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Navigating the mental health maze: the corporate world's new challenge

Although you won’t see government ministers doing daily TV briefings about it, we are currently in a ‘second pandemic’. This time, though, its effect is mostly mental, rather than physical.

The phrase was coined by mental health charity Mind, in the wake of its survey which found a third of adults and young people reported their mental health had got much worse since March 2020.

Even pre-pandemic, one in four adults experienced mental ill-health at some point in their lives. And the ripple effect of that on individuals, communities and workplaces is devastating.

More recent research using 338 systematic reviews demonstrated that depression and anxiety are still consistently higher now than pre-pandemic.

Another study found that pandemic-related shifts in sleep, substance abuse, physical activity and diet also have a direct negative impact on mental health.

The hard truth is current mental health support cannot meet the 175% increase in demand, with many individuals unable to access support either through perceived or actual barriers.

The ‘hard to reach’ in mental health lack adequate service provision.

Managers ‘out of their depth’ with employee mental health concerns

Workplace wellbeing isn’t working

In the workplace, poor psychological wellbeing leads to a lack of coping and resilience, low self-worth, poor communication and, crucially, absenteeism and burnout.

The cost of poor mental health is £56 billion to UK employers, according to a 2022 Deloitte report.

Approximately 61% of employees who are considering leaving work state that this is due to their mental health.

Traditional solutions to health promotion and treatment have focused on information.

But here’s the thing: the supply of information alone does not lead to behaviour change if, like the ‘hard to reach’, your willingness to engage with helpful treatment is low.

In other words, a one-way broadcast of help isn’t helping.

Alongside this, workplace solutions to staff wellbeing usually focus on the employer ‘giving’ things.

Think of those LinkedIn job ads that list free fruit and table football as covetable perks.

Their efficacy is debatable at best but, that aside, the fact is that work cannot keep giving more if it seems to make no discernible difference to corporate wellness.

A new way is needed.

Mental health lessons from the pandemic must become part of workplace culture

At the moment, few corporate wellbeing platforms offer skill development and behaviour change tools.

Some digital apps for mental health have started to recognise this but there is much room for development and innovation.

Making wellbeing apps skill-based and gamified, for example, will help engage those usually unwilling to connect with traditional wellness approaches.

The gamification of wellbeing

For proof from the consumer tech world, look no further than the recent success of Pokémon Sleep, which racked up 3 million global downloads in the two weeks from release in summer 2023.

For the uninitiated, it’s a mobile game that the user leaves open next to them at night.

It listens to their breathing patterns and, in the morning, they wake up to discover a new Pokémon with similar sleep habits.

How the app retains users long-term is to be determined.

It may be like Pokémon Go, where 80% of players stopped using it in the first few months, but a solid group of power players drove revenue.

Either way, it’s a fascinating case study of the power of gamified wellness tech that drives behaviour change.

UK's largest companies failing to tackle mental health issues

Mental health for many remains a difficult subject to admit vulnerability to or problems with.

It also remains an area without adequate learning, skill development or understanding around how we think and what we can do about it.

The growing mental health crisis has prompted many practitioners to call out for greater awareness around how individuals can support themselves and how we can all increase our skill set to act as mental health ambassadors in our social and family spaces.

We need to increase visibility of how individuals can take accountability and responsibility for their own mental health development while avoiding a ‘victim blaming’ approach. 

Of course, we can’t remove stress, workload pressure, deadlines and difficult relationships in the workplace.

However, what we can do is support the individual to learn skills and techniques for coping.

To support learning and the creation of a ‘coping toolbox’ which the employee can draw on when they feel overwhelmed and anxious.

Like a muscle, the more that an individual can draw on their own resilience, then the stronger it will get.


Does behavioural science hold the key?

What’s also often missing in wellbeing solutions is a foundation of behaviour change theory.

This is an important omission because our attempts to enhance mental health and change the way people think and see the world must be rooted in behaviour change.

Behaviour change and skills development opportunities allow employees to take responsibility for their physical and mental health and to learn a series of behaviour change skills which can help them to not only ‘manage’ in the workplace, but also thrive.

How to handle employee mental health pressures

Little wonder, then, that digital behaviour change interventions (DBCIs) are currently at the forefront of the health industry.

A DCBI is an innovative, interactive and iterative application that focuses on mental health and skill development.

It’s also something that employers can invest in with the knowledge that it will be wide reaching, accessible (reaching the ‘hard to reach’) cost-effective and sustainable. While some wellness solutions might feel like a management tick-box exercise, DBCIs are science-based, skills-led and have been proven, time and again in studies, to be truly effective.

Developing a DBCI requires that we first consider what needs to change in order for the behaviour to change. In essence, to undertake a behavioural diagnosis.

We tend to make assumptions around why people behave in the way they do, but these assumptions are often incorrect and lead to ineffective interventions.

To help individuals make the leap from intention to action, we need to create the bridge that runs between the two in order to support the majority of people who are stuck – but who have intent.

A product which is founded in behaviour change theory will do this much more effectively than one that is not.

Following extensive reviews, successful behaviour change has been classified into clusters.

Research shows us that there are 16 clear and tested ways which we know are scientifically proven to change behaviour.

Spotting the signs of mental ill health

These range from goals and planning to feedback, monitoring, repetition and self-belief. What works for whom, and when, in relation to the behaviour change techniques increases the complexity of altering behaviour.

This is where tech that can crunch big data comes in.

However, we must recognise that DBCIs are not a one-size-fits-all solution. They are one tool among many that can improve mental and physical health, and their effectiveness may vary among individuals.

In conclusion, the mental health crisis demands an innovative approach that transcends traditional wellness programmes.

By embracing DBCIs, we can empower employees to take charge of their mental health, fostering a workplace environment where resilience and wellbeing is the norm, paving the way for a healthier, more resilient workforce.

It’s time to connect with the ‘hard to reach’ and ensure every workforce isn’t just surviving – but is thriving.

Nicola Eccles is head of mental health and wellbeing for corporate wellbeing app On Wellbeing