What we still need to learn about mental health in the workplace

Written by Wellcome Trust

Businesses all over the world are increasingly thinking about how they can most effectively support the mental health of their employees. And, for many businesses, this question has become even more important as Covid-19 continues to disrupt where and how we work.

However, despite growing interest and investment in workplace mental health, we still have so much to learn about the effectiveness of workplace mental health initiatives. We do not know which approaches are most effective or best value for money. We do not know if some interventions are more impactful for different people or in different contexts. And we do not know if some approaches may ultimately cause harm.

To get a better understanding of the existing evidence, in 2020 Wellcome commissioned ten global research teams to each review the evidence behind a single promising approach for supporting mental health at work. The research focused on understanding the effectiveness of interventions for addressing anxiety and depression, particularly among younger workers.

Wellcome will be publishing a new report containing the full findings from this research next month, but until then here are a few examples of what we learned:

  • Flexible working can reduce work-life conflict, which can be a major source of stress, depression and anxiety. But the uptake of flexible working often depends on the amount of support from managers and the culture of the organisation.
  • Breaking up excessive sitting with light activity by just one hour per eight-hour day may reduce depression symptoms by 10% and anxiety symptoms by 15%. Some ways to break up excessive sitting include sit-stand desks, standing meetings and encouraging movement breaks.
  • Having more autonomy in your role is associated with lower rates of anxiety and depression.
  • Employers can increase employees’ autonomy by allowing them more freedom to craft how they do their roles.

The research also highlighted some important gaps in the evidence. For example, although there is significant research about how effective mindfulness interventions are in high-income countries, we know far less about their use in workplaces in low- and middle-income countries, particularly in industries such as hospitality and tourism. For many of the approaches, it was also difficult to find evidence related to younger workers or even any evidence that directly measured the impact of the intervention on mental health.

What’s next and how you can help

Later in May, Wellcome will be launching a second commission to explore the science behind more approaches for supporting mental health at work. We’re particularly keen to understand more about the effectiveness of specific approaches in low- and middle-income countries and interventions supporting those experiencing inequalities in the workplace.

Ahead of launching the second commission, Wellcome are keen to hear from the business community about what approaches to supporting workplace mental health they would like to know more about.

We have developed a short survey to ask businesses a few questions about their current approach to workplace mental health and to ask for their views on what they would like to see prioritised in the research.

The survey should take between 5 and 10 minutes to complete and can be completed anonymously. For anyone who is happy to provide details, there is the option to share your name, role and organisation at the end of the survey.

If you have any questions about the survey or would like to know more about Wellcome’s work on workplace mental health, please contact Rhea Newman via workplacementalhealth@wellcome.org.

Take part in Wellcome's survey before Friday 30 April.