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Is Tech Still Best for Workplace Wellbeing?

It really is incredible how far we’ve come with mental health at work, even if there’s still a long way to go.

Before the pandemic, engaging with organizations on mental health was much more of an education piece; encouraging leaders and decision-makers to think about the wellbeing of their people, motivated primarily by its links to productivity and the costs of poor mental health to their bottom lines.

Covid-19 changed this. Suddenly, there was widespread acceptance of its utmost importance, and a scramble for corporate organizations to give their people something during that difficult time. This took the form of an explosion of apps and other digital solutions, geared around mental health & wellbeing (MH&W).

Now, in 2024, we’re seeing this leveling out a bit. Many organizations were tied into three-year contracts with those digital solutions, which are now coming to an end. Engagement levels are at an all-time low, and it’s made contract renewals much more difficult to reach.

Leaders know that MH&W is important, but is tech still the best weapon in their arsenal for tackling it?

The Place for Technology

Tech opened a whole new world for MH&W at work. Suddenly, employees could access support, training, and information whilst in the flow of their work. And they could do so continuously to really embed the messages learned, rather than one-and-done mandatory training.

Employers also gained access to unparalleled insights on the wellbeing of their people through data analytic dashboards; extremely useful when speaking up to your seniors about mental health difficulties is still so, so difficult for many.

It also allowed, crucially, support at scale. Bigger firms face huge logistical and financial barriers when rolling out training to hundreds and thousands of people. Tech allows such solutions to be distributed quickly and consistently across an entire firm.

Though as great as these benefits are, it’s now becoming clear that technology simply cannot do all the heavy lifting on its own.

Ultimately, tech solutions are only as good as the person on the opposite end using it. How can you ensure they know how, when, and why to use it without some level of prior human engagement? To that end, we repeatedly find that employees in corporate firms know they havea toolbox of support somewhere, but don’t know how to access it or use it.

We also find such solutions are often too narrow to perform the job. Think about the number of apps out there-some specialize in overcoming anxiety, some tackle financial wellbeing, some track your nutrition. All important elements, but one can’t do it all. Managing MH&W at work is extremely complex, involving many different aspects of a person’s life.

And the afore-mentioned benefit of being able to roll out at scale and speed comes with its own flip side of the coin, too. Responsibility for roll-out is often owned by extremely busy Reward & Benefits teams, who have competing responsibilities and need to move their focus onto other areas after launching. Inevitably, engagement drops. What’s needed is consistency and frequent message reinforcement, which requires leadership and the wider business to play a bigger role than simply providing access to an app.

To really make a difference, the more human elements of culture and connection at work simply cannot be ignored. Especially regarding the powerful and personal concepts involved in MH&W.

Culture and Human Connection: The Linchpins of Mental Health & Wellbeing

In this line of work, I talk a lot about the power of storytelling. When sharing some of your own personal story, it can move others to speak. Being human. Showing your vulnerability. It creates space for conversation to happen. It can give others permission to speak. Which in turn, can open pathways to support.

Through walking the talk, a little, we begin to create space. We begin to ‘normalize’ conversations about how we’re feeling inside. What’s going on for us. What thoughts, feelings, and emotions we’re carrying around and how they might be impacting us day to day.

Conversation is key to all of this. Not only do we chip away at the stigma that already exists, but we also create opportunities for reassurance – that it really is okay not to be okay. It’s also an opportunity to inject a bit of hope; that people can and do recover.

This is where in-person training comes in, as an opportunity to help set the tone. If we want to create cultures of care, it’s important to know what that looks like.

Then, what are the tools available to me and what does the toolbox even look like? How clear and accessible are pathways to support? And does signposting mean that my job here is done?

Sometimes it can be overwhelming, and it doesn’t have to be. Most organizations spend a lot of time and money creating a toolbox of resources, many of which get lost in the mix or forgotten over time. In-person training can help to guide and support here, whilst role modeling behaviors are practical, useful and easy to implement.

For example, after a program of Byrne dean mental health awareness sessions for a global food brand, the usage of their Employee Assistance Program saw an uplift of 50%, as awareness that it existed grew, and staff felt comfortable seeking help for themselves and others.

Finding the right balance of tech and in-person solutions—what does it look like?

Ultimately, the best and most effective results are going to be hybrid. After all, we now all accept the benefits of a hybrid approach to our daily work, why not do the same for our MH&W? This generally takes the form of three steps.

Firstly, build from the ground up, creating a cohort of wellbeing champions who are trained in the basics of mental health awareness. Language and literacy is important here. Where possible, I would add to this and include a cohort of Mental Health First Aiders (MHFAider®). This training provides a more in-depth and robust look at what mental ill health is and how to handle those conversations.

At the same time, get buy-in from the most senior and influential figures. Storytelling at this level can be extremely powerful and have a positive and lasting impact. A more bespoke training program for line managers and senior leadership teams can help them to engage more with the idea that ‘mental health matters’. Buy-in at this level is very important.

Step three is then to bring in the right technology for your situation. Whether that’s some form of digital iteration of some of the training to roll it out to a big team, or specific resources that are addressed in the training. So, people actually go ahead and use them properly.

And with all three steps, give the responsibility for implementing and managing them across several teams, make it cross-functional. Perhaps this looks like your Reward & Benefits team, Internal Comms team, Designated wellbeing team, and the C-Suite all working together.

We recently worked with a large organization in the UK to put those three steps into action, and they’re making fantastic progress.

As our understanding and acceptance of mental health & wellbeing changes, so must our approach. Technology alone cannot do all the work without the proper bedrock of culture and training. By taking a truly holistic approach, with both tech and in-person solutions, you really can make a difference.

Mark O’Grady is Principal Consultant at work behavior and culture specialists Byrne Dean. Mark helps major, corporate organizations around the world on their approach to mental health, including implementing long-term strategies and undertaking world-class training. He has a deep passion for mental health at work, inspired by both personal and professional lived experience.

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