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Mental Health at work 2021: How can technology help?

Mental Health at work has been climbing in importance on the business agenda and amongst policymakers for the last decade. But since COVID-19, the stakes have gotten drastically higher. We believe that in our connected, but technology fatigued world, that technology itself can help in our collective recovery.  But only if we put people first. With all the technology solutions available, choosing the right one for your people and individual, organisational challenges first is essential. In this blog, we will look at the state of mental health at work pre-Covid-19, what research findings have emerged during, and predictions for the future. We will then explore tech growing in popularity in terms of personal mental health support and suggestions of what could help on a broader people and business scale. We will also look at questions you should ask yourself as a business leader, hiring manager or manager, to help navigate the myriad options out there as we enter the post-pandemic 'next to normal.'


Mental Health at Work pre COVID-19
rnMental ill-health affects most people, directly or indirectly. 1 in 6 of us will suffer from mental health concerns at some point in our lives. A report by Deloitte  in January 2020 states that poor mental health at work had risen 16% since 2016, and at the time of writing, was costing the UK economy £45billion a year, in presenteeism, absence, and staff turnover. However, a survey by Mind, the mental health charity, found that Mental ill Health was costing the UK economy between £74billion and £99billion when also taking into that account 15% of people at work have symptoms of an existing mental health condition. In society, discussing mental health has thankfully become less of a taboo subject in the last decade. In recent years, we have seen widely publicised, high profile campaigns to raise awareness and offer support to those who need it. Mental Health laws have been clearly established in the workplace to protect people. But, in all honesty, how many of us can categorically say that we would feel as comfortable disclosing poor mental health at work as we would a broken bone? There have been great strides, but there is arguably still a way to go regarding attitudes towards Mental Health.


Mental Health at work post-COVID -19. An uncertain future?
rnThere is emerging evidence to suggest that the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic will be far-reaching. However, the full extent will only be realised in the fullness of time. As a global community, we have all been through one of the most extreme experiences that we could go through. There have been pandemics before, and many bleak predictions for the future are from comparisons to the SARS outbreak. But a pandemic of this magnitude is a rare thing and an experience of struggle that has humbled humankind. Mind is referring to the Coronavirus pandemic as a Mental health emergency. We have all been affected in one way or another. Some, of course, in more devastating ways than others. With the already most vulnerable in society being worst affected according to The Health Foundation.  Women, young people, single parents, and renters, namely. And then, of course, there are the mortality rates. Black African, Black Caribbean, and South Asian ethnic groups reported having the highest death tolls.

Many who have suffered bereavements during this time will have been unable to say goodbye, conduct funerals in the way they would have wanted, or even be able to attend in many cases. Then there are the impacts of being locked down. Mind has discovered that more than half of adults (60%) and over two-thirds of young people (68%) have reported worsening mental health during the lockdown, with our leaders of the future, young people, and those with pre-existing mental health conditions particularly effected.

In many cases, people work longer or more irregular hours and combining work with home-schooling and other family responsibilities, leading to a poor work-life balance, stress, and parental burnout. This is in addition to lockdown fatigue, increased musculoskeletal conditions, reduced motivation, anxiety, and depression. However, we know that this blog is only scratching the surface here. And as lockdown restrictions periodically ease, we still must contend with the ongoing conditions in our day-to-day lives, such as social distancing and self-isolation. There are also the inevitable anxieties around social mixing again. Many of us who are not keyworkers will be concerned about returning to work and office environments; there will be fears about job security as the furlough scheme ends, financial concerns, and fears for our own and our family's health. Both mental and physical.



How can technology help?
rnOk. With such a bleak outlook, how are we supposed to move on positively? We believe that technology, while it doesn't hold all the answers, can help. Employers should be leveraging the power of technology to help connect with and support their people with a people-first mindset. With 15,000 mental health apps available on the app store alone, the choice available can be overwhelming. And with different applications supporting different things, it can be easy to fall down a rabbit hole of choice. Some technologies may focus on a specific concern such as sleep deprivation, stress, or depression, for instance, or types of interventions, like mindfulness or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, or be centred around user-specific goals, such as resilience, healthy habit formation, and so on. And can be accessed by varying platforms, from mobile apps to desktop applications and wearable technology. Adopting a people-first mindset to any technology purchasing decisions can help navigate what could be called a tech minefield. And with the stakes higher than ever to get things right (Forbes). Putting your people at the heart of every decision we believe will help ensure these decisions and purchases are practical for your people and your business.


Some questions to consider as an employer.
rnAs your business and the people who make it what it is are unique, no one size fits all solution when making a technology purchase. Some helpful questions to consider when buying technology for your business, according to Forbes , are:

  • Who are you talking to? Who makes up your workplace population? Every workplace has its demographics. So, you need to understand who you're talking to communicate with them in ways that are understandable, accessible, and through channels that they trust. Are you talking solely to your employees or their partners and children as well? You can target specific groups within your organization; Gen Z workers may be happier to access an app.
  • What do you want to achieve? Do you want to improve access to mental health care? Are you looking at general wellbeing, happiness, and productivity, stress management, or is it more of an education focus that you are going for?
  • How will you measure success? You could measure employee feedback, satisfaction, and engagement data.

These essential initial questions can be answered through employee feedback questionnaires and help you understand what your employees need from a digital product.


Supportive Culture
rnThe second step is to recognise that supporting your employees with their mental health goes beyond providing access to technology. Think people first always! And the importance of creating a supportive environment and culture within your workplace. An invaluable resource to help implement an effective mental health plan into your workplace is based on the Prime Minister commissioned report, 'Thriving at Work,' led by Lord Dennis Stevenson and Mind. Their guide, 'How to Implement the Thriving at Work Mental Health Standards in Your Workplace,'  sets out six core and four enhanced standards for how the employees can better support mental health.

One way to create a supportive culture around mental health is to encourage connecting. Access to mental health technology is not enough on its own. Employees need to talk about how they feel and be met with support or take a mental health day.  If not, then there is a disconnect between the messages you are sending and the culture you are creating, which can have hugely damaging consequences.


Education, Connecting, and Safe Space Sharing
rnAccording to a great article by Patrick Samy at Techerati, which looks at technology’s role in improving mental health,  only two-thirds of managers would know what to do if an employee came to them with mental health concerns. Education is key to creating an understanding and supportive culture around mental health in your workplace. Identify champions within your business, people who are passionate about supporting people, and give them their opportunity to lead. Mental Health First Aid Courses  are a wise investment to help upskill yourself, your line managers, and your mental health champions about the signs to spot that someone is struggling. Such as difficulty concentrating or low mood – symptoms which are even more challenging to spot when remote working.

Consider implementing online communication channels and breakout rooms to help teams feel connected and project management systems to gain visibility and help ascertain areas of undue pressure. Create an online safe space where people can share their mental health concerns. This can be through the medium of instant and anonymous chat, a safe space to talk and be heard. This can be particularly effective, given that current wait times for mental health support through the NHS are now overwhelmed because of the pandemic.


For Hiring Managers and Recruiters
rnWith the current job landscape being uncertain, the importance of offering mental health support begins at the very beginning of the candidate's journey. Again, the 'How to implement the Thriving at Work Mental Health Standards'  guide from Mind gives clear and helpful guidance.


rnAdequate mental health support starts at the recruitment stage, ensuring that the right person is matched to the right job. A recruitment mismatch between a new starter and your workplace can be incredibly damaging to their mental health. Always be transparent and realistic about the role when advertising and at the interview stage and exercise caution to choose people on their skills and competencies or practical ability.


rnProviding a comprehensive induction programme is vital. Starting a new job can be stressful and unsettling. If new starters are not armed with the correct expectations, support and guidance, confidence can quickly be eroded, which can trigger existing mental health conditions. At this stage, ensure that you actively share information about what support is available for staff to support their mental health and wellbeing; this will convey that mental health is prioritised in your business.


Technology and Data
rnPatrick Samy at Techerati points out that we use data in other aspects of our business, so we should be using it to monitor and improve the mental health of our workforce.  Quantitative data from managers can be used across the organisation to identify undue stress or anxiety. Whereas qualitative data gathered through anonymous surveys should help managers to identify individual needs and offer support when appropriate, in addition to helping the continuous improvement of policies and processes. You could also ask your mental health technology provider to share statistics to understand the health of your workplace for the same benefit.

With the necessity to rely on online communication tools such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams, we are all at greater or lesser degrees ‘Zoomed out’, leaving the temptation open to only communicate out of necessity. However, we no longer have coffee breaks together, water cooler conversations, or after-work drinks to de-stress, de-brief, and connect. Consider introducing digital communication tools to create or get involved in company networking events and encourage social interaction.  You could hold competitions, play games, and make information sharing sessions interactive, to encourage participation and collaboration. All of which will encourage people to stay connected and help boost morale.


rnMental health in the workplace is at a critical point. The statistics and predictions for the post-Covid-19 future are sobering to behold. However, the pandemic has increased awareness about Mental Health challenges, and they are arguably now being taken more seriously on a human level than ever before. Businesses now understand those that do not go above and beyond for the needs of their people, and particular organisations will do so at their peril. People first technology solutions are vital in helping educate, bridge the communication gap, signpost support, and foster connectivity and a supportive culture. Hopefully, we will all feel as comfortable talking about physical ailments as we do about mental health at some point in the next normal world. And the right technology can help facilitate that conversation. It will cost you effort and resources and pay back over and over in reduced absenteeism, increased productivity, recruitment, staff turnover, and employee happiness and satisfaction. 

As we said before, we know that this blog is only scratching the surface. We at Harbour intend to keep talking about mental health, to keep striving to improve and help other people and businesses improve. Is there anything you'd like to contribute or comment on? Or that you would like us to talk about next? We'd love to hear from you.


Sources and helpful links