Why An Open-door Policy Is Not Enough To Support Mental Health in a Virtual Working World

In our now dispersed workplace culture, where remote working looks like it’s going to be around for a while, traditional approaches to supporting colleagues’ mental health are becoming less effective.

In this interview with Dan Willis, Co-founder of preventative, personalised digital mental health platform Well Good, Dan draws on concrete insights from recent research. He argues that as ‘open door’ policies are no longer enough, the UK’s National Health System (NHS) is stretched and private therapy is too expensive, it’s time for employees to take active roles and hold business to account.

Attention on prevention

According to a major new study, recently published in the BMJ Open, people are experiencing significantly more stress, anxiety and depression since lockdown began, with women and young people the most affected.

The COVID-19 Stress and Health Study, was led by Professor Kavita Vedhara from the Faculty of Medicine & Health Sciences at the University of Nottingham, who is also a member of Well Good’s Board of Advisors. It was designed to look at the effects of the pandemic on the mental health of people living in the UK.

Findings were based on responses from 3,097 adults, representing the views of people across the UK, including key workers and individuals from ethnic minority groups.

Findings of the study showed that stress, anxiety and depression were all significantly higher than previous published norms. 64% of participants reported symptoms of depression and 57% reported symptoms of anxiety. Dan explains: “That’s way above the national understanding of mental health – the 1 in 4 – which implies depression or anxiety are something that someone else may have”.

When considering the thresholds at which someone would qualify for high intensity psychological support through the National Health Service (NHS), Kavita’s research team observed that 31% of respondents reported moderate to severe depression and 26% reported moderate to severe anxiety.

What we’re learning from COVID-19 is that employers have to innovate and think outside the box to be responsive to crises, to be prepared for the unexpected when it comes to continuing to support staff wellbeing.

Dan says: “With stress, anxiety and depression on the rise, we need preventative action to be able to prevent crises and this is where Well Good can come in”.

Why traditional approaches to supporting colleague mental health are becoming less effective

With so many now working remotely, Dan argues that traditional approaches to supporting colleague mental health are becoming less effective.

He explains that, in our new, dispersed work culture, with employees dashing from one online meeting to another, what’s missing are the watercooler moments; the times when you stop by and chat with colleagues and perhaps pick up on problems before they escalate.

Even businesses with an open-door policy – where every manager’s door is open to every employee, to exchange open communication, feedback and discussion – are seeing people slip through because the virtual environment reduces the opportunities for follow-through.

In order to address this problem, Dan and his team at Well Good have created a framework which empowers and educates organisations and employees to manage their mental health in a more positive way.

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He says: “We’ve created a framework that uses clinically backed practices, and it’s already being implemented with businesses. Through the real science and rigour we’re putting into it, including from our own academic studies, we’ll look to prevent mental health concerns from happening in the first place.”.

“Through my own mental health journey and also through our co-founder Adam’s, we’ve found that there are a lot of mental health platforms out there that are failing because they deal with people when they are already unwell. They don’t prevent anyone from getting to that point in the first place”.

Dan was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder about six years ago. He explains: “The last thing I want is to be told that I’m not in a good place when I’m manic, because that could be triggering in itself”.

Whilst guaranteeing anonymity, Well Good’s solution looks at each individual and works on the basis of reinforcement of positive behaviours. Rather than sending out blanket messages saying “keep it up” or “this is how you are today”, it conveys positive messaging that’s more natural to an individual’s language.

Dan says: “We are using data and developing our AI to provide best practice intervention strategies – identifying and signposting anyone in an organisation to better mental health prior to a concern developing”.

A call to action: helping business whilst also holding it to account

By providing holistic data to businesses, Well Good guarantees that no data can ever be traced to an individual. This data gives an organisation an understanding of the mental health of its employees, areas of improvement that are needed and the impact this is having on the business from an economic standpoint.

It can also give employers a clear idea of how acting on insights has positively impacted the lives of people within their business.

Dan explains: “We provide real insight for HR Directors; for people who really want to lower sickness levels and want to have the economic argument for their Finance Director for example. But we drive this whilst looking from an early intervention point of view and empowering the employee to take responsibility for their own wellbeing”.

The lockdown gave Well Good the opportunity to really engage with clinicians and academics who are experts in their fields. The data currently being captured will allow Well Good to hit the other side of the pandemic in a really strong position, and continue to develop key insights to evolve the business further.

But there is no complacency in Dan’s words. His call to action is clear and has a real sense of urgency. He says: “We know that suicide is on the rise. We know that mental health problems are on the rise, that there is a lack of therapists and a huge waiting list to seek medical help from the NHS”.

“We are holding businesses accountable. Having an open-door policy is not enough anymore”.

“What we are saying to businesses is rather than your staff becoming unwell and taking time off from work because of their mental health, let’s tackle this. Let’s get on top of this and you’ll have a much healthier and happier workforce that will drive success for your business.”

You can meet Dan and his colleagues and find out more about Well Good virtually in their Supplier Showcase at the digital MAD World Summit on 8 October. You can find out more about Well Good here and register to attend the MAD World Summit as a visitor for free here.

About the author

Claire Farrow is the Global Director of Content and Programming for the Mad World and Make a Difference Summits. She also drives the content for Make A Difference News. Claire is on a mission to help every employer – large, medium and small – get the insight, inspiration and contacts they need to make real impact on workplace culture, mental health and wellbeing in their organisation. She has been freelance for more than 15 years. During that time, she has had the honour of working with many leading publishers, including the New York Times


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