Why privacy and trust must sit at the heart of how you monitor your employees' mental health

mental health
(Image credit: Shutterstock / Paul Craft)

One in seven employees report that their workplace has increased monitoring since the start of the pandemic, according to the UK's Trades Union Congress (TUC). Monitoring has a reputation of being invasive, tracking how employees use their time while at work. When it comes to corporate monitoring as a whole, cases like the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal, which collected the personal data of millions of Facebook users without their consent, are bound to have planted seeds of doubt. It’s unsurprising, then, that almost a third of global executives lack confidence in their organization's ability to protect employee data.

But monitoring isn’t just about productivity and output, it can also be about employee wellbeing which is for the greater good. It’s about understanding how our workforces are feeling so that we can put the tools in place to adequately support them. Ultimately, what gets measured gets managed. After all, individuals with the right support are better equipped to deal with the unexpected and more likely to bounce back from difficult situations. According to a recent report, 43% of HR managers with a wellbeing program in place rated employee productivity as ‘very good’, compared to just 18% in organizations without one. Tracking employee data around mental health is undoubtedly a sensitive issue, with many employees unlikely to share such information with their colleagues day-to-day, let alone their boss. But Fortunately, modern, clinically-supported technology in the right employee mental health platform can do it in an anonymous and private way. 

As we sit on the precipice of a mental health crisis, we look at how businesses can ensure privacy and establish trust while monitoring employees' mental health, enabling employees to build resilience as we approach the “next normal”.

Tackle the mental health crisis head on 

The last decade has seen a huge shift in the way we think and talk about mental health as a society. Research has shown that improving mental health isn’t just a human imperative, but an economic one too. In fact, Deloitte estimates that poor mental health among employees costs UK employers up to £45bn each year. This is made up of absence costs of around £7bn, presenteeism costs up to £29bn and turnover costs of around £9bn. 

In the past, workplace mental health initiatives typically only provided support when people got to crisis-point. But things have changed. Today, more and more businesses are realizing the need to take a proactive, preventative and ‘always-on’ approach to supporting and nurturing employee mental health. Before it’s too late.

There are three main reasons why workplaces have a lot to gain from implementing a wellbeing measurement strategy operated by a third party, which acts as an in-between for the employee and the employer. Firstly, employees are given the tools to measure and manage each part of their mental wellbeing – the psychological, social, and physical – at all times, so they can look out for signs and symptoms of things that might be going wrong. Secondly, wellbeing insights are fed back to the employer to take a pulse check of an organization's mental health, spot trends and make informed choices about how to prioritize wellbeing at work. And, finally, as a result of supporting healthier workplaces, businesses can improve performance, inspire cultures of openness, and bolster their external reputations.

Prioritize privacy when handling data  

When looking at mental health platforms, the question is: how can employers do this while respecting people’s privacy? Essentially, while individuals can access their personal information, data is held by a third party and only available to the employer at an aggregated level: it does not include the ability to drill down and see any individual’s data specifically. This gives organizations important information about how their people are fairing without allowing them to identify anything about specific employees. In short, independent third parties are able to look out for your organization's mental health while upholding your employees’ privacy at the same time. 

It’s also important for businesses and third parties to think about the right threshold for anonymity. If a business’ team is only made up of three people, even aggregated data may be too telling. That data with a basic knowledge of people’s backgrounds may make it easy to know which information applies to which employee. Therefore, in order to protect the privacy of individual users, reports and organizational insights should only be available for teams of five people or more. 

On top of that, the wellbeing insights available to the employer should only be accessed by HR managers who have been authorized and gone through sufficient training in managing sensitive information. 

Mutual trust is key to empower employees and employers

Another consideration in all this is the impact of monitoring on trust between employers and employees. Employees whose data make up insight reports that inform business decisions might be concerned about how their data is being used and who’s viewing it. The risk of distrust is that employees don’t report how they are feeling and the results fed back to employers become skewed or unrepresentative of a workforce. The impact of this is that employers are unable to make informed decisions that support their employees’ wellbeing, and employees are left unsupported. A report from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and Simplyhealth found that three-fifths of organizations saw an increase in reported common mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, among employees in 2020. Flipping this stat: were employees from two-fifths of organizations not impacted by the pandemic and a shift to remote working? Or were they in organizations that did not foster a culture of trust and openness? 

From the outset, it’s important to establish the intent behind monitoring employee mental wellbeing, to ensure you’re doing it for the right reasons, and then convey this to employees appropriately. Transparent communication and education are key in any technology adoption, especially around employee monitoring. Even then, the onus needs to be on the employee to opt in to sharing their data (as anonymized and aggregated insight) as the default, rather than opt out. 

Technology’s scalability empowers employers to give entire workforces access to proactive support at a relatively low cost. This lowering of the barrier to accessing mental health services enables anyone in possession of a phone, computer or tablet to proactively manage, measure and improve their mental wellbeing, anywhere at any time. That said, the first stage of an AI project by the TUC warned of people’s experience of work becoming “increasingly robotic, alienating, monotonous, lonely”. Employers need to think about their employees as individuals who have their own lives outside work and treat them accordingly.  

To build impactful and holistic mental wellbeing strategies, as well as building trust between colleagues and employees directly, organizations should take a "whole-person" approach, supporting not just psychological wellbeing but social and physical too. Employers must leverage wellbeing insights from employee data tracked online in the right employee mental health platform, so that they can put offline strategies in place to support employees. Constant, consistent preventive action might include encouraging employees to take time away from screens and take regular breaks throughout the working day. It might also be taking a moment to chat to a colleague about something unrelated to work, or accompanying someone on a lunchtime walk. Finally, it could be providing appropriate referrals to other employer-sponsored programs (such as your employee assistance program), or referring someone to outside counseling when it’s needed.

Mental health platforms, and strong support networks for employees, are essential for businesses. More and more employers are realizing this: supporting mental wellness is a business imperative as well as a personal one. What’s important is that they are used while ensuring the privacy of the individual’s information and after having established trust with employees. Only then will employees be completely on board, enabling you to build a mentally well, and resilient, workforce.

Phil Mullan, Chief Technology Officer, Unmind

Chief Technology Officer, Unmind.