Are workforces ready to lead the conversation on mental health?

Two women and a man talking in a workplace

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact poor mental health had on companies, individuals and national economies was staggering. The World Economic Forum has estimated $16 trillion lost to the economy by 2030.

An Office for National Statistics study found that the number of adults in the UK experiencing depression has double since the pandemic started, with 1 in 5 adults experiencing some form of depression in early 2021. An ONS study also found that in March 2020, almost half of people in Great Britain were experiencing high anxiety, which is over 25 million people. This illustrates the serious implications the pandemic has had to people’s lives across the world, both personally and professionally.

Previous studies indicate that past experience of a mental health problem is a strong risk factor for future mental health problems[1][2]. This means there is an imminent and ongoing need to respond to the increase in people experiencing mental health problems. The need for support will not disappear as the pandemic recedes. We must equip our companies, health systems and communities with the tools and confidence required to provide a wide range of support.

Tackling poor mental health before it starts

An essential starting point for how we better equip our companies is to consider how workplaces can support employees in preventing poor mental health and maintaining good mental health. It is not sustainable – or responsible, I would argue – to only intervene once people find the courage to say they are struggling.

From previous studies we know that providing knowledge and information, in the form of mental health awareness programmes, can be beneficial to both employers and employees [3][4]. It can improve people’s attitudes, and even their behaviours, about where and how they might reach out for help with common mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression. We also know that most human behaviour, even our health behaviour, is affected by what our role models and our peers think and do.

Helping organisations better support workforce mental health

In the past year since the start of the pandemic, I have been leading webinar-based groups and one-to-one sessions that equip organisations with essential skills to better understand mental health. They also provide tools for having wellbeing conversations with employees. In these sessions, I’ve worked with hundreds of people in a variety of industries, providing training and facilitating leadership and peer discussions.

Each session has been tailored to the company’s needs and has involved structured discussions about how the pandemic has affected people’s mental health, their work and their lives outside work. We also discuss the proactive steps people have found helpful to maintain good mental health and look at how organisations and individuals can more easily adopt evidence-based approaches to prevent poor mental health and maintain good mental health.

Starting open conversations

One theme emerged loud and clear from these sessions: workforces are not only ready to have difficult discussions about mental health in the workplace, with each other and with leaders. They are also ready to explore how they can come together to overcome barriers and generate shared understanding.

A key ingredient in the success of every one of these sessions has been the willingness of leaders to step up and take on the personal responsibility for starting these conversations. In doing so, they are creating the space for open conversations and equipping themselves to do so.

In the workplace, for many, Mental Health Awareness Week will no doubt be full of important information and awareness-raising. This presents an opportunity for organisations and leaders to turn these conversations into creating and sustaining a mentally healthy workplace. As we emerge from the pandemic, it is crucial that we anticipate the mental health challenges that our colleagues and friends may face.

There is a need for further research into workplace mental health interventions and organisation-wide programmes, but there is also something we can all do this week. We can take a moment to pause and re-establish some of the social ties that have been broken this year; reach out to a colleague we haven’t seen in a while, share a resource from Mind with our team or do an evidence-based group gratitude or savouring exercise.

This Mental Health Awareness Week we can turn intentions into conversations and conversations into actions.

Sarah P. Jones is a doctoral researcher at the Institute of Global Health Innovation. Her study on mental health for the workplace is expected to be published in the peer-reviewed literature Autumn 2021.

(1) Burcusa, Stephanie L.; Iacono, William G. (2007): Risk for Recurrence in Depression. In Clinical Psychology Review 27 (8), pp. 959–985. DOI: 10.1016/j.cpr.2007.02.005.
(2) Bruce, Steven E.; Yonkers, Kimberly A.; Otto, Michael W.; Eisen, Jane L.; Weisberg, Risa B.; Pagano, Maria et al. (2005): Influence of psychiatric comorbidity on recovery and recurrence in generalized anxiety disorder, social phobia, and panic disorder: a 12-year prospective study. In Am J Psychiatry 162 (6), pp. 1179–1187. DOI: 10.1176/appi.ajp.162.6.1179.
(3) Kitchener, Betty A.; Jorm, Anthony F. (2002): Mental health first aid training for the public: evaluation of effects on knowledge, attitudes and helping behavior. In BMC Psychiatry 2 (1), pp. 1–6. DOI: 10.1186/1471-244X-2-10.
(4) Milligan-Saville, Josie S.; Tan, Leona; Gayed, Aimée; Barnes, Caryl; Madan, Ira; Dobson, Mark et al. (2017): Workplace mental health training for managers and its effect on sick leave in employees: a cluster randomised controlled trial. In The Lancet Psychiatry 4 (11), pp. 850–858. DOI: 10.1016/S2215-0366(17)30372-3.

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