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07 Nov 2023
by Tracey Paxton

Why mental health initiatives must shift from box-tick to strategy 

With demand for mental wellbeing support never greater, short-term solutions are no longer enough

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The demand for support with mental health and wellbeing has soared in recent years, with more people than ever before looking to access services to help them manage issues related to their mental health.

The pandemic has undoubtedly been a major trigger for causing or amplifying mental health problems – and only now is the aftermath of this tidal wave being dealt with.

However, the current disruptions in the market, including the cost-of-living crisis and new ways of working, are increasingly being referenced as trigger points.

With employees carrying the heavy burdens related to their mental health around with them at home and at work (sometimes unknowingly), no longer can employers ignore the silent mental health epidemic within their workforce. 

The short-term solution problem  

A total of 12.8 million working days were lost last year due to work-related stress, anxiety, and depression, according to the Health and Safety Executive. Yet, businesses putting in place short-term wellbeing strategies (wellbeing apps, relaxation classes, resilience programmes, etc) are at risk of box-ticking rather than implementing real change with a positive impact on staff.

Oxford University’s Wellbeing Research Centre published a report in April 2023 that measured the effect of preventative mental wellbeing interventions, demonstrating the challenges with these ‘individualised’ approaches.

The large-scale research project, conducted pre-Covid-19 (2013-2019), found little evidence of any benefits as a result of these interventions; there is even some indication of harm being caused in certain cases e.g. resilience training.

Offering short-term off-the-shelf programmes or classes is not an effective solution in response to the systemic problems in working conditions or for work-related stress – both of which are intensifying.  

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence says that individualised approaches are only recommended when carried out in tandem with organisational change. It’s premature to advise strategies like mindfulness as a universal approach to improve and maintain worker mental health as the report shows that workers participating in short-term and individualised initiatives are no better off.

The underlying concern is that these programmes imply stress is self-imposed and resilience training is an attempt to adapt workers to workplace stress rather than alleviating or preventing it. This can cause stress itself as a toxic side-effect.  

Driving lasting change 

Instead, organisational change will create the most impact. This means viewing mental health and wellbeing not as a challenge that needs to be addressed with short-term solutions but as an area of focus on that requires a long-term strategy.

The pandemic shone a light on workplace cultures and mental health that encouraged employers to take employee mental health more seriously and take proactive measures. Traditionally, UK businesses have relied on reactive approaches and support services such as Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) when someone has reached a mental health crisis.

What is needed is a culture giving employees fast-track access to the right support and treatment at the right time. 

Additionally, there are huge financial benefits in looking after employee wellbeing and implementing a wellbeing strategy, which should be done after engaging with the workforce to identify gaps and solutions.

This ensures that the organisation is listening to employees and taking action as a result. After all, an engaged workforce is more productive and happier.  

Organisational change

Partnering with a holistic health and wellbeing provider that can deliver an ongoing service designed to support and provide real organisational change should be part of the business’ long-term mental wellbeing strategy.

The provider should have conjoined services such as EAPs and mental health services as well as health cash plans and occupational health services to provide end-to-end support. In doing so, businesses can expect a ROI through reduced sick leave, improved retention rates and increases in productivity.

And, thanks to the combination of people seeking a better work/life balance and younger workers holding companies accountable for their values, having a clearly defined mental wellbeing strategy in place will also help attract future talent.  

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