Are digital tools the answer to employees’ mental health issues?

Written by Claire Read Wednesday 30 June 2021
Nothing beats face-to-face conversations but, with careful management, digital wellbeing solutions can play a unique part
Two people talking deeply on a video call

As diaries suddenly and unexpectedly emptied of in-person commitments in the early weeks of lockdown, Emma Carney introduced a new standing appointment: a bi-monthly virtual group she jokingly referred to as ‘Wine and a Whine’.

The invite list was select: junior colleagues at the PR agency where she was a senior manager. The agenda? The same every time. “We’d have a glass of wine and I’d just check in and have a chat: ‘How are you doing? Are you OK?’,” she explains.

Such support for the mental well-being of colleagues isn’t a new item on the to-do list of managers. But the pandemic has brought greater focus and added major complications in addressing it.

In key-worker environments, there’s the challenge of ensuring staff feel as safe as possible while they’re in the workplace. In offices, there’s the complication of moving to virtual interactions – no more opportunities for a quick, informal check-in while making a cup of tea. And in many workplaces, there have been difficult conversations to have about furlough and even redundancies.

All this is against the backdrop of a pandemic that has changed more or less every aspect of life in a way which naturally affects work. Little wonder, then, that the evidence suggests there has been an uptick in mental ill health over the past 12 months. Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that 19% of adults experienced moderate to severe depression in November 2020, and 17% were affected by anxiety – a significant increase on the one in ten people who reported such problems pre-pandemic.

Consultant psychiatrist Laura Pearse has a special interest in occupational psychiatry. She says that in many instances “mental health is being stretched to its limits”. “Mental health issues are now one of the leading causes of sickness absence, and with the pandemic people have often got to the end of their coping limits – what with homeschooling and trying to work as well, plus isolation, bereavement and worries about finances.”

Here to help

There’s a question that naturally follows for managers: how can they best support their own mental well-being while also supporting that of colleagues, at a time when everyone is under pressure in one way or another?

For occupational psychologist Roxane Gervais, the answer is not to have very specific conversations about mental wellbeing with colleagues. She advises simply asking open questions to find out how someone is doing. “You don’t start off with: ‘What’s wrong?’ You start off with: ‘How are you? What’s happening in your life?’,” she says. “Those are the things that start to make people comfortable, and once you make people comfortable they are a lot more willing to say: ‘I need support with this, can you give me some help?’”

The value of that sort of approach is borne out by Emma Carney’s experience. The wide-ranging conversations she had with her junior colleagues – about well-being within and beyond the context of work – meant she was able to identify a specific individual she was concerned may be struggling.

“I knew her dad was ill with terminal cancer, that she was living in a house-share with a housemate she wasn’t getting on with, and that she didn’t know when she was going to be able to see her dad again.”

And so when this colleague had a mental health crisis, Emma was immediately on the phone to support her and rapidly arrange for counselling.

Going online

Support from mental health professionals has traditionally been a face-to-face affair, but the need for social distancing has resulted in an explosion in the use of digital support. One of the companies offering such solutions is Kooth. Founded 15 years ago, its services are widely used for NHS patients – more than five million people are supported by the platform – and the firm also offers its services to employers, under its Kooth Work offering.

Tim Barker, Kooth’s chief executive, says that one of the advantages of a digital platform is that it can offer a wide range of flexible support. “We offer self-help tools, a community so that you can engage with and hear from others who have been where you are, and we offer access to counselling.”

That counselling is all text-based, an approach that Kooth believes helps people open up. “You can express yourself without having to do a phone call or a video call,” Barker says. “It helps create a safe space for people to express themselves.”

The online community, meanwhile, takes the form of themed discussion boards where users can post about their problems and discuss with those experiencing something similar. Such support is not unique. There are online forums serving all manner of informal peer communities, and many health-related charities offer ‘official’ boards providing advice and support.

What these digital solutions provide is something of a one-stop shop for mental well-being. In the case of Kooth, it’s one that is entirely anonymous. Employees, and indeed managers, can set up an account and access support without needing to involve their bosses in the ins and outs of their concerns. That said, leadership teams can access an anonymised breakdown of the sorts of issues the workforce is struggling with. This enables them to address any consistent problems that may be arising.

Barker emphasises that managers should not assume that buying access to a digital service and sending out an all-staff email with the link absolves them of any further responsibility. “Our objective,” he says, “is to help tackle the challenge of mental health within the workforce and to help coach, educate and support managers so they can establish mental health as a topic of business as opposed to an outlier of business.

“The benefits are huge: increased employee productivity, engagement and retention. But there’s a conscious step change that an organisation needs to make from just ticking a box – sending out an email to your employees about mental health and saying you’re done – to embracing the mental health and well-being of the workforce.”

Keeping mind and body together

A year on, Emma no longer holds her Wine and a Whine meetings. But that’s only because she no longer works at the agency where she instituted them. She left the organisation in December to launch a freelance career, having realised that she was not enjoying her staff role. “A lot of that was to do with [my own] mental health situation,” she says.

Ultimately, supporting employees’ mental well-being goes to the heart of being able to run a successful business or organisation. “You can’t disassociate the bodies from the minds of your employees – it would be a very Victorian set of values that would drive you to do that,” says Barker. “So, I think, take the current situation as an opportunity. Help your employees have a work/life balance in this new remote-first model. Help them establish boundaries. Because the future is, in so many ways, going to be about the sustainability of a more fluid working day.”

Millions of working days are lost due to workplace stress, anxiety and depression. To turn the tide, CMI is now partnering with Kooth to provide our members with free, safe and anonymous support and counselling. Find out about our membership packages here.

Claire Read is a writer specialising in healthcare, technology and mental health. She was previously a comms manager in the NHS and is an associate member of The Royal Society of Medicine

Don’t miss out - get notified of new content

Sign-up to become a Friend of CMI to recieve our free newsletter for a regular round-up of our latest insight and guidance.

CMI members always see more. For the widest selection of content, including CPD tools and multimedia resources, check out how to get involved with CMI membership.