Body image concerns can contribute towards mental health problems. But employers can take preventative steps.
Any employer who turned a blind eye to this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, which took place between May 13th and 19th, could find it comes back to haunt them.
According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2017/18 mental health problems accounted for 15.4 million sick days in the UK. The costs of presenteeism – when employees attend work but are unable to perform to their optimum – are harder to quantify, but most experts believe it is just as costly as absenteeism and some feel it costs much more.
There is certainly plenty to be said for employers involving their workplace in Mental Health Awareness Week annually, as each year it raises awareness of a different important issue. In previous years this has ranged from stress, relationships and loneliness to sleep, alcohol and friendships.
This year’s theme of body image, which refers to how we think and feel about our bodies, will represent new ground to many employers and employees but it is arguably just as important as some of the old chestnuts.
The results of online surveys conducted by the Mental Health Foundation with YouGov in March 2019 found that 20% of adults felt shame, 34% felt down or low, and 19% felt disgusted because of their body image during the last year. 13% of adults even experienced suicidal thoughts or feelings because of concerns about their body image.
Our thoughts and feelings about our bodies affect the way we view ourselves and our mental health and well-being. Whilst such concerns are not actually a mental health problem in themselves the point to grasp is that they can be a risk factor for one.
Research has found that higher body dissatisfaction is associated with a poorer quality of life, psychological distress and also the risk of unhealthy eating behaviours and eating disorders. Body satisfaction and appreciation, on the other hand, has been linked with better overall wellbeing and fewer unhealthy dieting behaviours.
Although dissatisfaction with bodies and appearance tends to be most common amongst young women, body image concerns can affect both men and women – and are relevant from childhood through to later life.
Research commonly suggests that body image can be influenced by factors such as relationships with family and friends, how family and peers feel and speak about bodies and appearance, exposure to images of idealised or unrealistic bodies through media or social media, and pressure to look a certain way or to match an ‘ideal’ body type.
Indeed, the recent Mental Health Foundation/YouGov online surveys found that 21% of adults said that advertising had caused them to worry about their body image, whilst 22% of adults and 40% of teenagers experienced the same problem via social media.
Some of the solutions to the problem clearly depend on more effective regulation and pressure group activity. For example, the Advertising Standards Authority could perhaps be made to pre-vet high-reach broadcast adverts from firms in high risk industries like cosmetic surgery and weight loss to ensure they abide by its code. It could also be made to think about becoming more proactive in instigating investigations.
Similarly, pressure can hopefully be put on social media companies to investigate new ways of using their platforms to ensure that a diversity of body types are presented positively and to have clear systems for users to report bullying and discrimination.
But employers can play their part in ensuring that employees in distress receive fast and empathetic support when they need it. In many cases offering access to confidential telephone-based or face-to-face counselling via an employee assistance programme (EAP) will be able to help.
Employers can also help employees to model positive behaviour around body image by encouraging them to eat healthily and stay active and make them more aware of the ways in which they speak about their own and others’ bodies in causal conversation.
Additionally, they can encourage employees to wear green ribbons – the international symbol for mental health awareness – and help stimulate get-togethers over a cup of tea or a curry to discuss mental health issues and raise funds for mental health charities.
Further information about body image and mental health issues generally can be found from the Mental Health Foundation’s website – www.mentalhealth.org.uk