In the last two years, looking after the mental wellbeing of employees went from the ‘to do’ list to the boardroom agenda. With a rapidly changing risk and regulatory landscape for organisations, and increasing employee expectations, there is a need for a holistic view and approach to safety, mental health and wellbeing.
COVID-19 hit the health system and wider economy hard. Suddenly, people found themselves in a new world, working under strict safety measures or at home, remotely. Teams could no longer meet in person, kids were being home-schooled, jobs were threatened or lost and lockdowns seemed never ending. Even as restrictions eased, a tough economic market and series of dramatic world events kept stress levels high.
Digital rushed to fill the need. With a proliferating market of mental health solutions globally, employers are looking for guidance on the right support for their organisations.
The mental health reality
Addressing the level of care for the mental health of the nation was already on the cards before the COVID-19 pandemic. The Productivity Commission’s Inquiry into Mental Health found that 2.8 million working Australians had mental illnesses that led to them taking time off to maintain their wellbeing.1 With estimates that workplace absenteeism due to mental health was costing the economy AU$10 billion, and presenteeism adding an additional AU$7 billion, the role business plays in maintaining the mental health and wellbeing of the workforce was beginning to be unpicked.
As COVID-19 hit, technology became even more integral to worklife and the stress of endless video meetings and isolation started to take its toll. Increasingly, people turned to digital mental health solutions – such as Headspace, Calm, Innowell, as well as broader, holistic wellbeing solutions like Sonder – to help them cope.
The good news is that from meditation to cognitive-based therapy solutions and real-time crisis intervention, there is no shortage of help available. According to the IQVIA Institute for Human Data Science, more than 90,000 new digital health apps came onto the market in 2020 – around 20,000 addressed mental health.2,3,4
Mental health solutions for the workplace
“Mental health is one of the biggest societal issues of our time and employers have an obligation to support the wellbeing and safety of their staff,” says Kristin Stubbins, Chair of the Board of mental health solution, Innowell, and Assurance Managing Partner at PwC.
Like Stubbins at PwC, many employers are recognising the need to promote and provide mental health and wellbeing solutions for their staff.5 PwC Australia’s What workers want report found that wellbeing is the second-most valued support provided by employers at 22 percent, second only, and then only slightly at 25 percent, to remuneration and reward. Thirty-seven percent of workers consider their employer their main source of mental health support – a finding that emphasises the duty of care organisations have to provide the most appropriate and comprehensive wellbeing offering they can.6
Christopher Marr, CCO of workplace wellbeing solution, Sonder, also points out that taking care of staff has unexpected benefits on top of being the right thing to do. “Employers have recognised that supporting the wellbeing and safety of their staff is not only expected, but makes good business sense. Combining technology with human (clinical) support can provide 10 to 15 times higher engagement levels, and drive meaningful improvements in employee productivity, absenteeism, and retention.”
There are pros and cons to digital health apps and platforms. Who is creating a solution (and why) matters in an unregulated market. “It’s important to ensure solutions are truly research-validated tools with personalised insights to connect people to the support they need, when they need it,” stresses Stubbins.
When used within a greater wellbeing ecosystem (including culture, social connection, inclusion, flexibility and so on) digital solutions can fill an important part of the mental health puzzle.7
Adopting a successful support service
Of course it’s one thing to have a mental health support service in the workplace and another to get people to use it. A report by PwC Australia and Sonder, Rethinking workplace mental health and wellbeing, examined the barriers to workplace adoption of mental health and wellbeing initiatives.8
Culturally, mental health is often not built into workplaces. If it isn’t addressed openly there is greater potential for stigma and discrimination for those seeking support. Additionally, when mental health discussion is silent from those at the top it is likely that employees will be unaware of support options available to them.
The wrong solutions can be just as harmful. Programs that focus only on crisis support and not prevention, services that require scheduled face-to-face or voice sessions during work hours (as opposed to instant 24/7 support), those that don’t allow for new hybrid models of work, or have an absence of multilayered professional services for deeper issues, can all render programs too difficult, or too simplistic, to help.*
Conversely, providing too many options can cause confusion and a lack of uptake.
How to choose a digital health solution
Deciding on the right digital health and wellbeing solution therefore requires consideration of a number of aspects. Different apps and platforms will be more suitable than others depending on how they fit into and complement your existing wellbeing ecosystem.
A few things to consider:
Type of support – From mindfulness, meditation and breathing exercises, calming music, sleep support, to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and talk therapy, there are many different types of support available. What would make the most difference to your employees?
Focus – Some mental health apps are made specifically for organisations, others have paid corporate content or discounts on premium services. Will you have access to aggregated analytics to gauge effectiveness or identify areas of need? Will they be anonymous? Are there added fees for your employees?
Accessibility – Does the service have truly digital options for convenience, such as instant chat or text messaging. Are there other ways to connect? Do they provide face-to-face or telephone support for more complex mental health needs? Is the service available 24/7 or only during work hours or in the office?
Medical accreditation – Is the service affiliated/run by GPs or psychologists? Is it accredited by a body such as the Australian Council on Healthcare Standards (ACHS) and does it meet digital mental health standards?9 Does it have access to further networks if needed by a user? Are the tools and therapies backed by evidence-based science?
Return on investment – Research shows that for every dollar spent on workplace mental health, organisations can expect a return of between AU$1 and AU$4. Metrics to assess ROI could include lost productivity hours due to mental health issues, ongoing engagement with the app, the positive impact it has on a reduction in symptoms and how long the intervention will continue to affect the employee.10
Other questions to ask– What else does the service do? For instance, does it offer general medical assistance or safety/emergency information? How many exercises/articles are on offer? How repetitive are they? Is the company providing the app well established? Have you consulted your employees on what they need and want?
Working on wellbeing
There are many reasons organisations should consider providing mental health support to their people. Where it concerns the bottom line there is of course compelling evidence as to how healthier employees are more productive. To be an employer of choice and attract the best talent, mental health options should be part of the employee experience offering – but at the end of the day, a mental health solution should be considered because you are only as good as your people, and in a world of uncertainty, your people deserve your support.