Hope you’re keeping well – how technology can enable a culture of preventative mental healthcare

We know mental ill health affects most people at some point in their lives. But Dr Nick Taylor argues employers can still be doing a lot more to harness technology – digital tools and services – that enables employees to look after their own wellbeing, in the process fostering a culture of preventative mental healthcare.

One of the frustrations of being a clinical psychologist is meeting patients and knowing you could have prevented their current diagnosis had you seen them earlier. It can be exasperating knowing how little people understand their own mental health.

It’s not their fault – there is (as occupational health practitioners will know only too well) still a stigma attached to conversations around mental wellbeing at a societal level. But this early knowledge is crucial; without it, we can’t spot the signs of deterioration.

About the author

Dr Nick Taylor is co-founder and chief executive of Unmind

Another cause of frustration is that this mental ill health affects most people – directly or indirectly. In the UK alone, it is estimated mental health costs employers between £34-45bn a year in presenteeism, absenteeism, and staff turnover. This was calculated earlier this year in a Deloitte report, so in fact prior to coronavirus and all the additional mental health, anxiety and presenteeism issues that have come with it.

Now, of course, we find ourselves in a different world, one where mental health has moved right up the agenda. According to a report we recently published in partnership with REBA, 70% of businesses are going to increase investment into mental health support in the wake of Covid. This investment is supplying a demand, with more than three-quarters (78%) of employers experiencing a rise in requests for mental health support from their employees during the lockdown.

This is undoubtedly a positive step. In order to support our workforces’ wellbeing through the next phase of the pandemic and beyond, more businesses need to take the initiative and start implementing preventative mental health care solutions now.

Embracing mental health technology

Our world has been shaken by the coronavirus outbreak – and its long-term effects on our mental health are yet to be seen, though early research is beginning to emerge. According to the United Nations, we could find ourselves up against another global health emergency if we don’t take considerate steps to preserve our mental health.

As we continue to navigate this new reality, we will need to explore the best solutions for understanding and looking after our mental health. One of the most effective ways to do this is by using technology.

The pandemic has provided, I’d argue, a turning point in the conversation around mental health. More people than ever are beginning to recognise the need to nurture their mental wellbeing and, crucially, to be open about this. And technology can play an important role in aiding this learning experience – as long as apply it mindfully.

We live in a digitally connected world where all the information we need is at the tips of our fingers. While this can be empowering, it can also be overwhelming – and I strongly believe it is here where employers can help. In a world awash in information and disinformation employers can be an important facilitator of the right information and support to their entire workforces, wherever they are and on any device.

As remote working becomes the norm for many – whether or not combined with a phased return to the office – digital services can provide immediate access to the support, tools, and guidance each individual needs to look after their mental wellbeing.

For example, in April our platform saw a 64% increase in downloads, as employees looked into our platform to find the support they need to track, learn and cope during times of stress and pressure. For instance, we noticed that since the outbreak started more and more people are tracking how they feel, and others are taking up some of our series, including Navigating Covid-19, Mind Your Mood, and Combating Stress.

Let’s look at three practical ways that employers – supported by the expertise of occupational health – can use technology effectively to ensure a smooth, safe and responsible return of its employees to the workplace.

1) Managing anticipatory anxiety. For many employees, returning to the physical workspace will be a gradual transition throughout summer. Many employers have, rightly, been moving cautiously, especially where home working remains a viable option for their workers. But, as we move into autumn, and employers look to try and return to ‘normal’ as much as possible, managing ‘anticipatory anxiety’ will likely remain an issue.

This is the anxiety employees may feel about returning to the workplace. These feelings can bring conflicting emotions to the surface – excitement and anticipation to reconnect with colleagues and the world outside our home ‘bubble’ versus fears around commuting, being back among people in public spaces, and concerns for our health or the health of those we’re living with.

To mitigate this anxiety, managers must formulate a clear and transparent communication strategy from the outset, and make full use of the technological tools at their disposal.

2) Boosting a workplace culture. The weeks of remote working may have led to changes in the dynamics of certain working relationships. Some will have been strengthened, others will have lost cohesion. Some people will be more eager to return to the workplace, others will miss the flexibility of home working.

As such, managers must be mindful of these changes, and be ready to build new ways to boost staff morale and to refresh working culture. This could be through offering new benefits, such as flexible working or socially distanced activities. Again, technology is likely to be key to how these are communicated and facilitated.

3) Supporting preventative mental healthcare. Everyone responds differently to change. Managers must be ready to provide support, and to empathise with their employees’ unique processing of emotions during these months of transition.

Employers need to listen to the concerns raised by anyone experiencing worries anxieties, so proper advice and tools can be offered. Those who invest in the right digital mental health solutions will gain access to aggregated and anonymised data, allowing them to better understand the intricacies within their workforce’s wellbeing, and inform their mental health support strategies.

This is why I believe technology is a breakthrough for preventative mental healthcare. It enables us to communicate openly and effectively. Digital trackers can provide an anonymous channel, empowering individuals to seek support without feeling judged. At a time of great uncertainty, where emotions are heightened, digital tools, especially digital tools around health and wellbeing, effectively allow us to express our feelings in a safe space.

Technology can create the space for people to find help at their own pace and to be transparent and honest when speaking about our feelings. Now more than ever, as physical interaction and in-person check-ins aren’t often possible, technology can play a vital role in supporting businesses and empowering employees.

As we enter another period of adjustment during the autumn, it is now more important than ever for employers to provide mental health support to their employees. This is a critical time where staff productivity, engagement, and morale will play crucial roles in rebuilding the economy.

“Poor mental health costs UK employers up to £45 billion a year”, Deloitte, January 2020, https://www2.deloitte.com/uk/en/pages/press-releases/articles/poor-mental-health-costs-uk-employers-up-to-pound-45-billion-a-year.html

“Unmind report: Covid-19 and employee mental health research” https://resources.unmind.com/covid-19-and-employee-mental-health-research-in-collaboration-with-reba

“Launch of Global Humanitarian Response Plan for COVID-19”, United Nations, March 2020, https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/press-encounter/2020-03-25/launch-of-global-humanitarian-response-plan-for-covid-19

Navigating Covid-19, https://blog.unmind.com/navigating-covid-19-with-dr-heather-bolton; Mind Your Mood, https://blog.unmind.com/mind-your-mood; Everything you need to know about stress, https://blog.unmind.com/everything-you-need-to-know-about-stress

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