Getting active to support mental health in the workplace

Alex Lucas
Alex Lucas

Senior Research Analyst at ukactive

At the start of every new year, many of us decide we want to improve our physical health by exercising more. But did you know being physically active can have a positive effect on your mental wellbeing too?

And it doesn’t need to be a lot – just a few minutes every day can help make a big difference.

Here, Alex Lucas, senior research analyst for ukactive, explains how employers of all sizes can help their staff to set aside time for psychical activity.


The link between our body’s physical health and mental health is already well established. We also now know that this relationship is bidirectional – not only can mental health impact physical health, but physical health can impact mental – often to a greater extent1. There are several major benefits that being physically active, and taking the time to exercise, can have on mental wellbeing during the working day. Research has found that being more active can:

  • reduce the risk of non-communicable diseases (e.g. diabetes, cancers, heart and respiratory diseases) and mental illness by 35%,2
  • support good physical and mental function, and improve sleep,3
  • alleviate symptoms associated with musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions​Musculoskeletal health in the workplace: a toolkit for employers PDF Good musculoskeletal (MSK) health is integral to a full working life, and there's a clear link between MSK problems and mental health and wellbeing. This toolkit explains the issues and has practical guidance to promote MSK health in the workplace.Free By: Business in the Community View resource (often caused by poor posture during working hours),4
  • offset the risk that comes with prolonged sedentary behaviour​Active workplace PDF Getting active can help boost your mood, as well as helping to keep you mentally and physically healthy. This one-page guide from Unilever suggests some ways in which you can include more activity in your working day.Free By: Unilever View resource at work.5

By using physical activity to reduce the overall risk to our physical health, we can also support our mental wellbeing. In addition to the above benefits, exercise and movement has been shown to boost mood and improve energy levels​Energy recovery PDF This one-page PDF guide covers how to build energy recovery into your day, including tips on what to eat, what helpful breaks are, and listening to signals from your body.Free By: Unilever View resource, and increase opportunities for social connection and engagement, thus reducing potential feelings of isolation or loneliness too.

A group yoga class

As recently stated by the UK Chief Medical Officers (CMO)6, any activity is better than none. But it’s not one size fits all – the CMO physical activity guidelines stipulate that health benefits can be obtained by completing the 150 minutes of physical activity per week (for adults) in several, short, high intensity bouts as well as in lower volumes, intensities and frequencies. The best way to take part in activity is to do it in your own personal way, against your own personal limits. Using this approach, you are far more likely to sustain a more active lifestyle.

This is true from a behaviour change perspective also – we adopt new behaviours and stick to them most easily when they are enjoyable. Activities do not necessarily have to be strenuous, especially to start with because they can be built upon over time.

The good news is there are plenty of options out there for everyone – whether chair-based stretches, walking challenges, yoga for at home or in the office, run club at lunch, a group exercise session​Loneliness at work Web page Feeling lonely isn't in itself a mental health problem, but the two are strongly linked. Marmalade Trust, a charity dedicated to helping those who are experiencing loneliness, has created this guide to help you to combat loneliness in the workplace.Free By: Marmalade Trust View resource, a work sports team or simply going out to grab a coffee or having a partially physical commute​Active travel PDF This one-page guide from Unilever explores some ways that you can include physical activity into your routine even if you spend a lot of time travelling.Free By: Unilever View resourceit’s about determining what works best for your employees and what will include as many of them as possible.

Staff feel more valued, cared for and listened to

Being active might not be the first thing employers think of when considering how to improve how the workplace operates, or how to support the wellbeing of staff, but a physically activity workforce can provide lots of business-related benefits beyond individual health. For example, a more physically active workforce is associated with:

  • increased productivity at work and job satisfaction,7
  • fewer sick days​Ill health and absence Web page As an employer, navigating the absence and return to work process of employees can be a challenge. Healthy Working Lives makes it easy to understand in this section of their website.Free By: Healthy Working Lives View resource (absenteeism),8
  • reduced presenteeism (presence at work while sick),9
  • an overall reduced cost to the organisation.10

Additionally, building a culture that centres around the health and wellbeing needs of employees naturally creates an employee-centric environment where staff feel more valued, cared for and listened to, which is said to support positive working. The Active Workforce report released by ukactive in June 2022 reflected this, as it highlighted why the businesses surveyed were motivated to put physical activity opportunities in place – the top three motivators were because it was seen to improve wellbeing (70.6%), staff morale (57.4%) and staff engagement (57.4%).

Employees chat over coffee outside

A set of clear recommendations for employers were also highlighted in The Active Workforce report. The report focused on understanding the wants and needs of small- and medium-sized businesses when it comes to supporting their staff to be physically active – recognising that these needs and the associated challenges may differ from those of larger organisations. The findings, however, are applicable to organisations of any size.

Based on these and the report findings, there are several areas employers can focus on if they want to encourage their staff to be active:

1. Give your employees time to be active

Lack of time or perceived permission to be active was one of the biggest barriers to employees being active during the working day. Employers giving employees the time to be active, and clearly communicating that it is allowed is a valuable first step to encouraging activity to happen. Practically time can be given by implementing flexible working hours​​Flexibility for who? Millennials and mental health in the modern labour market PDF Younger workers are more likely to be in part-time, flexible or temporary work, overqualified or self-employed—and this contractual flexibility can be a risk to their mental health. This report outlines the problem and the opportunities to take action.Free By: Business in the Community View resource, meeting free-days or providing staff with extra allotted time or an extended lunch break to go attend their favourite class, walk or cycle.

2. Role model physical activity

Senior leaders have an important role in ensuring employees feel it is acceptable for them to take time to look after their mental health, and that involves being active throughout the working day. Senior leaders can best support this not just by speaking about it, but by themselves role modelling active behaviours and showcasing that they take time to be active for their mental health by sharing this with staff and team members.

3. Keep physical activity opportunities simple and social

Opportunities that are easy to implement tend be favourable with employees because they require less time. Implementing simple opportunities that can slot into an employees working day naturally, such as walking wellbeing check ins​Active meetings PDF This one-page guide from Unilever outlines one way to include physical activity in meetings, by changing them from the traditional sitting-down format into walking meetings.Free By: Unilever View resource, could be good place to start. Opportunities that allow employees to interact socially and connect with one also tend to be the most popular, so creating simple group activities like an office lunch and walk could prove successful.

Focus on removing existing barriers to being active for the long term

4. Co-create opportunities with staff

Even if opportunities to be active are put in place, employees won’t necessarily use them if they don’t feel it meets their needs. To increase the likelihood of engagement occurring, staff need to be involved in conversations from the offset about the kind of support they want to see. This will require less of a one size fits all, ‘off the shelf’ approach and can be done through surveys or interviews with staff representatives. Employers could start the conversation​How can you have the right conversation to support an employee at work? PDF As a line manager, it’s important to recognise how to manage the emotional wellbeing of employees at work. This two-page guide from Nuffield Health explores five key steps to help staff move from emotionally barely surviving back to thriving.Free By: Nuffield Health View resource by asking staff if there is anything that could be done to make it easier for them to be active during the day, and what they feel is most important to them.

5. Remove existing barriers rather than create new opportunities or ‘activities’

The reasons why employees might not be active may be because of existing barriers – such as feeling they do not have the time or not having access to shower facilities – which means that putting new opportunities in place won’t necessarily mean they get used or make things easier for staff. Before implementing new opportunities and support, understand the existing environment and focus on removing existing barriers to being active for the long term. This could be looking at removing barriers associated to facilities, access or to incidental activity – such as helping an employee configure a home working space​Working from home: a wellness action plan PDF A wellness action plan (WAP) is a useful tool to help us identify what keeps us well and what impacts our mental health. This revised WAP has been modified to support you when you’re working from home during the COVID-19 outbreak.Free By: Mind View resource that means they do more incidental activity or re-arranging the office space so people have further to move to get a drink.

A man works at a standing desk

Smaller workplaces, including those who are self-employed, tend to face more barriers around budget and resource to put towards opportunities to be physically active at work and wider wellbeing benefits. However, there are certain types of opportunities and support that work well for small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs), according to the ukactive The Active Workforce report.

SMEs were most likely to put in place, or want to put in place, opportunities for staff to be active that were easy to implement, were low or no cost and allowed staff to connect and socialise, such as government run schemes (e.g. Cycle to Work) or physical activity challenges and competitions (e.g. step challenges). Opportunities that were least popular were due to both cost and the feeling that the offers (e.g. discounts to a fixed gym membership) did not cater for the size of company.

Smaller workplaces therefore, are better off considering options that work well for the needs of their staff and company size through co-creation rather than selecting an option aimed at a larger organisation. Whilst many seem to be aimed at bigger businesses, many physical activity services are now trying to cater towards smaller workplaces, and it is always worth asking the question of how a service package could be adapted for your company size.

Smaller workplaces can’t necessarily do it alone

The ukactive report also recgonised that smaller workplaces and the self-employed can’t necessarily do it alone – especially when we consider the already significant impact the cost-of-living crisis​Coping with the rising cost of living Web page This web page from Step Change offers advice about managing debt, as well as explaining what benefits you might be entitled to.Free By: Step Change View resource is having. It therefore stipulated that there is a responsibility for business umbrella bodies, as well as government, to support small businesses in accessing existing opportunities in their local community, as well as providing incentive schemes that cater for all types of living wages and working environments (e.g. expansion of the Cycle to Work scheme).

A cyclist in London

The world has made getting physically active seem incredibly hard, but ultimately the human body was made for moving, and when it gets used to it, is becomes a lot easier to do regularly. The easiest way to adopt a new habit is to integrate it into existing behaviours or lifestyles, so to become more physically active attach this to things you already do in life to make it easier.11

Big life changes come about because of the compilation of lots of little life changes – no one ever achieved a big thing over night, because our bodies and brains are not designed to change that quickly. The same is the case for building an active lifestyle or making exercise part of your mental wellbeing care routine; every little counts, and if you are starting out, then starting small is actually a very effective way of building a habit. Overtime, as you get used to it, it will feel easier, and you’ll gradually build up to more without even realising.


1 Luo, M. S., Chui, E. W. T., & Li, L. W. (2020). The Longitudinal Associations between physical health and mental health among older adults. Aging & mental health, 24(12), 1990-1998.
2 Public Health England. Health matters: getting every adult active every day. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/health-matters-getting-every-adult-active-every-day/health-matters-getting-every-adult-acti ve-every-day (2016).
3 UK Chief Medical Officers. UK Chief Medical Officers’ Physical Activity Guidelines. (2019).
4 Seva, R. R., Tejero, L. M. S. & Fadrilan-Camacho, V. F. F. Barriers and facilitators of productivity while working from home during pandemic. J. Occup. Health 63, (2021).
5 Ekelund, U. et al. Does physical activity attenuate, or even eliminate, the detrimental association of sitting time with mortality? A harmonised meta-analysis of data from more than 1 million men and women. Lancet 388, 1302–1310 (2016).
6 UK Chief Medical Officers. UK Chief Medical Officers’ Physical Activity Guidelines. (2019). https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/832868/uk-chief-medical-officers-physical-activity-guidelines.pdf
7 Puig-Ribera, A. et al. Self-reported sitting time and physical activity: interactive associations with mental well-being and productivity in office employees. BMC Public Health 15, 72 (2015).
8 Merrill, R. M. et al. Self-Rated Job Performance and Absenteeism According to Employee Engagement, Health Behaviors, and Physical Health. (2013) doi:10.1097/JOM.0b013e31827b73af.
9 Cancelliere, C., Cassidy, J. D., Ammendolia, C. & Côté, P. Are workplace health promotion programs effective at improving presenteeism in workers? a systematic review and best evidence synthesis of the literature. BMC Public Health 11, 395 (2011).
10 National Institute for Health Research & Fortescue-Webb, D. Moving matters – interventions to increase physical activity. 45 (2019) doi:10.3310/themedreview-03898.
11 Clear, J. (2018). Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. Random House.

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