The COVID-19 pandemic has elevated workplace mental health higher on the agenda of business than it ever has been before. In May 47 percent of U.S. workers reported a decline in their mental health, as compared with the onset of the pandemic. The toll is not only personal. Mental ill-health globally is projected to result in $16 trillion in lost output and productivity by 2030—a number that outpaces monetary losses driven by heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
The economic benefits of mentally well workforces are well proved. Every dollar invested in treatment returns an estimated $4 in increased productivity. Yet it is far less clear how one should invest in workplace mental health. How do we know what works? And what works for whom in what context? As demonstrated in a Financial Times article by Miranda Wolpert of the Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation dedicated to health research, the implementation of meaningful workplace interventions and programs is much more than “mindfulness apps, puppies and yoga.”
Although some measures, such as employee surveys to track and combat stress, are self-evidently desirable, the future of workplace mental health must lie with research and rigorous evaluation of data and interventions. This is a principle familiar to business in evaluating performance and guiding strategic decision making. Only with such an approach can business leaders ensure that investments will substantively help in improving mental health.
These efforts are made even more powerful when private organizations willingly pool their findings and share their data with public-sector entities; what works in one company will very likely be effective in similar organizations. Models based on these data are beginning to produce results. We’ve seen an uptick of interest and commitment to mental health research that taps findings from employer-led health and wellness groups and coalitions. Examples include One Mind at Work’s commitment to supporting research for employers to better support the mental wellness needs of employees, including individuals with autism, dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other conditions. There is also a need for the world’s largest multinationals to commit to tangible, evidence-based solutions in their workforces through the Global Business Collaboration for Better Workplace Mental Health.
This research and evaluation must also take into consideration different geographical and resource contexts; what works for employees in San Francisco may not be as effective for those in Beijing or Mumbai. One successful example adapted to the local level involves the city of Saint Paul, Minn. The city formed the Healthy Saint Paul Committee, which brought together city departments to try to address the general health needs of employees. But a series of suicides that touched the fire department and libraries, among others, prompted committee members to look at stress as a precursor to depression. They adopted a tool called MeQuilibrium to help city employees become more psychologically resilient. The city also started using a smartphone app called Vitals that alerts police about mental health issues before they arrive at a particular home or business.
The Wellcome Trust attempts to address some of these broad-ranging needs with its recent launch of a global research commission, which will provide funding for studying approaches that support workers in low- and middle-income countries. There is also the World Health Organization’s commitment to developing guidelines to help employers ensure that programs and interventions are grounded in a wealth of evidence, regardless of employees’ income level.
While the idea of research for workplace well-being and combating ill-health is hardly new, how organizations and researchers best engage in its implementation remains to be explored. Innovation is crucial in discovering how research and evaluation of these programs are structured, deployed and implemented through partnerships. And businesses now have an opportunity to treat research with the same acumen and rigor as financial performance or product strategy.
New partnerships among employers and researchers will foster a willingness to share findings and data that ensure that investments and commitment to mental health interventions at work are making a difference for both employees and businesses. The aforementioned organizations and the World Economic Forum are among those taking a vigorous lead in pursuing these developments.
IF YOU NEED HELP
If you or someone you know is struggling or having thoughts of suicide, help is available. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK), use the online Lifeline Chat or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.