Moving our bodies - and mindsets

People at work stretching at their desks

As part of the The University of Cambridge and KPMG Future of Work partnership, we bring together expert perspectives on some of the big issues facing organisations and the workforce.

In the UK, one in four people will experience a mental health problem this year. And the prevalence and impact of mental health issues are expected to continue to rise. In response to this, there has also been an increase in prioritising mental health awareness and providing resources and support.

What does this mean for the workplace? What can leaders and employees do to support mental health at work and beyond?

We asked some Cambridge experts to share their views.

The term ‘mental health’ is often used as a catch-all phrase. But what does it really mean?

Gordon Harold, Professor of the Psychology of Education and Mental Health, and one of the University’s leads on the Mental Wellbeing Pillar recently initiated as part of the University of Cambridge and KPMG Future of Work partnership, helps clarify: “Mental health and mental ill health should not be regarded as synonymous terms.”

"Mental health is a state of mental wellbeing that enables an individual to cope with the everyday stresses of daily life, realise their abilities, learn well, and work well.”

“Mental ill health refers to a wide range of poor mental health conditions that affect mood, thinking and behaviour, and can interrupt or prevent positive everyday life experiences.”

One of the reasons this distinction is important is because “strategies for enhancing mental health and strategies for supporting those experiencing mental ill health require different approaches.”  

With mental ill health as the leading cause of disability in the UK, and mental health-related absenteeism on the rise, Harold says that “knowing how to promote mental health and how to support and protect against mental ill health is a critical area of change and adaptation required at organisational and system levels, with important implications for work and everyday life”.

Moving more for our mental health

Colleagues meeting on the move

Each year in May, companies join the Mental Health Foundation’s Mental Health Awareness campaign – the UK’s largest mental health campaign. This year’s theme was Movement: Moving More for our Mental Health.

While we have all likely heard about the mental health benefits of movement, promoting mental health involves moving not just your body, but your mind too. In other words, we need to start thinking differently about movement.

For example, movement doesn’t need to mean a spin class or 5k run. “When we think of physical activity, we often think of exercise – structured, scheduled, and intensive. However, physical activity is so much more than just exercise,” says Dr Kathryn Hesketh, Senior Research Fellow in Behavioural Epidemiology, and a physical activity behaviour expert who was part of the group that revised the UK Chief Medical Officers’ Physical Activity Guidelines in 2019.

She suggests integrating simpler activities into our daily routines where possible, such as holding walking meetings or going to the shop instead of ordering groceries.

Just like shifting our mindsets about physical activity is beneficial for our mental health, so too is mental movement in other areas of thinking and behaviour. The practice of developing more balanced and constructive thoughts, in response to identifying negative and unhelpful ones, is a technique taught in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

CBT is an evidence-based model, and it can be self-administered. Thomas Roulet, Professor of Organisational Sociology and Leadership recently co-published an article on this topic in Harvard Business Review  with Dr Kiran Bhatti, a Wellbeing Advisor at the University of Cambridge.

Roulet says: "Companies can support mindset movement for mental health by providing online tools and resources to develop skills for self-directed CBT learning, practice, and supporting colleagues.”

And research shows that moving your body and mind helps in the long run too – in developing resilience and protecting cognitive functioning. Carol Brayne, Professor of Public Health Medicine, who pioneered the study of dementia at population-level and has received a CBE for her highly cited and influential work, says:

“Evidence shows that if your work is intellectually satisfying and you engage in physical activity, you are at lower risk of developing cognitive impairments as you age – and you are also more likely to recover from cognitive impairment.”

Future of work

Colleagues having a coffee

Given the mental health benefits of moving your body and mind, what steps can we take at work to support movement? University of Cambridge researchers point to practices at the individual, organisational and societal level.

Individual change

Remember, physical activity for mental health doesn’t need to be intensive to be effective. Hesketh encourages people to engage with the evidence-based national guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per week in a way that works for them.

At work, you could try breaking up sedentary time and moving around at least once per hour. Roulet adds, if you can, “going on a walk while at work can be an effective form of 'behavioural activation'.”

If your options for physical movement are limited or restricted, behavioural activation could involve changing positions or moving to different spaces throughout the day.

Behavioural activation is an evidence-based approach that aims to enhance mental health by increasing engagement in activities that promote positive mental states.

It works through monitoring behaviours, identifying values and goals, and scheduling in helpful behaviours (and scheduling out unhelpful ones). And it doesn’t need to involve physical activities. For example, increasing one-on-one social interactions seems to provide the greatest mental health benefit.  

Finally, integrating movement into your home and work life can have a ripple effect on others too. Hesketh’s research shows that parents who model physical activity increase their children’s physical activity levels too.

And we see additional mental health benefits of certain physical activities in young children -- those who are encouraged to explore and engage in risky play behaviour (such as climbing a little higher, or jumping a little further) develop greater confidence and resilience.

Organisational change

Jennifer Howard-Grenville, Diageo Professor of Organisation Studies, says: “Workplaces can support physical movement and movement of mindsets around mental health through shifts in cultures and leadership – both employee-led initiatives and the ‘tone from the top’ can amplify each other to create organisational change.”

Roulet and Bhatti suggest a new concept for organisations to consider in prioritising mental health: wellbeing intelligence – the skills and tools for a manager to understand and improve their own and employees’ wellbeing.

Roulet says: “We have also developed a CBT-based approach for managers to use with employees called the ARC model: acknowledge, respond, and help change patterns.

"If administered with a non-judgmental tone, it provides the opportunity to change the narrative and reduce the stigma and shame often associated with poor mental health, while helping map out what causes mental health issues and what can be done about it.”

Brayne highlights that since Covid-19 an increase in working from home can result in less movement and less interaction with people.

Roulet adds that home-working means “less opportunity to build and maintain relationships with colleagues, which can be important for job satisfaction, and erodes the boundaries between work and life.”

While commuting to work may address some of these issues, and involve more movement, there are other mental health challenges associated with it too.

Roulet observes that “on one hand, it can help people create healthy boundaries between work and life; but, on the other, it can increase a sense of time pressure.”

In response to these challenges, organisational policies and approaches can include things like contained working hours, incorporating walking meetings, 10-minute movement breaks, and reducing expectations around ‘screen time’ as long as work is getting done.

Societal change

While there is a pressing need to shift perspectives and organisational practices, public health strategies also need to change to better support mental health and movement.

Hesketh observes that “systems-level change is needed -- incorporating the needs for movement into urban planning and workplace designs, and addressing the inequalities in access to safe spaces and green spaces to encourage physical activity across all communities.”

And Brayne highlights the importance of such changes: “If you can improve the environment in which people live and work to enhance their well-being, including through movement, you will also reduce the likelihood of them spending more time in ill health later in life.”

Workplaces can play their part by:

1. Engaging in evidence-based practices internally, including interventions, policies, and programmes, that reflect research findings and by:

2. Contributing to broader policy conversations, advocating for supportive government policies for employees.

“Organisations have the opportunity to lead not follow societal shifts for mental health and movement, and the time is ripe to step up,” says Howard-Grenville.

As Professor Harold summarises, mental health is the bedrock of a healthy, productive, and positive workforce. Protecting and enhancing mental health is a national and global priority.

About the researchers

Gordon Harold is the inaugural Professor of Psychology and Education of Mental Health & Co-Director of Cambridge Public Health in the Department of Education

Kathryn Hesketh is a Senior Research Fellow in Behavioural Epidemiology at the MRC Epidemiology Unit, School of Clinical Medicine

Carol Brayne, CBE, is the Professor of Public Health Medicine & Co-Director of Cambridge Public Health in the Departments of Engineering and Psychiatry

Thomas Roulet is the Professor of Organisational Sociology and Leadership at the Cambridge Judge Business School

Jennifer Howard-Grenville is the Diageo Professor of Organisation Studies at the Cambridge Judge Business School

Published 7 June 2024

Words by Karly Drabot
Layout by Sarah Fell

All photography: Getty Images
Credits (in order): Hispanolistic; AzmanL; Westend61

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License