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Study Links Workplace Wellness Programs and Mental Health

Oct. 10, 2016
On World Mental Health Day, new research shows significant link between mental health and participation in workplace wellness programs.

With mental illness making up more than half of healthcare costs, researchers continually are looking for correlations between effective workplace wellness programs on employees’ mental health.

New research conducted by UCLA researchers Natacha Emerson, Kelly Shedd and Robert Bilder utilized data provided by 281 participants in the school’s Bruin Health Improvement Program.

UCLA’s Bruin Health Improvement Program began in 2010 and is open to all staff and faculty. Modeled after cross-fit training, the program consists of three cardiovascular conditioning and strength training workouts per week.

“This was the first study of a workplace wellness program that showed a clear link between improvement in physical health and improvements in mental health, quality of life, stress, and energy,” said Dr. David Merrill, a UCLA assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and a co-author of the study in a statement. “Participants reported improved feelings of calm, social satisfaction, ability to cope with stress, and an overall sense of well-being. They also reported improvement in their energy levels and better productivity at work.”

Throughout the study, volunteers were asked to report stress levels based on a “Perceived Stress Level” to determine to what degree they felt their lives were “unpredictable, uncontrollable and overwhelming” as they participated in the 12-week program. They also completed a questionnaire measuring physical and emotional health, vitality, social functioning, general health perceptions, bodily pain and any limitations due to physical or emotional problems, according to a release.

Researchers found that at the conclusion of the 12-week program, mental health improved by nearly 19 percentile points, compared to baseline levels measured at the beginning of the fitness program.

For the overall mental health score, participants scoring at the 50th percentile on mental health, meaning “average” mental health, scored as high as the 69th percentile after participation in the wellness program, according to Merrill.

“This data strongly suggests that workplace wellness plans have a positive effect on people’s mental state of mind as well as their physical wellness,” said Prabha Siddarth, a research statistician at the Semel Institute and the study’s senior author in a statement. “Targeting workplace mental health, and using such exercise and wellness programs can effectively reduce absenteeism, disability and productivity losses, and reduce the healthcare costs associated with those issues.”

The study is available for viewing in the Occupational Medicine journal.

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