Could digital platforms help bolster UK workers' mental health?

As numerous studies show the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the mental health of UK workers, Kooth CEO Tim Barker explains how companies can better support their employees.

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UK workers are facing a rise in mental health issues in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a study by Kooth PLC, a digital mental health and well-being platform.

The Kooth Pulse 2021 report shows lead indicators for mental health in the UK are deteriorating as the nation prepares to leave COVID-19 behind. The research, based on anonymous data from 192,000 people on Kooth’s mental health platforms, covers March 2020 to March of this year.

Among the findings: 17% of adults who sought professional intervention said they think about hurting themselves or feel suicidal nearly every day, a 40% increase over the previous year. Another 41% say that they feel nervous every day.

The data echoes similar findings over the past year, including a report from Slack that found 56% of UK employees experienced burnout in 2020. And research by tech recruitment firm Harvey Nash highlighted a 75% increase in tech workers concerned about their mental health.

Tim Barker, CEO of Kooth, said that many of the struggles highlighted in the report are likely underlying issues exacerbated by the pandemic. He pointed to a 51% increase in people reporting issues with disordered eating and body image and saw a likely correlation between that and the amount of time workers now spend on video calls.

“To some degree, there's a new phenomenon of Zoom dysmorphia: we are spending all day looking at ourselves on camera. We never used to do that, it's like having a mirror by your desk in the old world,” Barker said.

On a related note, a study from the Chartered Management Institute found that 72% of employees ranked well-being is the No. 1 priority managers and businesses should focus on in 2021.

The rise of digital healthcare in the UK

The UK already has one of the most established telemedicine markets in the European Union in terms of regulation and platform usage and a February report found that even before COVID-19, the UK had a mature market for telemedicine.

Additionally, the NHSEI (NHS England and NHS Improvement) has long been encouraging the use of digital technology in general practice. An evaluation of GP at hand – a digital platform that has been providing access to NHS GP services since 2017– found that the users of the platform gave largely positive feedback.

With the pandemic, the importance of allowing patient access to digital support grew. And with mental health resources on the NHS already under strain, digital healthcare resources have become vital in meeting growing demand.

Barker said Kooth spent a lot of time working with the NHS and has seen first-hand how the health service is trying to reorganise the services it offers around individuals, not the institution. Consumers increasingly want 24/7 access to personalised services in all areas of life, whether shopping, booking a holiday, or in healthcare — and digital platforms can offer that.

“[The level of] accessibility [provided by digital platforms] means I can be sitting on a bus and getting support because I've had a bad day. For us, accessibility means that in the moment of need, you've got someone that can support you,” he said.

Barker also points to a generational shift leading the demand for digital platforms. While older generations who didn’t grow up with mobile phones might feel more comfortable calling a helpline, younger people brought up on a culture of instant messaging are less likely to want to talk about problems over the phone.

Many mental health issues often arise before age 25, so offering users access to help via a medium they feel comfortable with increases the likelihood they’ll get support. “The more that we can support people early on, the less cost and pressure [on the NHS] there is later on in life to support those individuals,” he said.

Support for employees

As the world starts to open up again, one set of challenges likely to arise is anxiety around returning to work. While some workers experienced poor mental health because of the lockdown, others welcomed more time with family, no commutes, and greater flexibility around work schedules. And now they may fear losing those benefits.

Barker said the UK, like the rest of the world, is on a change curve, one likely to include a grief phase as people readjust to a new way of living and working. “A lot of the work that we're doing right now is supporting businesses to put programs in place that will support a good return to work and the well-being of their employees.”

Barker has two pieces of advice for organisations. First offer workers a simple anonymous survey asking them to rank their current well-being. “I think benchmarking where you are right now is the most important thing,” he said. Secondly, he suggests asking employees about what support they'd find beneficial; “No one knows better about what your employees are struggling with than them," Barker said.

“An anonymous survey costs nothing, but it starts to open a dialogue and demonstrates that you care, which is what we all need to do when get back into the office and to this new hybrid world,” he said. “Anything that opens a conversation, reduces the stigma, and makes talking about the challenges we’re all facing is going to be a huge positive."

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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