Review of evidence for interventions supporting workplace mental health

From: Putting Science to Work Understanding What Works for Workplace Mental Health, 2022 Wellcome Report

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Emilie biostress

Emilie Wielezysnki

Research and Content Inetrn

Introduction

Organisations are increasingly prioritising employee mental health. A Deloitte report in 2020 found 80% of employers consider employee wellbeing as important or very important to organisational success. Notwithstanding the harmful implications for individual health, poor workplace anxiety and depression place enormous costs on the economy in lost productivity, estimated by the WHO at $1 trillion every year. Hence, putting employee mental health high on the agenda is not only a smart, but a necessary, move.

But where do you start? The range of interventions available is growing and becoming more diverse. The global corporate wellness market is forecast to reach $66 billion in 2022. Choosing the right intervention for your team can be difficult – and the lack of evidence base for workplace mental health support is only making this worse. Indeed, data-backed decisions are how most companies make decisions. The Wellcome Trust in partnership with the World Economic Forum published a report for workplace mental health: “Putting Science to Work Understanding What Works for Workplace Mental Health”. In this report, ten research teams review the evidence for encouraging interventions. A few examples will be explored in greater detail, to give an idea of what the science is supporting, to help guide decisions on how to support employee mental health. A section of the report also highlights significant evidence gaps in the field, with a focus on underrepresented groups.

Mindfulness on a mountain

Summary of the research conclusions

Work-life conflict and high demands are a recurring reason for workplace stress. Following from this, both flexible working hours and having more autonomy in roles is associated with lower rates of anxiety and depression.

  1. Employee autonomy can be in the form of consultation and empowering decision-making. Significant evidence this is beneficial to mental health – it explains 25% of variance in anxiety and depression for both young workers (<25) and those above. It is important to note, however, that differences in personality determined if increased autonomy would be helpful – the intervention would need to be tailored to the individual.
  2. Flexible working policies regarding time, location and compressed hours were all found to benefit mental health. This can also be supportive for employees already dealing with anxiety or depression, as they can take time out to manage their own mental health.

Sitting for extended periods of time is known to be bad for cardiovascular and metabolic health, but this may extend into mental health as well. The report found breaking-up sitting for an hour with every 8-hour period can reduce depression by 10% and anxiety by 15%. This is particularly relevant as the average worker sits for over 9 hours a day. Interventions to break-up sitting can look like policies encouraging standing meetings and movement breaks. Or even the type of desk, from stand-up desks to under-desk pedaling. Early results suggest digital interventions, such as apps, are also effective in encouraging movement.
Support from colleagues who have shared experience or gained skills and knowledge in dealing with mental health is another way of managing employee wellbeing. The intervention, known as mental health peer support, can be delivered in multiple formats including volunteer programs and focus groups to deliver knowledge from peers with lived experience of mental health. The report was limited as there is no consistent definition of ‘peer support’ – but several randomised control trials found peer support led to significant positive outcomes which lasted over a year. The effect also reduced depression and anxiety symptoms. Feedback from young workers suggests a greater openness to peer support programs – however, confidentiality issues were highlighted.

The report also focused on different sectors in low and middle-income countries, looking specifically at the evidence for mindfulness interventions. Practices for mindfulness include guided team meditation, breathing exercises and journaling. There is already significant evidence from high-income countries suggesting workplace mindfulness practices have a positive impact on mental health – consistent across sectors, duration and delivery mode of the practices. Preliminary studies show potential in low-income countries for the practice, such as reducing negative impact of trauma and build resilience.

Final thoughts

Mental health is complex, and this is reflected in the intricacy and range of interventions offered. Some are great, with strong scientific support and others might not be as robust. But it is ultimately a nuance and personal decision. Gaining insight on our own mental health, and that of others is necessary to make the right decision for type of support needed. Importantly, workplace context was consistently found as the greatest predictor of intervention success. Having a culture which support talking about mental health, supportive managers and peer participation facilitates improving employee mental health massively. Choosing interventions should be based on science and in the future we hope evidence grows to ultimately better support mental health.

You can read more about the interventions, including a focus on young workers and gaps in the evidence.

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