Why an evidence-driven approach is the best way for businesses to support workplace mental health

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This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Miranda Wolpert, Director, Mental Health, Wellcome Trust

  • Anxiety and depression are estimated to cost the global economy over $1 trillion every year in lost productivity.
  • Businesses are increasingly seeking ways to support the mental health of staff, but lack evidence about effective measures.
  • New research from Wellcome, with the World Economic Forum, reveals critical role that businesses need to play in building the evidence about what works.

Mental health has never been higher on the agenda for businesses. It is easy to see why, as even prior to COVID-19, anxiety and depression were estimated to cost the global economy over $1 trillion every year in lost productivity. The exodus from offices in 2020 has presented further challenges and raised big questions about future ways of working.

With the global corporate wellness market forecast to reach $66 billion by 2022, many employees will be familiar with the range of workplace mental health initiatives that a growing number of businesses offer their staff – from yoga and mindfulness to flexible working. But despite the prevalence of different approaches, we’re yet to understand what works, for who, and why.

The absence of a deep and robust evidence base for approaches to supporting workplace mental health is a problem and can lead to well-intentioned businesses making critical and sensitive decisions in the dark. At best, such interventions are working and we just don’t know why or, at worst, they could be causing harm to workforces.

Data and evidence are familiar ground to businesses, used to make strategic decisions and improve performance – from pinpointing new opportunities to measuring impact and effectiveness of programmes. When it comes to finding the most effective approaches, there is an immediate need for businesses to apply this evidence-led mindset, collaborate with others to share learnings and put science to work in support of mentally healthy workplaces.

How can businesses support workplace mental health?

Wellcome, in partnership with the World Economic Forum, is publishing new research on workplace mental health: Putting Science to Work – Understanding What Works for Workplace Mental Health. Ten global research teams reviewed the evidence behind promising approaches for addressing anxiety and depression in the workplace, with a focus on younger workers.

These reviews show that there are some things that businesses can learn based on the existing evidence. To share a few examples:

  • Breaking up excessive sitting: light activity just one hour per eight-hour day may reduce depression symptoms by around 10% and anxiety by 15%. Some ways to break up excessive sitting include sit-stand desks, standing meetings and encouraging movement breaks.
  • Mindfulness interventions: shown to be effective through many studies in high-income countries, but there may be important considerations for adapting them to workplaces in low and middle-income countries.
  • Flexible working: can benefit mental health by decreasing the amount of conflict people experience between their work and home lives. Importantly, uptake of flexible working often depends on the amount of support from managers as well as organizational culture.

The research also highlights how much we still don’t know about what works for different people and in different contexts. For example, many research teams commented on the lack of data about younger workers’ mental health. The evidence available also widely differs between geographies – for example there is significantly more research on mindfulness in high-income countries compared to low and middle-income settings, with particularly big gaps in the tourism and hospitality sectors. Comparison across different studies was also difficult, as approaches to measuring mental health in workplaces are not standardized.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about mental health?

One in four people will experience mental illness in their lives, costing the global economy an estimated $6 trillion by 2030.

Mental ill-health is the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people aged 10–24 years, contributing up to 45% of the overall burden of disease in this age-group. Yet globally, young people have the worst access to youth mental health care within the lifespan and across all the stages of illness (particularly during the early stages).

In response, the Forum has launched a global dialogue series to discuss the ideas, tools and architecture in which public and private stakeholders can build an ecosystem for health promotion and disease management on mental health.

One of the current key priorities is to support global efforts toward mental health outcomes – promoting key recommendations toward achieving the global targets on mental health, such as the WHO Knowledge-Action-Portal and the Countdown Global Mental Health

Read more about the work of our Platform for Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare, and contact us to get involved.

The complexity of workplace mental health issues requires complex and considered solutions – there is no quick fix or “one size fits all” approach. We are still a long way off knowing what works and later this month, Wellcome will be launching a second research commission to look at the evidence behind a wider range of approaches. Through this commission we hope to broaden our understanding of the existing evidence and we’ve been engaging with the business community to find out what approaches they might like to see prioritized in this research.

However, crucial evidence gaps will remain unfilled unless businesses collaborate with researchers to fully understand the impact of their efforts and share their learning. This is the only way that businesses can guarantee that their investments and good intentions are making a difference for their employees and their business.

Download the report to find out more about the evidence behind workplace mental health approaches and how science can help you make changes to your workplace to improve employee mental health. Keep up to date and be a part of Wellcome’s ongoing work on workplace mental health by following @wellcometrust and @mirandarwolpert.

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