How to improve mental wellbeing at work

The work environment you create plays an important role in employees’ mental health, writes Dr Daniel Duffy from SilverCloud by Amwell.

Covid-19 transformed the working world, resulting in a deluge of remote working that has eventually settled into a more flexible/hybrid arrangement, with many employees now dividing their time between home and the office.

That desire for flexibility has extended to work patterns, with employees looking for roles that can adapt to life commitments. With mental health, so long an area that was largely unspoken of within the workplace, is fast becoming a pillar of company culture.

“While many employers express a desire to tackle the issue of workplace mental health, there is more to be done”

For all the pain that the pandemic caused, the move towards de-stigmatisation and normalisation of mental health, is a positive one. The stigma attached to mental health problems in the workplace was already starting to decline, but the shared experience of the pandemic has accelerated that process.

For once, we could see each other struggling – employees, managers, directors – no one was exempt. So, we started to talk more, and care more. With the scale of the problem exposed there was no going back. Even as memories of the pandemic fade, mental health is still a key issue for the government, organisations and people of Ireland.

Yet, despite this, the prevalence of mental health problems at work is still high. SilverCloud by Amwell’s recent survey, revealed that more than six in 10 employees had felt down, depressed, or hopeless for several days or more in the two weeks preceding the research.

Nearly half (45%) pointed to feeling unappreciated at work as a reason for struggling, while long working hours (41%) and lack of support from managers and colleagues (37%) are also factors having a negative effect on employees’ mental health.

In all, employees said they felt stressed (44%), anxious (39%), burnt out (38%) and overwhelmed (37%), with those under 35 experiencing negative emotions at work much more often than those over 35. One consultant we spoke to put the problem starkly. “This generation of graduates is registering the highest levels of stress and anxiety ever recorded,” they commented.

How businesses can leverage digital mental health solutions as ESG initiatives to benefit their employees

While many employers express a desire to tackle the issue of workplace mental health, there is more to be done. A workplace survey released last year by Mental Health Ireland found that just 39% of employees felt their workplace had strong mental health policies in place. A third of those surveyed felt their company did not adhere to their own policies or even put them into practice.

“Employee mental health is increasingly being added to the agenda of company boards across businesses from all sectors”

An effective wellbeing policy, in which a digital mental health solution like SilverCloud by Amwell is of importance, will have a positive impact on recruitment and retention, particularly among younger employees. They want to see if an employer is going to care for their mental health and they are going to put that in the balance when it comes to choosing one company over another. Therefore, it’s very important that organisations care for the wellbeing of their employees. If they don’t it will inevitably have an impact on their capacity to attract and retain talent.

What’s required is a mental health and wellbeing strategy that reflects what it feels like to work in your organisation. It needs to tackle attitudes, beliefs and norms, none of which are easy to change. But the rewards for organisations who can achieve this are worth it. When the right interventions and changes are executed well they can make a real difference. A survey by Amwell among UK employers last year, found that 60% of those who had invested in their workers’ mental health and wellbeing had since seen a reduction in absenteeism, while 40% saw a direct correlation with their profitability. The 2022-2023 Global Wellbeing Survey, published recently by professional services firm AON, supports  these findings. They reported that improving employee wellbeing factors can enhance company performance by between 11% and 55%. By strategically investing in the mental health and wellbeing of staff, organisations can build a stronger, more effective, sustainable and resilient workplace.

What employers can do to ensure employees feel supported

  1. Make it a board-level priority

In any organisation the most important issues are the responsibility of the board. They alone have the authority to formalise policy, set objectives, provide the necessary resources and then hold executives to account in delivering against them – all the things needed to drive real change. According to Sir Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology at Alliance Manchester Business School, he believes that one board member should have a particular responsibility for health and wellbeing and that it should be reported in an annual report instead of the sustainability report of a business. This way it will gain traction and investor attention.

  1. Measure what matters

The first step to solving a problem is figuring out what it is and who it is affecting. Then, you can start to identify the issues and look for solutions. But without reliable data you won’t know whether you are making progress and hitting your targets. An effective mental health and wellbeing strategy should incorporate an impact measurement strategy, with metrics needing to be robust, clinically supported and, ideally, audited independently.  Metrics therefore need to be robust, clinically supported and ideally, audited independently.

  1. Prioritise working environment with a healthy culture

Employers can ensure that the work environment they provide is of high quality and fosters creativity and excitement. Physically, employers should ensure that office spaces are decluttered and that good quality air is filtered through the office as well as natural lights. As well as this, employers should place an emphasis on the decor of the office space they operate in. The  workplace has come along way since earlier years where it was just desks and seats. Today, office spaces should be an experimental place with vibrant colours and interiors that instils a level of excitement among employees.

When it comes to remote workers, employers should ensure that there still remains an element of connectivity to the physical office. As well as this, employers can offer their employees equipment to set up a workplace at home such as ergonomic chairs and a guide to maintain a clean workspace and avoid clutter.

  1. Support the whole person

Employers should remember that each of their employees live a life outside of the workplace and external pressures may impact an employee’s wellbeing at work.

Over half (54%) of those surveyed said their mental health at work was taking a hit because of money worries. Over 3 in 10 (31%) employees cited ill health of a family member as a factor, while 28% of respondents blamed childcare issues. These concerns may not feel relevant to you or your business, but they are. Take, for example, those employees who are worried about a family member’s mental health. 3 in 10 (31%) say they are less able to focus at work because of it. And a quarter say it affects their productivity. 22% have taken more than 2 days off to care for a family member.

Therefore, when an employer provides services that promote employee wellbeing in work, it is also influencing employees mental health outside of the office.

  1. Be proactive

When it comes to mental health and wellbeing, prevention is better than cure. Early interventions can stop problems from developing in the first place, or at least reduce the likelihood that they’ll get worse. A 2020 report from Deloitte, also showed proactive measures produced a much higher return on investment than those that sought to treat people once symptoms had surfaced. Employers have an opportunity to invest in the resilience of their staff by helping them to develop stronger coping skills and mentally healthier habits.

Digital mental health tools can be particularly useful but it does not work in isolation. It is a stepping stone to looking out for employees’ mental wellbeing but employees can consider incorporating other practices into their business to ensure their employees wellbeing is protected. These include regular check-ins with employees, encourage employees to take regular breaks from their desk and computer screens, promote a healthy work life balance and provide training on stress management and mental health.

These are a few ways that employers can communicate their support for their employees wellbeing.

  1. Listen to people

One-size-fits-all measures rarely succeed. Individuals need different levels and methods of support at different times in their working lives.

Employee mental health is increasingly being added to the agenda of company boards across businesses from all sectors. It is important that businesses look to prioritise it as it benefits both the employees and the business by increasing employee happiness and retention and also strengthening the businesses ESG strategies.

Dr Daniel Duffy
Dan has been working as a researcher on the SilverCloud platform for seven years, and has managed, designed and executed on some of the pivotal trials that have substantiated Amwell’s interventions with the SilverCloud platform as evidence-based. As a Digital Health Scientist, he currently contributes to the overall strategy and vision for the Amwell Science team, as well as supervises the conduct of various research endeavours. He holds a PhD in psychology from Trinity College Dublin and is deeply passionate about the intersection between digital therapeutics and implementation science.