Science-Backed Strategies For Managing Employee Mental Health

The Challenge

At least 1 in 5 employees will experience a diagnosable mental illness and far more experience “sub-threshold symptoms” that are highly distressing and cause functional impairment (but don’t meet criteria for a diagnosis). Sadly, less than 1 in 30 employees receive workplace support for mental health, with HR managers often unsure about which strategies to implement, when and for whom. A recent review of the scientific literature provides evidence for the types of early interventions that are effective in addressing the early signs of mental illness and preventing the development of diagnosable disorders. 

Four types of early interventions were analysed in the review:

  • Workplace screening — a strategy that aims to identify the potential presence of an illness in an individual that has yet shown any signs or symptoms (eg. Beck Depression Inventory as an indicator for depression)
  • Counselling — confidential meetings between an employee and counsellor which aims to provide guidance to aid employees’ issues and stresses
  • Stress management approaches (eg. cognitive behavioural therapies, relaxation techniques, problem-solving strategies)
  • Psychological debriefing — providing an employee emotional and psychological support immediately after a traumatic event with the aim of preventing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

What works?

According to the research, ‘stress management approaches’ were the most effective in reducing early symptoms. ‘Workplace screening’ and ‘counselling’ were less effective and ‘psychological debriefing’ was potentially harmful.

Should our company use stress management initiatives to prevent mental health issues?

There is research consensus that workplace stress can increase the risk of developing mental health issues, including depression and anxiety. As such, early interventions are aimed at decreasing stress as a risk factor for mental health illnesses. Stress management approaches such as cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), were more effective in treating workplace stress compared to other treatments such as meditation and relaxation. Interestingly enough, it did not improve levels of absenteeism or productivity.

Should we offer debriefing if an employee is involved in a traumatic event?

Following a traumatic event, delivering a psychological debriefing aims to reduce distress and probability of developing a long-term mental illness. However, this may prove more harm than good. The review found that routine debriefing in fact has no benefits and may be harmful. Debriefing should not be conducted. If a traumatic event was to occur in the workplace, then employees should be provided other treatments such as psychological first aid.

Is workplace screening for mental health a good idea?

Introducing workplace screening was found to have some benefits in the workplace, such as increased retention rates and more worked hours by employee; however, only when it was coupled with appropriate post-screening procedures (eg. telephone support). This makes sense when you think about being told you have a mental health issue without any easy way to address it or ask questions.

Should we offer universal workplace counselling to prevent issues before they arise?

Workplace counselling was initially thought to be beneficial based on past research. However, the research was found to have methodological flaws. A majority of studies focused solely on client satisfaction and largely disregarded using valid measures for mental health symptoms. In fact, the only valid study investigating workplace counselling, as an early intervention, was found to have zero effect on employees. The jury is still out on this one — we need better quality studies before we can say if it works or not.

Recommendations/ratings:

  • Stress management approaches using CBT: 3 out of 3 stars for improving mental health; impact on work outcomes unknown
  • Workplace screening: 1 out of 3 stars for improving mental health; and 1 out of 3 stars for improving workplace outcomes
  • Counselling1 out of 3 stars for improving mental health; and 1 out of 3 stars for improving workplace outcomes
  • Psychological debriefing: Potentially harmful; impact on work outcomes unknown

Key takeaways:

Stress management approaches that use CBT are effective methods to prevent mental illness in the workplace; followed by workplace screening, which may also improve workplace outcomes such as reducing turnover and increasing productivity. As an early intervention, we don’t have enough research to show if counselling has an impact in improving workplace mental health. Psychological debriefing has adverse effects and should not be used.

References:

Originally written by Jay Spence, CEO at Uprise (www.uprise.co). Uprise provides digital, evidence-based mental health and wellbeing programs shown to improve employee wellbeing, engagement and performance.

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