Understanding The Links Between Mental, Physical, And Financial Health

Authored By: Dr. Marie-Hélène Pelletier | Publish Date: February 16, 2017

We live in a complex, interconnected world – with few things existing in isolation. Mental health is no exception. Despite our default view of mental health as something quite separate from our physical selves – study after study has shown just how connected mental health is to other health measures, like physical and financial health.

Not always of course, as a mental health condition can still exist on its own. But in many cases, there is an interconnection between the mental, physical, and financial health spheres, with an imbalance in one affecting the balance in another.

What does that mean for employers looking to support employee mental health? The smart approach is to think broadly, and factor in physical and financial health as part of an integrated health strategy.

Why mental health in the workplace matters

Employees are an organization’s greatest asset and their mental health is integral to their well-being, engagement, and success. Unfortunately, mental health issues take a large toll.

Here are the facts. In any given week, 500,000 Canadians are unable to work due to mental health issues1 and the cost to employers is high. The Conference Board of Canada found that mental health conditions among working-aged Canadians cost employers an estimated $20.7 billion annually from claims, absences, and lost productivity – and that this cost is forecasted to approach $30 billion by 2030.2 Of course, the toll of mental health issues on individuals can also be pronounced, leading to a significant reduction in the quality of life for millions of Canadians and their families.

While there is greater awareness than ever of the costs and consequences of poor mental health in the workplace, only 39 per cent of Canada’s employers have a mental health strategy in place.3 And yet with such a large part of daily life spent in a work environment, the workplace is ideally positioned to initiate and support a healthy lifestyle – including mental wellness.

The Link Between Mental Health And Physical Health

Casting a broad net to target healthy lifestyles can be an important part of mental health support because of the link between different aspects of health, most notably the link between physical and mental health.

For example, excess mental stress has been shown to contribute to chronic physical illness, including high blood pressure, hardening of the arteries, obesity, and diabetes.4 And the link works both ways. People who report symptoms of depression also report experiencing three times as many chronic physical conditions as the general population.5 Conversely, people with chronic physical conditions have twice the likelihood of experiencing a mood or anxiety disorder when compared to those without a chronic physical condition.6

The co-existence of two or more health conditions can greatly increase the impacts to employees and employers. For example, workers with both mental health and physical health conditions have been found to have two to five times the likelihood of functional disability and absence from work.7

The good news is that there are prevention programs that can work to support good mental and physical health at the same time. For example, as a society, we’re well aware of the important role that exercise and good nutrition play in supporting good physical health. But there is also strong research showing that exercise and nutrition can significantly improve mental health.

For nutrition, there are consistent associations between diet patterns and anxiety and depression. Eating processed foods, such as hamburgers, white bread and sugar, has been linked to a higher likelihood of depressive and anxiety disorders.10 Conversely, a diet of vegetables, fruit, lamb, beef, fish, and whole grain foods has been shown to have the opposite effect.11 Mental health conditions are complex and exercise and nutrition are by no means a cure-all. But they are parts of our life over which we have some control – and there is a good body of research suggesting that exercise and nutrition habits can have a positive material influence on mental health.

In terms of workplace prevention programs to consider, there are a number that can encourage greater physical activity and better nutrition. These might include health challenges, education sessions on nutrition or fitness topics, or promotional campaigns to shift employee thinking. A combination of programs is key to enable employees to translate key learnings into action.

The Link Between Mental Health And Financial Health

One health link that’s often overlooked is the connection between financial health and mental health. In our 2016 Sun Life Canadian Health Index survey12, we found that the top drivers of excessive stress were related to finances:

  • 45 per cent of individuals were experiencing uncomfortable levels of stress related to personal or household finances
  • 32 per cent faced excessive stress in trying to maintain a budget
  • 31 per cent were stressed by unexpected expenses

The issue with excessive financial stress is that it is not a benign condition. In the UK, 62 per cent of individuals seeking debt advice reported that their debt problems had led to high stress, anxiety or depression.13 During the U.S. housing crisis, health economists were able to show that the decline in housing prices was responsible for a 22 per cent rise in anti-depressant prescription volume nationwide between July 2006 and February 2009.14

One of the greatest risks to employers in terms of the impact of financial stress is presenteeism – where employees report to work, but are less productive due to their financial stresses. Several U.S. studies have confirmed this link. In one study, 20 per cent of employees reported that personal financial issues distracted them while at work.15 In another, 37 per cent of employees said that financial stress had caused their productivity at work to suffer – and 25 per cent reported missing work due to stress that stemmed from their personal financial situation.16

All this is to say that many employees are experiencing excessive stress related to their finances – and that these stresses contribute to both mental and physical health issues, which in turn lead to temporary absences, disability claims, and loss of productivity associated with presenteeism.

Take An Integrated Approach To Workplace Health

Introducing better supports for mental health in the workplace is an important goal that an increasing number of employers are adopting – and there are a variety of resources and tools that employers can leverage to create a workplace environment that fosters good mental health.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada’s National Standard on Psychological Health Safety in the Workplace is used by more than half of the employers who have implemented a mental health strategy.17 It calls on employers to implement, document, and maintain a psychological health and safety management system and to continually improve its effectiveness. You can learn more at http://www.mentalhealthcommission.ca/English/national-standard

An employer’s benefits provider can also be a key partner, with tools to help assess your organization’s support for mental health and processes that can help you formulate a strategy and take next steps. Your provider can also help you achieve the higher purpose goal of building a culture in which employees are supported to live healthier lifestyles – addressing all aspects of their health, from physical to mental to financial.

Resources in most organizations are limited which is why a strategic approach that factors in the integration of all three health measures is so important. The strategies you put in place can both empower your employees to make positive changes and provide the access to resources they may need when a health issue arises. With a big picture view on overall heath, you can reduce the incidence and impact of mental health issues in your workplace.

Dr. MarieHélène Pelletier is assistant vice-president, workplace health, at Sun Life Financial.

  1. Dewa, Chau and Dermer, Examining the comparative incidence and costs of physical and mental health-related disabilities in an employed population, J. Occup Environ Med. 2010 Jul; 52(7):758-62. doi: 10.1097/JOM.0b013e3181e8cfb5
  2. The Conference Board of Canada, Mental Health Issues in the Labour Force, 8.
  3. The Conference Board of Canada, “Healthy Brains at Work”, February 2016
  4. Harvard Mental Health Letter, Harvard Medical School, March 2011
  5. Canadian Mental Health Association, The Relationship between Mental Health, Mental Illness and Chronic Physical Conditions, December 2008
  6. Canadian Mental Health Association, The Relationship between Mental Health, Mental Illness and Chronic Physical Conditions, December 2008
  7. Diabetes, common mental disorders, and disability: findings from the UK National Psychiatric Morbidity Survey. Das-Munshi J1, Stewart R, Ismail K, Bebbington PE, Jenkins R, Prince MJ. Psychosom Med. 2007 Jul-Aug; 69(6): 543-50. Epub 2007 Jul 16
  8. George Mannen, Published on October 29, 2013 by Christopher Bergland in Psychology Today blog.
  9. Trivedi, MH et al. (2011). Exercise as an augmentation treatment for nonremitted major depressive disorder: a randomized, parallel dose comparison. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 72(5) May 2011, 677-684.[1][1][1] 10. Jacka, F., et al. (2010). Association of Western and Traditional Diets with Depression and Anxiety in Women. American Journal of Psychiatry 167: 305-311.
  10. Jacka, F., et al. (2010). Association of Western and Traditional Diets with Depression and Anxiety in Women. American Journal of Psychiatry 167: 305-311.
  11. Jacka, F., et al. (2010). Association of Western and Traditional Diets with Depression and Anxiety in Women. American Journal of Psychiatry 167: 305-311.
  12. The 2016 Sun Life Canadian Health Index was based on findings of an Ipsos Reid poll conducted between Sept. 19 and 30, 2016. A sample of 2,402 Canadians from 18 to 80 years of age was drawn from the Ipsos I-Say online panel
  13. Edwards, S. (2003) In Too Deep. CAB Clients’ Experience of Debt. Citizen Advice
  14. Financial distress and use of mental health care: Evidence from antidepressant prescription claims Haizhen Lina, Jonathan D. Ketchamb, James N. Rosenquist, Kosali I. Simond, Economics Letters 121 (2013) 449–453
  15. PWC 2015 Employee Financial Wellness Survey (US)
  16. State Street Global Advisor survey, 2014 (US)
  17. The Conference Board of Canada, “Healthy Brains at Work”, February 2016

Jacka, F., et al. (2010). Association of Western and Traditional Diets with Depression and Anxiety in Women. American Journal of


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