Survey hints at links between lifestyle and depression

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11 Sep 2015

Plenty of research has drawn links between poor lifestyle choices and the damage we are inflicting on our health.

We all know that excessive alcohol consumption can lead to problems such as liver disease and high blood pressure, and that smoking is a major cause of respiratory complaints, but what is less well recognised is that many risks are interconnected and can lead to a downward spiral in our overall health and well-being.

Take depression. The results of the Britain’s Healthiest Company survey showed that the incidence of clinical depression among people with a healthy body mass index (BMI) – between 18.5 and 25 – was a little over five per cent.

This rose to between 7 and 8 per cent of those with a BMI of between 30 and 36, while the figure jumped above 11 per cent for those with a BMI over 36.

"Being active improves self-esteem and the ability to concentrate"


Similarly, people who did no physical activity at all were almost three times more likely to suffer from depression as those who did more than 150 minutes’ physical activity every week. What is not clear, of course, is whether these physical problems are the result of poor mental well-being or vice versa.

Shaun Subel, director of strategy at VitalityHealth, says the bidirectional nature of risk tends to centre on mental well-being.

"Our research has shown that mental health issues are connected not just to BMI and physical activity, but to musculoskeletal issues, too.

"We created groups of employees according to whether they were under low, medium or high levels of stress. We then looked at all the different dimensions of musculoskeletal issues – neck, back, wrist, whatever dimension – and in every single instance we found a very strong correlation between stress levels and musculoskeletal problems."

Reductions in stress, he says, resulted in between a 25 and 40 per cent reduction is musculoskeletal ailments. Dr Wolfgang Seidl, the partner and workplace health consulting leader at Mercer, says: "Exercise helps mental as well as physical health outcomes. We know exercise has a positive effect on body weight, lowering cholesterol and blood sugar. Being active also improves self-esteem and the ability to concentrate, and regulates our sleeping patterns."

"Mental health is often overlooked when it comes to overall well-being"

Mental health is often overlooked when it comes to overall well-being, compared with the attention paid to physical issues. So are employers making the connection?

Ann Preston, director of human resources at Sanofi Pasteur MSD, winner in the Healthiest Employees category (small company), says it "tries to encourage staff to consider their weight, but while they may be aware of the links between weight and physical activity, this may not be the case with mental well-being. We rarely have absence due to depression, but I may use this research to make the connection for employees."

Theresa McHenry, senior HR director at Microsoft UK, which won the Healthiest Employees award (large company), believes peer support can be key.

"Those that enjoy exercise can clearly see the positive impact it can have on weight and mental well-being, and they often share it with colleagues, which can be invaluable in encouraging people to be more healthy."

At Johnson & Johnson, which won the award for the Healthiest Workplace (large company), Clare Sicklen, HR director, says: "As a leading global healthcare organisation, we recognise that our overall health and wellness depends on a range of distinct but connected factors from our physical to our mental well-being.

"This is one reason why the programmes and services we offer to our employees at Johnson & Johnson complement each other, providing a holistic approach."


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