Expert advice: What’s the best way to manage employee mental health?

employee mental health
Dr. Jay Spence
Vincent Tran

By and

written on June 30, 2017

At least one in five employees will at some point experience a diagnosable mental illness, and far more experience “subthreshold symptoms” that are highly distressing and cause work impairment (but don’t meet full criteria for a diagnosis). How can we improve early interventions to address mental health issues within the workplace?

This article summarises key findings from a recent scientific review in Psychological Medicine published by Cambridge University Press on workplace mental health.

It is worthwhile noting that there is a core difference between ‘early interventions’ and ‘treatments’. An early intervention precedes diagnosis, and targets individuals demonstrating early and concerning symptoms of a mental illness, and aims to reduce their effect. Treatment, on the other hand, targets individuals who already have a diagnosis. Some strategies are more effective as treatment, and others as early interventions.

These are the types of early interventions that were scientifically reviewed in the paper:

  • Workplace screening — a strategy that aims to identify the potential presence of an illness in an individual that has yet shown any signs or symptoms
  • Counselling — confidential meetings between an employee and counsellor which aims to provide guidance to aid employees’ issues and stresses
  • Stress management approaches (eg. cognitive behavioural therapies, relaxation techniques, problem-solving strategies)

According to the research, ‘stress management approaches’ were the most effective in reducing early symptoms. ‘Workplace screening’ and ‘counselling’ were less effective.

(How can we normalise conversations about mental health at work? Read our article).

Should my company use stress management to prevent mental health issues?

It’s been widely proved that workplace stress can increase the risk of developing mental health issues, including depression and anxiety. Stress management approaches such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), were more effective in treating workplace stress compared to other treatments such as meditation and relaxation. Interestingly enough though, it did not improve levels of absenteeism or productivity.

Is workplace screening a good idea?

Introducing workplace screening was found to have some benefits in the workplace, such as increased retention rates and more worked hours by employee. However benefit sonly appeared when it was coupled with appropriate post-screening procedures (eg. telephone support). This makes sense when you think about being told you have a mental health issue without any easy way to address it or ask questions.

Should we offer universal workplace counselling before they show signs of a mental health issue?

Workplace counselling was initially thought to be beneficial based on past research but that research was found to have methodological flaws – a majority of studies focused solely on client satisfaction and largely disregarded using valid measures for mental health symptoms. In fact, the only valid study investigating workplace counselling, as an early intervention, was found to have zero effect on employees. So the jury is still out on this one .

(Want to improve your mental health literacy? Read this article about programs to help manage mental illness in the workplace).


  • Stress management approaches using CBT: 3 out of 3 stars for improving mental health; impact on work outcomes unknown.
  • Workplace screening: 1 out of 3 stars for improving mental health; and 1 out of 3 stars for improving workplace outcomes.
  • Counselling: 1 out of 3 stars for improving mental health; and 1 out of 3 stars for improving workplace outcomes.

This article was originally published at Medium

Dr Jay Spence is CEO and founder of Uprise, a Telstra backed healthtech startup that has developed digital approaches for prevention of emotional health issues in the workforce.

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