Overcoming the stigma of mental health in the workplace

By Katerina Mansour - 25 September 2020

What seems like an obvious issue, has not always been a priority for businesses. Mental health has been a stigmatised and taboo subject for decades.

For the longest time, employees were seemingly expected to suck it up and get the work done, regardless of stress, anxiety or depression. Even today, efforts are needed to help reduce the remaining stigma. A survey of British businesses showed that 56% of employers are reluctant to employ someone with a mental health condition due to fear of them being stigmatised by their co-workers.

The same survey showed only 64% of employers feel comfortable talking about mental health with their staff members. Meanwhile, there were 602,000 cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in Great Britain in 2018/2019.

With increased awareness, mental health is no longer a topic businesses can easily sweep under the rug. Considering how many people it affects, companies are expected to have policies and solutions in place to ensure their employees’ mental wellbeing.

While there is still a long road ahead, businesses are making more efforts to ensure their employees are happy and healthy. Today, it also seems clear that the Covid-19 pandemic has made employee wellbeing and safety a top priority for business leaders. Fears of contracting and spreading the virus at the workplace are leading many employees to work with a distracted mind. These distractions can harm productivity levels, beyond contributing to poor team spirit. Indeed, recent surveys showed that 7 in 10 employees felt the Covid-19 pandemic was the most stressful time of their entire professional career.

Anxiety and depression have reportedly gotten worse for many since the outbreak of the pandemic. Countries like the United States saw increases in prescriptions filled for anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication. The pandemic has placed employers in a difficult situation. They need to focus on surviving economically, without sacrificing their team’s physical and mental wellbeing in the process. Healthy employees will be more productive and cost a company less in the long term. This is arguably part of why measures to ensure health and safety at work have been increasingly embraced by businesses. In the UK, 59% of long-term absences from work in 2019 were caused by mental health issues, according to CIPD.

Corporates making bold moves due to the pandemic

Today’s work situation is rather complex in terms of mental health. Covid-19 has turned the world upside down. The acknowledgement of the health risks at hand has led many corporates to make bold moves. Both physical and mental wellbeing are being recognised as priorities.

Google announced that it would let its employees work from home at least until summer 2021. Twitter, on the other hand, said employees could choose to work from home ‘forever’. Facebook, Uber, Salesforce, Amazon, Hitachi, Square, Shopify and Slack have all made similar decisions, drastically extending their work from home policies.

Why has remote work been seen as the best solution to the current crisis? Beyond the obvious fact that it reduces one’s risk of catching or spreading the virus, mental health benefits are also seen as a key factor. A survey showed Americans felt working from home helped reduce work-related stress. 71% said they’d like to work from home to reduce commute-related stress. 60% said it offered them a quieter work environment and 75% said that reducing distractions helped improve their productivity and reduce stress.

Moreover, working remotely allows employees to improve their work-life balance and cut costs. Being able to work from any location means you can move away from the big city and its spiked-up costs of living. Your commute costs shrink and the time you spent in the car or subway can be spent on higher added-value tasks. Similar benefits have been observed from putting in place 4-day work weeks. For example, Microsoft did a 4-day work week test in Japan and reported a 40% increase in productivity. The conclusion is simple, and one that we already knew: happy and healthy workers are more productive.

What other strategies can be adopted to ensure mental wellbeing in the workplace?

Aside from flexible work options like remote work policies or shorter work weeks, there are many ways businesses can ensure their employees’ mental wellbeing.

A key issue right from the start is knowing exactly what your employees want or need to feel better both mentally and physically. While technology has made significant advances, it hasn’t achieved mind reading yet! Employers shouldn’t try and guess what would make their employees happier. Instead, many startups have developed tools to anonymously and regularly gauge how employees are feeling.

2daysmood, one of Early Metrics’ rated startups, develops a monitoring and decision support solution for HR services, using questionnaires to measure employees’ satisfaction. Through frequent 15-second surveys on the app or by email, employees anonymously share their state of mind which is then analysed. Bleexo and Levell offer similar solutions so that employers can gather feedback from employees to anonymously gauge their wellbeing. The idea is that once you know there’s a problem or a need within your company, you can take the necessary actions to address it.

So, let’s say you know what your employees’ wishes are: what kind of solutions can allow you to fulfil them?

Below are some noteworthy tech startups who could help you in this endeavour:

  • Modern Health provides companies with a platform to support employee wellbeing. Employees receive personalized care plans based on an assessment of their needs. Services provided include coaching, therapy, a meditation app, digital courses and more.

  • Hero provides employers with digital solutions to help employees track their wellbeing. Their Navigator tool can be paired with wearables to track sleep, movement, nutrition and mindfulness. In-person training and workshops focused on wellbeing are also offered.

  • 7mind (rated by Early Metrics) provides a mindfulness app that helps users integrate meditation within their daily lives. The app offers individualised training to help deal with stress, fear and anxiety.

  • The Pip provides a corporate wellness programme centred around a connected device (the Pip), paired to an app, that employees hold between their thumb and index finger. It detects whether the employee is focused and relaxed or stressed and distracted. This is done by measuring electrodermal activity, a measure of skin conductivity that indicates how sweaty your hands are. The app shows you your stress levels through visual and audio feedback. A detailed score is then provided to better understand stress levels and track progress.

The Pip’s device helps employees measure and visualise their level of stress through a small device connected to a mindfulness app.

Mental health startups saw record high equity funding in Q1 2020, raising $576 million. Furthermore, the behavioural health software market is expected to be worth $2.3 billion by 2022. As such, it’s fair to say we can expect to see more innovative startups emerge with solutions to tackle mental health both at home and in the workplace. If anything positive can be said about the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s that it might push employers to finally end the stigma surrounding mental health at work.

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