Urgent or just Important?: Mental Wellbeing Training and the Need for Multilevel Support and Tangible Organisational Commitment

John Moriarty, Trisha Forbes, Karen Galway, Patricia Gillen, Paula McFadden, Heike Schröder, Mark Tully, Paul Best

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


Poor mental health is now cited alongside back pain as one of the two major occupational health issues which are most costly to UK business in terms of sickness absence and lost productivity. This appeal to organisations’ bottom line has prompted a variety of strategies, preventative measures and good practice case studies around how employers mental wellbeing can be promoted. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this conversation, with flexible working policies and other provisions introduced at speed both to counteract the mental impact of lockdown and also to ensure the steady functioning of those organisations equipped for a work-from-home model. However, organisations wishing to proactively invest in improved employee wellbeing may face ambivalence or unintended negative consequences if the provisions are viewed as tokenistic, or place increased onus on the employees without commensurate adjustment of policy and organisation-wide practice.
iAmAWARE is an online platform, co-developed by charity, academic and frontline employee partners, providing access to psychoeducation and stress reduction training. We sought to involve prospective user from the design phase through to data interpretation. First, we carried out focus groups in two business settings and at three key organisational level: leadership, human resource management and operational or customer-facing. These were aimed at elucidating the operating understanding of mental health and wellbeing in the organisations, baseline levels of wellbeing policy and provision, and expectations for online training. Following a Participatory Theme Elicitation (PTE) protocol, a different set of workers worked with the research team to analyse and interpret the focus group data. These emergent themes are presented alongside survey responses from users of the pilot iAmAWARE programme, which was rolled out following COVID-19 lockdown of March 2020. Open text survey items asked participants about the impact of the pandemic and any benefits they gained from the iAmAWARE training while working from home.
Focus groups and the subsequent participatory analysis framework stimulated repeated reference to organisational systems and hierarchies. Members inferred from colleagues’ responses a nervousness and taboo about raising mental wellbeing issues, for fear this might suggest they were ‘not up to it’. For some staff, seeking workplace accommodations or workload relief could represent a challenge to the authority and competence of senior leadership and thus be seen as too costly. iAmAWARE was viewed positively as engaging and accessible, though employees recommended greater personalisation and visibility of their own organisational leaders, including a message that engagement with the programme should inform ongoing re-evaluation of work culture.
The results of this co-design study suggest that symbolic resonance of workplace wellbeing programmes are as important to consider as the properties of the programmes themselves. An organisational welfare and solidarity framing may garner more sustainable buy-in from frontline staff, but this requires tangible evidence that the organisation is listening and concerned not just with the symptoms, but in its own role in shaping employee wellbeing or the lack thereof.


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