Crafting an effective preventative mental health program requires a critical eye and strategic, long-term thinking. Here’s why many strategies miss the mark and how to ensure yours doesn’t.
While these are introduced with good intentions, some experts suggest such programs often don’t translate into positive mental health outcomes.
It’s not that they’re ineffective per se, but that employers often overlook critical pieces of the puzzle when crafting their preventative mental health strategies.
Ensuring there is robust evidence to back every initiative and considering how it fits into a broader picture strategy can help to drive meaningful change and create healthier workplaces.
Avoid quick-fix options
In recent years, resilience programs have surged in popularity. Although some can help employees to reframe their thinking, they’re often relied upon as a quick fix and don’t account for more deeply rooted issues, such as unrealistic job demands, low levels of psychological safety or poor management.
Mark Oostergo, Principal Psychologist and General Manager at Communicorp, says resilience programs are more likely to be effective when paired with an assessment of workplace psychosocial hazards.
“Too many organisations try to ‘fix’ the individual and take a once-off approach to building resilience. That doesn’t necessarily enable the person to embed skills over time.
“We need to look at behavioural change and how to hold people accountable, which might be through developing supportive leaders or providing coaching to embed the skills they’ve learnt in the program.”
“Too many organisations try to ‘fix’ the individual and take a once-off approach to building resilience. That doesn’t necessarily enable the person to embed skills over time.” – Mark Oostergo, Principal Psychologist and General Manager at Communicorp
Oostergo and his team identify hazards that could put people at risk, such as poor job structure or inadequate training, and evaluate whether it’s possible to change them.
“We also look at factors such as improving team cohesion and supportive leadership, and ensuring there is strong procedural fairness. These can be great protective factors.”
The Applied Positive Psychology Learning Institute (APPLI) takes a similar holistic approach to designing preventative mental health interventions, creating evidence-informed and comprehensive mental health strategies and practices tailored to each organisation it consults.
“We’re looking for sustainable, positive and measurable change,” says Dr Paula Robinson, Founder and CEO of APPLI. When you have a one-off class, it can be tokenistic if you don’t have a follow-up strategy.”
APPLI assesses employees’ wellbeing, as well as the structural factors contributing to their mental health, such as the workplace culture, subcultures, leadership support and job demands.
Knowing an organisation’s needs enables customisation and helps to achieve buy-in from employees – one of the most important predictors of a strategy’s effectiveness.
“If you’re running a workshop and you don’t know how mental health or ill-health has affected your audience, how will you tailor a program to their needs?” says Robinson. “Obtaining employees’ responses also ensures they have ownership over the program’s design.”
APPLI typically works with companies for one to three years to see a project come to fruition and generate results.
Programs need to be goal-oriented, with specific actions employees can take, and they should include regular follow-ups, says Robinson. Importantly, you can’t implement an effective wellbeing strategy without also putting a positive change management process in place to gain employee buy-in, as well as a tracking system to see if it’s actually working.
“You measure the sales target and every other metric that’s core to the business, so why wouldn’t you measure mental fitness as well?” she says.
Tracking progress is the only way to see what’s working and identify critical gaps.
For instance, if you’ve set up a one-off resilience workshop, and then you set up a mechanism to capture employee sentiment one, two or three months down the track, you might see that it has had little impact on their overall wellbeing.
More targeted approaches, however, tend to reap benefits. From her own tracking efforts, Robinson has noted decreased absenteeism rates and fewer workers’ compensation claims since interventions were made.
Rethink trauma support
In the aftermath of a traumatic event, counsellors are often rushed to the scene to help victims, witnesses and first responders to talk through their reactions to the incident.
Although this technique, known as critical incident stress debriefing (CISD), has been widely used to try to prevent post-traumatic stress disorder, there’s minimal evidence to support its effectiveness.
“There’s research to suggest some of these models can actually do more harm than good,” says Oostergo.
He points to the Mitchell Model, which includes group debriefing, as an example.
“Unpacking someone’s experience immediately after the event can be damaging, especially if it’s done in front of other people because not everyone will have perceived the incident in the same way. Some people may not have experienced aspects of the incident.”
“You measure the sales target and every other metric that’s core to the business, so why wouldn’t you measure mental fitness as well?” – Dr Paula Robinson, Founder and CEO, APPLI
In place of CISD, the World Health Organisation has identified psychological first aid as the best-practice approach to immediately manage trauma exposure.
“It’s looking at how to support people with their basic needs, such as safety, shelter and food, monitoring for early warning signs of compromised wellbeing and continuing to monitor affected people post-incident.
“You also want to look at how you can enhance social connection and support.”
Are dedicated mental health roles effective?
As mental health issues have spiked in recent years, many companies have established new positions, such as the Chief Mental Health Officer (CMHO) or Wellbeing Lead.
Rachel Clements, Co-Founder and Director of Psychological Services at the Centre for Corporate Health, says the rise of these positions indicates organisations are putting mental health on their corporate radar.
“It’s a highly valued function and shows that there’s a real need for greater support. Organisations want to protect their people while maintaining high performance.”
However, she emphasises the need to think carefully about how such roles operate.
“The CMHO is often a psychologist working in-house. You don’t want to have the CMHO running counselling sessions and replacing the company’s EAP. Boundaries can easily blur when that psychologist is also working, and sometimes socialising, with people too. They need to be able to maintain their professional role as a psychologist.”
For this reason, she says the CMHO function operates best when they approach mental health from a strategic lens.
“They’re for big-picture matters and might look at issues such as: what are the emerging psychosocial risks for various teams? What early intervention measures can we introduce? How do we educate teams about certain risks?”
Dr Laura Kirby has been addressing these questions in her role as Chief Mental Health Officer at Commonwealth Bank since January 2021.
Kirby’s work in the space has involved taking steps such as running targeted workshops within high-risk teams, giving employees the tools to create boundaries, establishing wellbeing charters within teams and coaching leaders on how to support employee wellbeing.
“We take a holistic systems-based approach to establishing work-life boundaries because so much of that relies on teams having good structures in place,” says Kirby. “It’s no good having one individual set a firm boundary if that’s not supported by their immediate team. So we might help the team to agree to reduced meetings, set clear working hours, or establish digital hygiene practices where we might limit after-hours contact. It’s taking a preventative focus that proactively identifies work practices and looks for opportunities to improve them so people are in a much healthier space.”
While the CMHO might provide initial triage for vulnerable employees, their role should then be to refer them to the EAP or another counselling provider, says Clements.
“CMHOs can be wonderful connectors to help reduce stigma. Sometimes EAP providers see increased utilisation rates when there’s a CMHO in an organisation because there’s someone on the ground educating people and creating a safe space for vulnerability.
“The CMHO can help to take the pressure off and to coach HR on how to have challenging conversations and to recognise early warning signs. Together the CMHO and HR can help people to feel much more supported in the workplace.”
This article first appeared in the September 2022 edition of HRM magazine.
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