Given how much time many of us spend at our jobs – the average OECD worker dedicates 1,763 hours a year to theirs – it’s not surprising that sustaining good mental health in the workplace is increasingly seen as a central part of the drive to improve mental health overall.
In the US, a 2017 report from Mental Health America called for action, warning that “workplace mental health problems result in as much as 500 billion dollars of lost productivity annually”. In Australia, the government’s human rights commission publishes guidelines for managers on sustaining their employees’ mental health. In the UK, a government-commissioned review of the issue last year introduced a set of recommended steps for businesses to take – and now, the government is keen to encourage takeup.
But what services do employers need to actually support their employees? Dr Andres Fonseca, a psychiatrist and founder of Thrive, which has developed an app to help users self-manage mild anxiety and depression, said tools like his could help employers to understand the scale of issues among their staff. His software, which has users identify the problems facing them before it provides them with plans to manage their health, collects anonymised data. Employers who buy subscriptions for their staff have access to this, and can use it to identify common risk factors.
“We can tell them ‘This percentage of individuals is depressed’… We identify what the most powerful stressors are for that organisation. Maybe it’s a big commute, maybe it’s crazy workload,” Fonseca said at an event hosted by the NGO Nesta as part of the Inclusive Economy Partnership, which brings together corporations, third sector organisations and social enterprises to solve policy problems. (Disclosure: the UK Cabinet Office, which helps run the Inclusive Economy Partnership, sponsors Apolitical’s Inclusive Growth and Innovative Public Partnerships content channels.)
“We’re not good at looking at outcome data – and outcome data that matters”
Fonseca says his reporting provides “actionable information for the company, which is not gathered on a survey – as you use the app, this emerges.” Employers are aware that developing new ways to measure the scale of their employees’ problems, and the effectiveness of any attempted solutions, is crucial.
“In general we’re not bad at looking at activity,” said Dr Paul Litchfield, Chief Medical Officer at BT Group, but “we’re not good. I would suggest looking at outcome data – and outcome data that matters – in a business or an organisational context.”
Other apps showcased at the event included Mental Snapp, which lets users manage their mental health using video journals, and me@mybest, an app made by the firm Psychological Technologies which asks users questions about their mental state and directs anonymous feedback to their employers.
Pushing through cultural change is another challenge – especially for large, high-energy organisations that thrive on hard work. “There’s no magic solution,” said Barbara Harvey, Research Managing Director at Accenture.
“I get cross when people start saying ‘Oh, the workplace has to be a nice soft, fluffy area.’ I don’t want a fluffy workplace. I want an exciting workplace, because that’s where I can learn. But there’s a line, and you mustn’t cross the line.”
“As you engage somebody senior, they’re going: ‘Hang on a minute, I don’t want to be a boss that does this’,”
Harvey helps to run the firm’s Mental Health Allies, scheme, which has so far trained well over 1,000 employees to help colleagues and promote good mental health practices in their parts of the business. Eventually, the company wants 20% of its UK employees to be trained allies, and the model is being exported to other parts of the business in the US, Ireland and Australia.
One benefit of introducing a more open culture around mental health into a large business, she said, is that busy executives are confronted directly with the experiences of their staff, forcing them to re-appraise the way they work.
“As you engage somebody [senior]… in a conversation about the mental health of his people, and he starts to listen to what his employees are opening up about, at first they’re a bit shocked that people might be experiencing that. Then they’re going: ‘Hang on a minute, I don’t want to be a boss that does this’,” said Harvey.
But what about smaller businesses, who lack that level of human (not to mention financial) capital?
Jacqui Lindsay, from the Church of Scotland’s Crossreach social work wing, works on its employee assistance programme “Confidential Conversations”, which targets small- and medium-sized businesses and nonprofits. She said access to services that don’t have large upfront fees and can be flexible around the needs of each business was key. Crossreach offers a range of bespoke and off-the-shelf models, and companies usually pay for “what’s used,” rather than fronting the money.
“The human cost of failing to address mental health in the workplace is clear,” Paul Farmer, one of the leaders of the UK government review and chief executive of the mental health charity Mind, said when his report was published. “Workplace mental health should be a priority for organisations across the UK.”
Many businesses around the country, and governments all over the world, agree. But now it’s time to explore solutions that make that aspiration a reality.
(Picture credit: Pexels)