with a long term physical health condition also have a mental health problem.
Of course, if you have a serious physical illness, it’s more likely that you’ll be affected psychologically. While, on the other hand, someone with work related stress could find their symptoms manifest themselves physically in ailments such as irritable bowel syndrome, headaches and muscular aches and pains.
Impact for employers
Almost five million people in the UK are living with both physical and mental health disorders (Employee Benefits).
For employers, it’s worth bearing this in mind when managing staff sickness absence because absence is likely to be greater if an employee has both conditions.
Unfortunately, due to the perceived stigma around mental health, employees may not want to disclose any psychiatric problems to their manager. But employers should always consider that there may be an additional mental disorder if a member of staff is on long term sick. And the longer it lasts, the more likely that will be.
As an employer, there are ways you can support the overall physical and mental wellbeing of your workforce, for example by influencing your employees to lead healthier lifestyles.
Physical activity and mental health benefits
Active people are more likely to be physically and mentally fit and healthy. Put simply, exercise makes you feel good. Physical activity can take many forms – you don’t have to be a gym fanatic; you can still expend energy and keep fit doing housework, gardening or walking.
So encouraging your staff to increase their activity levels could help boost their general health and wellbeing. Why not consider introducing cycle to work schemes or support your employees to form corporate sports teams? You could even think about launching specific exercise initiatives. Earlier this year, we launched a campaign to get our company walking more, and it was a huge success.
Increasingly, healthcare professionals are being urged to consider mental wellbeing when treating symptoms of a physical condition, and vice versa.
An employee assistance programme (EAP) is a worthwhile investment for businesses; they provide access to valuable counselling services, enabling staff to speak to someone in confidence about their physical and mental health issues.
Many EAPs also offer face to face counselling sessions and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) – a talking therapy that typically treats anxiety and depression, but can also be helpful for managing physical disorders such as IBS and chronic fatigue.