EMPOWER, an eHealth platform to reduce the impact of mental health problems at the workplace
Millions of people around the world have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, which is having a further impact on people’s mental health. Given past experience of emergencies, it is expected that the need for mental health and psychosocial support will substantially increase in the coming months and years as a result of the pandemic. However, relatively few people around the world have access to quality mental health services.
The limited access to quality, affordable mental healthcare in the world before the pandemic, and particularly in humanitarian emergencies and conflict settings, has been further diminished due to COVID-19, as the pandemic has disrupted health services around the world.
Primary causes have been infection and the risk of infection in long-stay facilities such as care homes and psychiatric institutions; barriers to meeting people face-to-face; mental health staff being infected with the virus; and the closing of mental health facilities to convert them into care facilities for people with corona.
Investment in mental health programmes at the national and international levels, which have already suffered from years of chronic underfunding, is now more important than it has ever been, according to the World Health Organization. This is why the goal of this year’s World Mental Health Day campaign is increased investment in mental health. To encourage public action around the world, a World Mental Health Day campaign was launched in September, co-designed by the World Health Organization, United for Global Mental Health, and the World Federation for Mental Health. The campaign, “Move for mental health: let’s invest”, builds on the concept that, while mental health has been receiving increasing global attention in recent years, the field has not received commensurate investment.
The World Mental Health Day
The World Health Organization hosted a global online advocacy event on mental health on World Mental Health Day, October 10th, 2020, when the economic consequences of the pandemic are already being felt, as companies let staff go in an effort to save their businesses, or indeed shut down completely. “Move for mental health: let’s invest” offers opportunities for all of us to do something life-affirming: as employers, to take steps towards putting programmes in place for employee wellness. The organization of work is rapidly changing. This growing diversity of what it means to work makes it clear that addressing mental health issues at the workplace will require ingenuity and flexibility to tailor interventions to the realities of the workplace setting.
A number of interventions have been developed to promote wellbeing and prevent or treat mental disorders in the workplace. Attempts to implement interventions by means of digital technologies have had statistically significant but minimally positive effects in reducing overall mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and stress.
However, most eHealth interventions focus on a single mental health condition and neglect comorbidity, particularly in the case of the more common mental disorders.
Although effective and cost-effective workplace interventions are available, widespread implementation faces a number of barriers. Stigma and discrimination at the workplace have been associated with delayed access to treatment, weakened social support, difficulties in the performance of occupational and social roles, unemployment, and diminished self-esteem. Although anti-stigma interventions targeting the general population and workplace settings have been implemented, there is room for improvement. Collaboration among stakeholders is essential when developing and implementing effective interventions to reduce the impact of mental health problems at the workplace and evaluate their impact.
The Framework Directive on Occupational Safety and Health
The Framework Directive on Occupational Safety and Health, 89/391/EEC, lays down the employers’ general duty to ensure workers’ health and safety, “addressing all types of risk”. Although the Framework does not explicitly address mental health issues in the workplace, it implicitly addresses them since it requires the employer to be aware of and address all types of health-related risks. At the same time, the European Commission’s 2008 European Pact for Mental Health and Well-being and the 2016 European Framework for Action on Mental Health and Well-being have clearly raised the issue of mental health as a public health priority across society and the economy, mentioning workplace mental health as one target area. It is incumbent on European employers to adequately identify and address known psychosocial risks.
Due to the fragmented landscape of interventions and related implementation barriers, there is an urgent need for a multi-modal and integrative eHealth platform aimed at reducing mental health problems in the workplace and improving employees’ wellbeing, by compiling the most feasible, brief, and cost-effective interventions currently available in Europe.
EMPOWER is a research project for developing a free eHealth platform to address wellbeing in the workplace. The objective of the platform is to promote health and wellbeing for employees and workers in the workplace.
Partners from the consortium are coming from countries such as Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Finland, the UK, Switzerland, and Australia.
The EMPOWER platform will take advantage of proven cost-effective tools and address the need to reduce stigma, increase help-seeking behaviour, raise awareness about and minimalize psychosocial risks, improve self-management strategies, take into account mental and physical comorbidities, and promote a healthy lifestyle – all while considering gender and cultural differences that impact successful implementation. This is especially relevant for small and medium enterprises (SMEs), which represent the majority of all enterprises in the EU but have very limited resources. The development and implementation of a multi-modal and integrative eHealth platform should, finally, be guided and supported by close collaboration with stakeholders, including employee and employer organizations, insurance companies, patient associations, and health professionals.
The objectives of EMPOWER
During the past few months, the World Health Organization has issued, in collaboration with partners, guidance and advice on mental health for health workers and other frontline workers, such as managers of health facilities.
The objective of EMPOWER is to develop, pilot, and evaluate a modular, cultural, and gender-sensitive multi-modal and integrative eHealth platform compiling the most feasible, brief, and cost-effective interventions currently available in Europe for promoting health and wellbeing and preventing common mental disorders using a variety of strategies to reduce the negative impact of mental health problems in the workplace, taking into account both contextual and individual factors, including co-morbidities.
The project will pilot the implementation of this eHealth platform by means of a randomized controlled trial directed at employees and employers of SMEs and public agencies, including workplaces with new working trends, such as remote jobs, from three European countries representing different cultural settings.
Countries spend on average only 2% of their health budgets on mental health. For the World Mental Health Day, the WHO, together with partner organizations, has called for a massive scale-up in investment in mental health.