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Jun 2, 2021 | by Rhea Newman

What Works for Workplace Mental Health?

Nancy Hey, The Centre’s Executive Director writes… 

We are constantly learning about what works, for who, in what context and why. The wellbeing research makes clear that mental and emotional health throughout life matters to our overall wellbeing more than we’d previously thought – and that action can be taken to improve it.  

Encouragingly, the science that is needed to understand what organisations can do is rapidly catching up with the commitment to act. Wellcome’s first commission formed part of a £200 million investment to find the next generation of treatments for anxiety and depression among young people (aged 14 – 24). 

The promising approaches from this first commission are outlined in a new report from the Wellcome, with support from the World Economic Forum – Putting science to work: Understanding what works for workplace mental health.

Second commission

Wellcome has recently announced a second workplace wellbeing commission exploring the evidence behind these approaches for supporting workplace mental health. 

The commission will: 

  • Fund up to 20 teams to look at the evidence on one promising approach for preventing or addressing mental health problems in the workplace. 
  • Involve workers of all ages and include wider mental health problems, in addition to anxiety and depression.
  • Include at least five projects in low and middle income countries.
  • Focus on those who may be underrepresented or experiencing inequalities or discrimination in the workforce.

Wellcome is looking for applications from any location, sector and career stage. Expressions of interest are requested by 28 June 2021.

This is the third and final blog in a series from Rhea Newman, Wellcome’s Policy and Advocacy Adviser on mental health, outlining the evidence from the 10 research teams funded by the first commission. A version of this blog was originally published on LinkedIn.

More to learn about workplace mental health

Over the last few months, we’ve been sharing the learning from Wellcome’s first Workplace Mental Health Commission, in a three-part webinar series with the World Economic Forum. Through the commission, we funded 10 global research teams to look at the evidence behind promising approaches for addressing anxiety and depression in the workplace, focusing on younger workers.

Our final webinar featured group psychological first aid for humanitarian workers, social support interventions for healthcare workers, and buddying at onboarding. We also used this session as an opportunity to reflect on what needs to happen next to build the evidence for how to most effectively support mental health at work.

Group Psychological First Aid for humanitarian workers

Brynne Gilmore from University College Dublin and Frédérique Vallières from Trinity College Dublin shared what they had found about the potential for group psychological first aid to support humanitarian workers and volunteers. Psychological first aid involves providing humane, supportive and practical help to individuals who are suffering and in need of support. Group psychological first aid involves delivery of this in a group format and the research team were looking to understand what works, for who, in what context and why.

Although few studies have assessed the effectiveness of Group psychological first aid, the literature suggests it is a practical, scalable approach to providing support. In particular, it does not require a mental health professional to deliver the intervention and a group format enables many people to be supported at the same time.

No studies have looked specifically at group psychological first aid for younger workers, however, learning from other youth interventions suggested it may be beneficial, particularly through supporting relationship building and reducing stigma related to receiving support.

Social support interventions for healthcare workers

Sadiq Naveed from the Institute of Living, Hartford Healthcare Centre, shared their findings about the effectiveness of social support interventions for supporting younger healthcare workers. Social support is a sense of being accepted and feeling cared for in your social circle. It may emerge naturally from your family and friends or may involve more formal support from professionals, peers or social groups.

Several studies suggest social support interventions are highly effective in improving symptoms of anxiety and depression among healthcare workers. However, the research team highlighted questions over the certainty of the evidence, due to risk of bias in the studies and differences in reporting outcomes. Feedback from qualitative studies highlights that social support interventions can enhance people’s ability to cope with stress, while also encouraging peer-mentoring and skill-sharing among colleagues.

Buddying at onboarding

Alicia White from The Economist Intelligence Unit shared their findings about the potential for buddying to support mental health. Buddies are co-workers who support new employees to settle in during their first few months in an organisation. Buddying at onboarding is rarely explicitly about mental health, but buddies support new starters to get to know an organisation’s people, processes, work environment and culture.

No studies have directly assessed the impact of buddying at onboarding on depression and anxiety among employees of any age. However, the research team identified several reasons why buddying may be a promising approach for mental health. In particular, buddies may be able to address known risk factors for poor mental health at work. For example, they can support new employees to know what’s expected of them in their role and be a source of social support.

Feedback from businesses

After the presentations, businesses shared reflections on the three approaches. They also shared thoughts and ideas on what needs to happen next to further develop the evidence for how to most effectively support mental health at work. Key themes included:

  • There are many policies that businesses can put in place, such as buddying, which do not explicitly target mental health but may have an impact. These need to be considered as part of our approach to mental health in the workplace.
  • To robustly test interventions, we need buy-in from those at the top of the organisation. But it can be challenging to get this commitment, when mental health is one among so many different priorities.
    • CEO supported workplace trials are the next step to evaluating what works. We are looking for large multinational companies (200+ employees) to take part in trialling specific interventions. Get in touch if your organisation can be involved.  
  • It can take a long time for health research to translate into changes in practice. We need to think about what we can do now based on existing evidence, as well as how to rapidly build the evidence.

We’ll be sharing the full findings from this first commission in the near future and are looking forward to continuing the conversation with businesses and researchers about how we can work together to take a more evidence-based approach to workplace mental health.


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