3 Threads to Help With Workplace Mental Health

workplace mental health

Mental health concerns are not only widespread, they contribute to substantial costs to organisations and worker’s health. To date, workplace mental health interventions generally target mental health using three related yet separate threads: medicine, public health and psychology. However, recent research debates the benefits and logistics of joining them. Subsequently, an integrated approach may assist prevention and intervention of workplace mental health concerns among workers with upstream benefits for organisations.

The majority of costs for mental disorders such as depression among working people are borne by employers.  Turnover costs, presenteeism and absenteeism costs far exceeds healthcare costs. Over the past three decades, a substantial body of research has demonstrated the links between psychosocial working conditions, or job stressors and job strain, and worker health.  High job strain is linked with declining health. Job strain is when a worker has low control over how the job is done; coupled with high job demands. Job stressors include job insecurity, bullying or psychological harassment, low social support at work, organisational injustice and imbalances between effort and reward. In addition to depression, exposure to various job stressors has been associated with burnout, anxiety disorders, alcohol dependence, suicide and other mental health outcomes. Unlike physical injuries such as occupational exposures (e.g., asbestos), to which only a small proportion of the working population were exposed, all workers can be potentially exposed to job stressors.  A small increase in exposures to job stress and job strain can translate into substantial and long term illness burdens on organisations.

Mental health problems are common in the working population and are growing at an ever increasing rate. They impact workers (e.g., discrimination, job loss, lower quality of life), organisations (e.g., lost productivity, turnover and increased support costs), workplace health and compensation authorities (e.g., rising job stress-related claims), and social welfare systems (e.g., rising working age disability pensions for mental disorders). In response, we have seen the rapid expansion of workplace mental health interventions to address common mental health problems in the workplace setting. Their aim is to prevent, detect and effectively manage depression and anxiety as a result of stress and burnout and other personal causes. Traditionally, workplace mental health interventions have evolved relatively independently along three main threads or disciplinary traditions: medicine, public health, and psychology.

Medicine, Public Health and Psychology

Research published BMC Pyschiatry by LaMontange, et al (2014) argues that we should join the three threads. First, reducing work-related risk factors to protect mental health. Second, developing the positive aspects of work, worker strengths and capacities to promote mental health. Third, irrespective of cause, address worker’s mental health concerns. In medicine, mental health treatment generally focuses on symptom reduction. Yet strategies that include other factors (e.g. organisational culture and norms) appear to be more effective. Stigma is a major barrier to mental health treatment because it prevents workers from disclosing symptoms. In addition, workers often fear discrimination. The psychosocial safety climate of organisations can assist with these barriers through developing positive policies, practices and procedures around mental health.

There is ample evidence that job loss is associated with a decline in mental health. The point of departure from the employer (e.g. with redundancy, downsizing, restructures-events which appear to be increasing in frequency) represents one opportunity for intervention.”

The Results and Next Steps

Depression, simple phobia and generalised anxiety disorder are most common among the workforce. For example, major depressive disorder effect 15% of the working population and of these:

  • 21% reported depressive symptoms in the past year and were in treatment;
  • 17% reported depressive symptoms in the past year and were not in treatment;
  • 11% were recovered and in treatment; and
  • 52% were recovered and not in treatment.

A move toward integrating the three threads into practice and policy is promising. Employers and other workplace stakeholders are increasingly receptive to the value of these actions. Largely, this receptivity is encouraged by understanding the negative impacts of mental health concerns on the individual and the organisation (e.g. sickness absence). Importantly, employers are recognising that fulfilling Work Health and Safety obligations involves mental as well as physical health. Current leaders are Canada with the first Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace and the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work with their Mental Health Promotion in the Workplace.

Implications and Conclusion

Additional work is required to better understand logistically how to join the three threads in the organisational context. This may lead to increased efficiencies and preventative synergies (e.g. Wellness Officer and Work Health and Safety tasks). Such an integrated approach is already successfully implemented among work-related medical issues (e.g. cancer prevention). Strategy and guidance are still needed. For best practice, involving the full range of workplace stakeholders is highly important.

Through joining the threads of medicine, public health and psychology, workers and organisations can anticipate short and long-term benefits. These include better mental health literacy, working conditions, job quality and fulfilled legal requirements. If organisations adopt these actions, then the treatment, rehabilitation and return to work of staff after a mental health experience may be improved. To do this, both better understanding of how work conditions impact workplace mental health and better awareness of this is needed. Increasing awareness of work-related influences on mental health, and the growing recognition of the need for a ‘psychologically safe’ workplace may help to drive organisational efforts to improve psychosocial working conditions.

Innovative Solution to Support Workplace Mental Health

Mental health solutions delivered via smart devices and online are an efficient way for organisations to provide quicker and accessible support and training to their staff to tackle the onset of mental illness. Traditionally, providers deliver mental health training in workshops. Others deliver diagnostic surveys to gauge staff mental health state. The problem is regular engagement (which costly for organisations to train) and the accurate collection of data (people often only tell you what they think you want to hear). One solution is Tap into Safety which unique in that it offers training delivered online and via smart devices, anywhere, anytime on relevant workplace topics that impact mental health using fun animation, gamification and interaction. As part of a well-being programme, the solution helps business to tackle mental illness better by providing relevant and interactive workplace training.

The solution offers ‘one click away’ from help to reach out for support (on average only 5% access their EAP when 20% have an issue right now – stigma plays a huge role here). Tap into Safety increases help-seeking by 100% as shown in the product evaluation conducted in 2017. By encouraging help-seeking early we reduce the escalation into serious stress claims.

Finally, the diagnostic tool (animated, gamified DASS-21) is a world first in its use across organisations, that together with our filters, enables them to pin point groups of staff in mental health decline so that they can target and tailor their wellbeing education programmes. This not only saves them money; their programmes are now more effective.

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