Improving mental health in the workplace
Can uptake of a workplace training programme improve employees’ psychological health?
Research by a City, University of London academic has shown that a workplace training programme can improve employees’ psychological health in a variety of organisations both in the UK and abroad. Poor mental health at work accrues not only a big human cost for the individual, but knock on impacts for society, the economy and government. Employers are losing billions of pounds because employees are less productive, less effective, or off sick.
What did we explore and how?
Since 2006, Dr Paul Flaxman, Reader in Organisational Psychology at City, University of London has led research into the psychological effects of providing training in the workplace adapted from a psychotherapeutic approach known as acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).
ACT is a modern behaviour therapy that uses acceptance and mindfulness interventions alongside commitment and behaviour change strategies to enhance psychological flexibility. Psychological flexibility refers to the ability to contact the present moment and change or persist in behaviour that serves one’s personally chosen values.
Dr Flaxman’s underpinning research comprises several longitudinal workplace intervention projects, including earlier research in London councils. Here he found that ACT-based training helped to improve employees’ mental health by improving their willingness to experience difficult inner states as part of the process of using personal values as a more prominent guide to daily behaviour. This particular finding led Flaxman and his team to modify the training programme to include a closer integration of acceptance-based and values-clarification techniques.
Flaxman then analysed change among a larger sample of public sector employees, and found that the training was especially beneficial for a subgroup of employees who were experiencing an above average (i.e., clinical) level of psychological distress.
This finding led Flaxman to begin informing staff support services on the best marketing strategy to attract distressed staff who might benefit from this type of training, which has proven highly effective among the NHS trusts who have adopted Flaxman’s training protocol.
Following award of a grant from the British Academy/ Leverhulme Trust in 2015, Flaxman adapted his ACT-based training approach specifically for school teachers, and this led to the development of a 4-session version of the training.
Benefits and influence of the research
Growing awareness of Flaxman‘s research has resulted in a great deal of interest from organisations interested in delivering this type of training to their staff. In response, Flaxman teamed up with an organisational consultant (Ross McIntosh) to develop a “train-the-trainer” programme that is designed to disseminate the underpinning research findings, and equip staff support professionals with the skills to deliver the training to their staff.
Since 2014, Flaxman and McIntosh have worked in partnership to transfer expertise in delivering the training to staff support services in healthcare organisations (including 25 NHS trusts, Nuffield health, and a Canadian healthcare organisation), a central government department, Bristol City Council, UK and Canadian Ballet companies, various educational institutions (including several schools, UK and Australian Universities), the Welsh government’s wellbeing network, three UK police forces, Shoreditch Trust, and Mind (the mental health charity).
Demonstrable impact of the training has occurred at the two main levels of i) improvements to staff support and occupational health service provision in a wide range of partner organisations; and ii) improvements to the psychological health of staff members who have attend the training.
- Dr Paul Flaxman