Technology’s role in improving mental health
Wed 29 Jul 2020 | Patrick Samy
Mental health in the workspace is more important than ever. Can technology can lend a hand?
The topic of mental health is thankfully less taboo than it was a decade ago. In the last few years, we’ve seen a surge of campaigns aimed at driving awareness of mental health issues and supporting those in need. But hand on heart, how often did you think ‘nice PR stunt’ and question how many times the topic was pushed down to the ‘nice to have’ list rather than sit among priorities?
Covid-19 has highlighted the importance of mental health. Almost half of Brits have reported high anxiety since lockdown, and nearly 5,000 people have contacted The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) with workplace safety concerns.
We could carry on quoting scary Covid-19 related numbers, but the truth is — pandemic aside — mental health concerns have been spiralling upwards in recent years. In 2019, research showed that 56 percent of employees had at some point struggled with mental health or wellbeing and, of these, 80 percent said it had impacted their work.
The questions remain: Why is mental health in the workspace more important than ever? What can businesses do to improve it? And what role can technology play? Let’s dive into some of the answers.
The challenges employees face in 2020
What really is mental health? According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental health is a state of wellbeing in which an individual realises their own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.
Research shows 1 in 6 UK adults of working age experience symptoms associated with mental ill-health. NHS figures from 2017 showed that one in six people aged 17 to 19 had mental disorders – that’s our future workforce and our leaders of tomorrow! There is some debate about whether the number of mental health issues has been increasing or it’s only the awareness which has grown. But the truth is that the world is changing.
Let’s take startups as an example. The number of startups is growing year on year, creating a highly competitive and fast-paced environment, which often puts additional pressure on employees. Economic events force businesses to cut jobs and reduce workforces, whilst employees that remain are faced with additional workloads and are often expected to constantly improve their performance. The pressure is on.
Then we have the physical nature of many jobs. Technology is a big enabler, but where it truly comes into its own is by allowing businesses to automate processes or operate remotely. However this shift also indirectly creates damage or risk to wellbeing by increasing the number of sedentary ‘desk jobs’.
In May, Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey told his 4,000-plus global employees they had the option to work from home “forever”. It followed statements from fellow technology giants Google and Facebook that their international staff could work remotely until the end of 2020.
Technology has undoubtedly and crucially helped companies through the pandemic and facilitated remote working, but in terms of an individual’s health, what does this mean?
Many employees are now sitting at home by their desks – and as most homes are smaller than offices, that translates into fewer steps on your smartwatch. And as there’s been no ‘Let’s go and grab some lunch’ options, it probably means less vitamin D too.
With less social interactions at play, employees who now find themselves in a remote work environment are finding it harder to make connections, bond with teams, and lean in online.
Sir Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester Business School says: “Group activities for bonding work groups are really important. You learn about other people and deal with them on a personal level, rather than just their roles. It’s difficult to maintain this in a lockdown scenario.”
Now, just a quick reminder for those raising eyebrows over increased HR or internal comms budgets. In 2018, the Time to Change campaign found that mental health is the leading cause of sickness absence in the UK, costing an average of £1,035 per employee, per year. Looking after employees’ mental health is not just about a good team spirit or a fancy PR/HR stunt. Stress, anxiety and depression alone represented 14.3 million working days ‘lost’ in 2019.
What can businesses do to improve the mental health of their employees?
Start with education. Only two-thirds of managers would know what to do if an employee directly told them they were struggling with their mental health or wellbeing. Identify champions in your organisation, people who are passionate about the topic and give them the opportunity to lead. Educate your staff, especially line managers, about early signs of mental health issues which include restlessness, insomnia, feeling overwhelmed, a sense of dread, difficulty concentrating and remembering, low mood or excessive sweating. These are harder to spot in the world of remote working.
Businesses should be discovering online communication channels and breakout rooms to help teams feel connected and implementing project management systems for visibility on who is feeling under pressure.
Employers need to create a comfortable space for their staff to discuss their health – now more than ever. This can be through instant and anonymous chat consultation – a safe and discreet platform for receiving advice. In the standard healthcare system, people often wait 1-2 weeks before they can see a clinician. Waiting time encourages cancellation.
We use data to improve processes, sales or marketing, and mental health shouldn’t be an exception. Use quantitative data reported from managers across the organisation to identify if particular departments experience more stress or anxiety. Qualitative data should help identify individual needs at the manager level and provide support when appropriate.
Lastly, however simple it sounds, it’s important to encourage employees to take regular breaks from the screen. Explore standing desk options and allow and encourage spending time outside in the natural light.
This is even more relevant now, when many people work from home and they are not encouraged by colleagues to ‘walk to the coffee machine’. A simple thing that everyone can do, even virtually, is to ask “how are you doing?” and listen intently.
The place of technology in mental health
It’s easy to get into the ‘simple and necessary only’ communication habit of Zoom and Slack and forget all the interactions we used to have in the office. Leverage digital communication tools to create company networking events and facilitate social interaction across the company. Incorporate games, make brainstorming sessions more interactive, think about virtual coffee breaks or lunchtime get-togethers to encourage participation.
Adopt and promote tele-behavioural health services. By providing digital access and encouraging employees to take the first step, you will increase the uptake significantly. Digital condition management will also help the most vulnerable address their physiological health issues which will impact their mental health directly. A Mercer survey found that 76 percent of employers see telemedicine as having a larger role in their future health programme.
We’ve mentioned the power of data earlier. Ask your tele-health provider to share statistics to understand the health of your workforce at the population level. Alternatively, you can use digital management tools to report stress or anxiety at the manager-level and send anonymous surveys to get more qualitative data and help drive your policies and tools.
Mental health issues in the workplaces are far from being a novelty – but the pandemic has increased awareness amongst businesses of its significance and impact on both the individuals and the organisation, which, in turn, has propelled mental health wellbeing further up the table of their priorities. But it’s a never-ending marathon, not a post-Covid-19 sprint. Investing in your employees’ mental health will take effort and resources, but it will pay off long-term – in productivity, reduced costs of absenteeism, talent acquisition, and your employees’ loyalty.