Where body meets mind - How to create a culture of acceptance


After running our nationwide Macmillan workshops about how to manage cancer in the workplace last year, followed by this year’s series of Mental Health Management seminars featuring trainers from Mind, we have noted the strong link between physical and mental health, and how it can impact individuals. In this article, take a close look at how physical health impacts mental health, and offer advice on how to interact with people who live with disability.

The relationship between physical and mental health

The Mental Health Foundation notes that physical disability can lead to an increased risk of developing mental health problems. Alternatively, poor mental health can negatively impact on physical health, leading to an increased risk of certain physical illnesses and conditions. Conditions that are debilitating to the body come with circumstances and limitations that may trigger mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, while mental health problems can spill over into the state of one’s physical health.

How physical illness and impact mental health

The Kings Fund reports that people with long-term physical health conditions are two to three times more likely to experience mental health problems, with anxiety and depression disorders being particularly common. Equally, a person’s mental health could worsen their condition. Co-morbid mental health problems have a number of serious implications for people with long-term conditions, including poorer clinical outcomes and lower quality of life.

The health and care charity notes that mortality rates after heart attack or heart bypass surgery are several times higher among people with co-morbid depression, while people with diabetes have an increased risk (by more than 40 percent) of all-cause mortality over three years if they also have depression, after adjusting for other factors. These effects are mediated by a number of mechanisms, including reduced ability and motivation to manage health conditions, medication side effects and poorer health behaviours. Overall, co-morbid mental health problems have a greater effect on quality of life than physical co-morbidities

According to Macmillan’s report published in February 2017, nearly two thirds (64%) of people recently diagnosed with cancer have experienced mental health problems such as anxiety and depression while waiting for their treatment to start. The charity says this could equate to around 190,000 people per year.

“Going through cancer treatment can be a harrowing experience, and when people are made to wait long periods for treatment, it piles on even more uncertainty and distress. Waiting over two months to start treatment can have a profoundly negative impact on someone’s mental health, quite apart from the serious strain it can place on families and carers,” says Dr Rosie Loftus, Joint Chief Medical Officer at Macmillan Cancer Support.

Workplace pressures, environments and people, combined with the limitations of a long-term physical illness or disability can also have a negative impact on the mental health of individuals who may be suffering.

Creating a culture of compassion and acceptance

Whether or not a company has a positive culture is largely determined by how its employees engage and interact with each other. However, when it comes to disability, many co-workers still have a tendency to either minimise or trivialise how physical and mental health impact on the lives of others. Worse still, many overstep their boundaries in a well-meaning attempt to address the issue.

When living with a disability, there is often a tendency to feel like an imposition on others. Talking down to people living with debilitating conditions will only darken their perceptions further. You should instead aim to treat everyone as your equal, regardless of their condition.

Below are three ways that co-workers can maintain a culture of compassion and acceptance:

1. Change your perception

Among some of the most difficult challenges people with disabilities face are the misconceptions of others. What some individuals fail to realise is that, like them, people with disabilities have capabilities, families, hobbies, likes and dislikes. You can get to know the person by striking up a conversation that focuses in on every-day topics and interests, rather than their disability. No one should be defined solely by their physical or mental health, because it is just one part of who they are as intricate and complex human beings.

For this reason, employees should make a conscious effort to perceive the co-worker as a person with a disability, not as a ‘disabled person’. They should not undercut a person with a disability by assuming that they are emotionally fragile, thus patronising, infantilising and pitying them as a result. Co-workers also shouldn't automatically assume which activities a person with a disability can or cannot do, because most are capable of performing many tasks well, thanks to today's technology and multiple assistive resources.

2. Provide assistance, but don't invade boundaries

The limitations that come with physical disability have a substantial impact on the state of one’s mental health. No one wants to feel like a burden, so it can be particularly challenging for people with a disability to seek assistance. While at certain times, a co-worker with a disability might need the assistance of another employee, you should not assume when that is. You need to respect an individual’s boundaries by asking if they need help beforehand, but don’t push the issue if they decline, as this comes across as obnoxious, invasive and extremely patronising. Aim to communicate to a person with a disability just as you would with anyone else, treating them as equals.

3. Communicate with empathy

Good communication is critical to putting all parties at ease. While many individuals may attempt to reach out with the best of intentions, they sometimes end up trivialising or minimising what is a very real, challenging and debilitating condition for the recipient. Here are just a few things that should never be said to a person with a disability: 

  • Get busy and distract yourself
  • Do you want to get better?
  • Change your attitude.
  • Stop focusing on the bad stuff.
  • You can snap out of it, everyone feels this way sometimes.
  • You have the same condition as my _______

While the above may seem like sound advice to you, it will likely come across as dismissive to the individual you are trying to morally support. You need to empathise and respect that the individual is on their own journey, and as such will process their illness and surrounding circumstances in a different way to you. When in doubt, listen to what the person has to say about their condition - not to respond with some infuriatingly cheerful nugget of motivational wisdom, but to truly understand what the individual is going through.

While everybody is human and prone to make mistakes from time to time, what matters is how we learn and grow from them. We should each take time to reflect on how our misconceptions impact on people living with disability, and work together to create a culture of compassion and acceptance.

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