The places we work in are now widely recognised to have a big impact on our mental health. For better or worse, workplaces have a major influence on wellbeing and mental health. Despite this, evidence about how employers can support wellbeing at work has been thin on the ground.
A new report on #WorkplaceMentalHealth from the Wellcome Trust seeks to address this by reviewing evidence from international studies about a wide range of interventions that may improve mental health in workplaces. Putting science to work: Understanding what works for workplace mental health aims to use ‘mental health science’ to provide employers with a summary of the existing evidence base about how to promote, protect and support mental health at work.
As the report notes, “In recent years, businesses all over the world have introduced eye-catching mental health initiatives, from mindfulness apps to puppies in the office to banning out of hours emails”. Without a robust and widely known evidence base, employers large and small have become more aware about mental health (and its business costs, most recently estimated to be £35 billion annually for the UK economy alone), but not necessarily more literate or able to take effective action to address it.
Improving mental health at work
The report is based on a review of evidence relating to “ten promising approaches” to improving mental health at work, with a particular focus on younger workers and preventing common mental health problems (depression and anxiety). The ten approaches vary widely between interventions aimed to support individuals (for example through encouraging physical activity or putting in place ‘buddying’ schemes for new starters) and initiatives that work at a wider level (for example introducing flexible working practices and increasing employee autonomy). Three of the ten are focused specifically on approaches relevant to low- and middle-income countries.
For each approach, the report explores what research is already available and looks at its strengths and limitations; it summarises what the evidence says about its effectiveness; and it looks at factors that can influence how well it works in practice. It then goes on to make recommendations for employers about whether and how they should incorporate each of the ten, as well as some wider calls for policymakers (for example where there are implications for health and safety regulations). On the subject of employee autonomy, for instance, the review recommends that employers craft job roles that enable younger workers in particular to operate with greater autonomy and that they train managers and staff to take up these opportunities. And for policy makers it suggests a key role for the public sector in creating ‘healthy jobs’ that promote autonomy as a way of leading by example for the wider economy.
By focusing on ten promising approaches, the report acknowledges that it is not a comprehensive review of all of the actions that could help to promote mental health (and prevent mental ill health) at work. And it notes that the current evidence based is at best emergent and in need of further development. To that end, it argues that “businesses have a critical role to play in building our knowledge by rigorously measuring the impact of interventions they are using and sharing their findings with others”.
One of the crucial aspects of supporting mental health at work that is only partially covered here is in relation to social justice, pay and working conditions. There is increasing evidence about the importance of seeing mental health at work in the context of the structures and processes that happen within a business rather than in the interventions they offer to promote wellbeing. Job security, fair pay (at a Living Wage), and fair and equitable treatment (free from bullying and discrimination) are crucial among these aspects of the way work is designed and organised (eg. Barlow et al, 2019; Harvey et al, 2017). And given the high levels of insecurity among younger workers before and especially after the pandemic, structural approaches may have a significant impact on this age group.
While the report highlights the large number of gaps in what we know about how to support mental health at work, it is also a reminder of how far we have come and the steps that can be taken now by employers to make a difference. While many of the interventions described may be especially challenging for smaller businesses, most can be adopted and incorporated into routine practices across the board. And in the aftermath of the pandemic, a trauma-informed understanding of how workplaces can create safety and prioritise wellbeing in the ways they manage the transition out of the crisis will have a pivotal effect on how successfully we ‘bounce back’ (City Mental Health Alliance and Centre for Mental Health, 2020).
Work can and often does boost our mental health. Changing the nature of work will make this more likely and prevent harm. This report provides a helpful starting point for organisations wanting to know where to begin and how to make a difference.
Newman R, Smith B, Wolpert M. (2021) Putting science to work – Understanding what works for workplace mental health (PDF). Wellcome Trust, 2021.
The 10 workplace mental health interventions covered in the report:
- Breaking up excessive sitting with light activity
- Buddying at onboarding
- Employee autonomy
- Financial wellbeing interventions
- Flexible working policies
- Group psychological first aid for humanitarian workers
- Mental health peer support
- Mindfulness in hospitality and tourism in low- and middle-income countries
- Social support interventions for healthcare workers
- Workforce involvement and peer support networks in low- and middle-income countries
🚀 It’s launch day for our new @wellcometrust research report alongside our friends at @WEF: ‘Putting Science To Work: Understanding What Works for Workplace Mental Health’. Time for a thread! 🧵#WorkplaceMentalHealth https://t.co/Nufs6K7mzg
— Beck Smith (@beck_smith) May 11, 2021
Barlow, P. et al. (2019) Employment relations and dismissal regulations: Does employment legislation protect the health of workers? Social Policy and Administration 2019; 53: 939-957 https://doi.org/10.1111/spol.12487
City Mental Health Alliance and Centre for Mental Health (2020) Recovering at work.
Harvey, S. et al. (2017) Can work make you mentally ill? A systematic meta-review of work-related risk factors for common mental health problems. Occup Environ Med 2017; 0:1-10