Feb 24, 2021 | by Rhea Newman

From flexible working to mindfulness: what works for supporting workplace mental health?

Earlier this year, Wellcome Trust commissioned 10 global research teams to look at the evidence behind promising interventions. These were shortlisted in collaboration with external experts, including the Centre. These interventions were focussed on supporting anxiety and depression in the workplace, with a particular focus on younger workers. In partnership with the World Economic Forum, Wellcome are now sharing the findings from this Commission with business leaders. 

Wellcome’s Rhea Newman summarises the second of these dialogues in a blog that was first published on LinkedIn.

>> Read the first blog post in this series 


The global cost of anxiety and depression through lost productivity is estimated to be around $1 trillion annually. So prioritising mental health and wellbeing is beneficial not only for individual employees, but also organisations as a whole.

With Covid-19 significantly changing where and how we work, it has never been more important to understand what interventions are effective. 

In our second webinar in January, WEF members heard the evidence from four more research teams about a diverse range of workplace mental health initiatives. The presentations covered flexible working, mindfulness, peer support and financial wellbeing interventions. 

Flexible working policies

Philip Osteen from the College of Social Work, University of Utah shared how flexible working policies can help reduce work-home conflict. This conflict can be a major source of depression and anxiety. Flexible working policies may include working from home, flexible working hours, job sharing or a compressed working week. 

Evidence shows that uptake of flexible working policies is strongly influenced by the organisational context and particularly the degree of support from managers. Some employees may also choose not to use flexible working because they worry it will reduce their influence over their current job or lead to them missing out on opportunities for promotion. 

Mindfulness in low- and middle-income countries

Ishtar Govia and Rochelle Amour, together with colleagues from the Jamaica Mental Health Advocacy Network, reviewed the evidence for using mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) in low-and middle-income countries. They were particularly interested to understand their effectiveness in high risk industries such as hospitality and tourism. 

Evidence shows that MBIs are effective in reducing anxiety and depression in high income countries. However, we know far less about their effectiveness in workplaces in low-and middle-income countries. And no studies have looked specifically at younger workers in hospitality and tourism. 

Feedback from stakeholders suggested several factors need to be considered for using MBIs in these contexts. For example, raising awareness of the potential benefits of mindfulness and demonstrating how practices can fit into everyday life. 

Peer support

Alisha Ali from the Department of Applied Psychology, New York University,  shared how her research, in partnership with Mental Health Innovations and the National Alliance on Mental Illness for New York City, found that peer support can lead to decreases in anxiety and depression. Their analysis of existing peer support programmes suggested there were several features of effective programmes. These include training and providing support for peer supporters as well as actively promoting the programme to employees. 

Feedback from young workers with experience of anxiety and depression, suggested they would be receptive to peer support in the workplace. However, they highlighted it’s important that workplaces have a culture of trust and can ensure confidentiality for those using the programme. 

Financial wellbeing interventions

Christian Van Stolk from RAND Europe shared how workplace financial wellbeing interventions may be a promising approach for addressing anxiety and depression for younger workers.  These interventions can include both financial education (such as financial planning workshops) and direct financial support (such as pay advances). 

Few studies have directly assessed the impact of financial wellbeing interventions on mental health, particularly for younger workers. However, analysis of data from a large survey of companies in Britain and Asia found that participation in financial wellbeing interventions is associated with better mental health. This association was stronger for those aged 18 – 24. 

Context is everything

After the presentations, businesses shared their reflections on what they had heard as well as experiences from their organisation.  Their feedback highlighted several key themes:    

  • It’s important to recognise the significant impact organisational context may have on the effectiveness of interventions. This includes the impact of leadership, manager support and wider organisational culture. 
  • We need to consider how interventions may work in different size organisations and different geographical contexts
  • It’s important to think about how approaches may work together and the relative impact of different approaches.

What next? 

In our final webinar we’ll explore the evidence behind group psychological first aid, social support interventions in healthcare and buddying. We’ll also be talking about next steps for Wellcome’s research and how businesses and researchers can work together to further build the evidence base. 

Look at our work and wellbeing resources

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