The intrinsic link between physical and mental health

The intrinsic link between physical and mental health

September 29, 2021
Anjanette Murfet


Accolade Wines' Chief People & Communications Officer on maintaining good mental health in the workplace

Long regarded by the corporate world as an important factor in establishing a high-performance organisation, conversations on the importance of mental and physical health in the workplace have been increasingly prevalent due to the pressures of the pandemic, the result of continuous lockdowns and vocalisation by some of the world’s most recognisable faces.

In fact, one of the biggest stories to emerge from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was not about the physical performance of an athlete at all, it was about mental vulnerability. Simone Biles – one of the world’s greatest athletes – made headlines as she withdrew in the midst of the team competition, citing the need to prioritise her own mental health.

The topic has also been expertly covered in a recently released Netflix series, Untold: Breaking Point. It examines the journey of former US tennis star, Mardy Fish, who opened up about how a severe case of anxiety crippled his rising career. From the earliest point in the series, you see a recording of an instructor reinforcing what they believe it takes to succeed – keep your head down and work hard, no signs of weakness will be tolerated. Australian Paralympian and recent podcast guest, Erik Horrie OAM, also openly discussed his own experience with mental health and it is refreshing to see national sporting organisations like the Australian Football League respond to these conversations by offering time off and health services to players.

But with so much discussion in the public domain, how do we elevate the importance of mental and physical health around the boardroom table? And what can we do as leaders to encourage our teams to find balance and ensure a focus on mental health is a way of life?

Throughout my discussions on Accolade Wines’ leadership podcast Realising Your Potential, a topic that was raised time and time again was resilience. We are living in a world where we are always on. Whether that is pressure at work – being asked to do more with less, balancing work and home, or even increased digital connectivity.  This means that putting resilience into practise is easier said than done and something we really need to work at. Interestingly though, despite our guests’ diverse backgrounds, the message was clear – physical health and mental health are inextricably linked and in the same way we train to be better at physical activities, good mental health takes hard work.

People who have stronger mental resilience can persevere for longer. Stresses associated with a busy workplace are inevitable, but it is our ability to stick with something in the face of setbacks that is the true indication of success. Indeed, academic and psychologist Angela Duckworth found that a combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal, or as she coined it, grit, is the hallmark of high achievers in almost every domain. Podcast guest Tanner Gardner, Chief Operating Officer and Senior Associate Athletic Director at Rice University also believes in the value of grit. Students at his university are being taught the value of perseverance before they enter the workforce. Prepared to embrace failure, students learn that mustering up the courage to keep going  is key to triumph.

Businesses need to focus on supporting both the physical and mental wellbeing of their employees to succeed. One strategy is to clearly define common goals and ensure these align to your team’s personal aspirations, helping to build positive alliances amongst members as they unite behind shared objectives. Building meaningful relationships is a cornerstone of resilience. These bonds give us both a practical and psychological support network to draw from.

With most projects for change, better mental health needs to be led at an executive level. As American children activist Marian Wright Edelman famously said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

A good leader is one that focuses on moving the organisation forward, not on their own ego or image. This requires leaders to embrace vulnerability by encouraging hard truths. Fostering a climate of psychological safety enables employees to provide constructive feedback. Regardless of your experience or level of seniority, you’ll still face challenges. Showing this vulnerability will create an environment that allows your team, and yourself, to learn and grow.

Finally, the best leaders recognise that our personal lives are entwined with our professional lives. We need to ensure that we’re happy and healthy if we are going to turn up to work every day and give it our best. Exercise is a core strategy in achieving resilience. It releases endorphins and serotonin which improve your mood and pumps blood to your brain. Put simply, exercise helps you think more clearly. It also increases the size of the hippocampus, the part of your brain responsible for memory. Companies that encourage their employees to incorporate some form of exercise into every day and work on their mental health, by promoting practices like meditation, will reap the rewards of a more productive workforce.

At Accolade Wines, we have a holistic approach to actively creating a high-performance environment which builds resilience. Exercise is an important part of this and recently we launched an ‘Accolde On the Move’ internal campaign which challenged our employees from across the globe to log 150 minutes of exercise a week. Each person competed as part of a team, made up of employees from different countries and departments, because despite their geographical distance, they were working together on a common objective.  

Our support for exercise and wellbeing doesn’t stop there, Accolade employees are offered gym membership rebates so that we actively support their ability to exercise. Some employees have also been given the opportunity to undergo formal training as mental health first aiders empowering them to have more informed conversations in the workplace. The feedback on these initiatives has been overwhelmingly positive – demonstrating the effectiveness of employee engagement programmes like these and the appetite for these initiatives.

Sport has always been a big part of my life but running is something that I discovered later in life. I’ll be the first to admit I am not a natural but consistency, hard work and perseverance has made it something that enhances my outlook. For me, nothing can beat the mental clarity that a run before work can bring, and it is also the perfect way to switch off at the end of the day. In fact, that is how most episodes of Realising Your Potential are road tested. It has offered me great strength and resilience, as it has to many of our guests. I have learnt over time that not every run will be my best but that getting through the harder runs builds fitness and resilience, not just for the next run but for work and life.

As we leave a trying time for many of us, we need to be mindful of balance and the examples set by elite athletes like Simone Biles, Mardy Fish, and Erik Horrie OAM. Each has done their part as leaders by being authentically vulnerable and creating a safe space for this topic to be publicly discussed. It is now the responsibility of companies and their leaders to ensure that mental health and the benefits of exercise are elevated within organisations.


Photo of Paralympian, Erik Horrie by Richard Wearne


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