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Measuring the mind: mental health in the workplace


Written on 9 March 2020

Data offers employers new ways to manage mental health in workforces, but a recent Osborne Clarke roundtable considered how this requires joined-up thinking across organisations.

Digital change and the collection of data offer new approaches and solutions for all aspects of public and private life, with the management of mental health in the workplace also benefitting from this transformative process underway in institutions and businesses across the UK.

The recently hosted a roundtable event, led by Partner Mary Lawrence from its health and safety practice discussed the relationship between data and effective management of mental health.

The event brought together senior representatives from national and multinational businesses already leading on innovative and progressive mental health initiatives in their organisations. Unmind, the workplace mental health platform used by a number of the attendees to measure mental wellbeing at work, presented insights into how its tech allows employees to assess, track, and understand their mental wellbeing and helped facilitate discussions.

 Identifying mental health risk

Just as with physical health and safety, a risk assessment methodology helps to identify factors affecting employees’ mental health. This was one of the themes emerging from the discussion. Physical and mental health should not be treated differently.

There was a recognition that there is often a lack of a holistic view of health-related issues in organisations and that focus on individual cases of ill health (and reacting to them) was still common practice in identification of risk.

Mary commented that in her view good management of mental health risk is “about the proactive consideration of risk and prevention/ management:

  • Linking up wellbeing programmes in business in to risk management
  • Focusing on future thinking, and
  • Linking up with business operations

If data is to be useful then, the group discussed, there needs to be enough of it and there needs to be some comparable data to be able to carry out proper trend analysis. It was commented that traditionally mental health survey questions may be negatively phrased. This creates stigma and ambiguity which leads to a lack of engagement or inaccurate responses. Unmind raised the importance of language used, for example asking a person to rate their calmness rather than stress levels.

The roundtable concurred that there has to be more than one method of collating data – and that process must be very open. Unmind gave examples of employees keeping mood diaries, overtime building up a daily, profile of how they were feeling. Without the constraint of specific questioning, employees were engaged as they could track the trends and begin to understand the causes both positive and negative on their mental health. For businesses having a varied data set gathered over a period (rather than just a snapshot from a survey) rendered better results on initial risk identification and enabled much greater depth of (and therefore more useful) analysis to be undertaken. The Unmind platform produced a series of different measures such as time, sex and seniority which exposed trends that are hidden by the broad brush analysis that is often used.

It was discussed that the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) should not be being used as a barrier to initial engagement. This use of the GDPR can often be down to an overly cautious approach as well as a misunderstanding of the law.

Analysing data

Although the HSE’s Stress Management Standards provide a useful framework for the approach to stress management in the workplace and ISO 45001 standard includes mental health within occupational health and wellbeing, it does not go into detail.  These do not provide a basis for uniform measurement.  The International Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (ISO 45003) is due to be published in early 2021 may provide some assistance, but will primarily provide guidance on identifying risk factors.  There remains a need to lobby professional health and safety bodies to provide a comprehensive and coordinated set of standards that enables consistent measurement so that business can benchmark and thereby help drive improvement.

Mary explained: “There is frustration that there is no common standard available to help in mental health management in the workplace and often the right questions are not being asked to ascertain whether employees are at risk (or even suffering) from mental ill health issues, whether caused by their work or due to external factors.”

The group discussed that currently data analysis can feel quite crude. Absence figures, productivity measures and employee turnover statistics can be used as general indicators of the effect of poor mental health – but do not assist with understanding any causal factors for the mental ill health, or the impact of an individual’s work on the ill health.

Often data is gathered from employees without any attempt to break down into relevant sub-groups, even just by age and sex, the roundtable heard. It was found that the use of sub-groups produces very different results that assist in targeting what the contributory factors may be.  This is one of the areas that obtaining enough anonymised data to be analysed can really assist with.

In order to understand where their data set sits, businesses need to be able to benchmark to a common standard within their industry sector. However, data sharing across comparable businesses and industry sectors is still very limited, and the consensus from the roundtable was that this needs to be more assertively championed by safety and industry groups to benefit workers.

 Reporting on data

Spending on initiatives to identify mental health issues and support employees is increasingly recognised as an important part of a company’s health and safety or occupational health expenditure. However it can be difficult to demonstrate any clear return on investment or business case to a company’s board before the investment is made.

If significant progress is to be continued on these challenging issues businesses must:

  • Think creatively about how to capture data (including how mental health and wellbeing issues are communicated positively) so that the data set is sufficient to enable detailed analysis;
  • Link data more widely to performance indicators, undertake a much deeper analysis that breakdown the data in different ways so that causes may be identified rather than just using crude data analysis to identify and then treat isolated symptoms;
  • Be open to the sharing of data so that how data is measured may be more standardised such that benchmarking within industries can be achieved. This may require a more proactive lobbying of professional and industry groups to facilitate this.

If you would like to speak further on any of the matters discussed at the event or would like to contact any the speakers please contact Mary Lawrence and Matt Kyle.

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