Over ten months into the COVID pandemic and with predictions of a forthcoming “tsunami” of mental health issues as a result, are employers and other organisations ready to respond? Have they looked at their offer for employees and asked themselves, is this enough? Do they have the digital tools that can be game changers at this time of overwhelming and increasing demand?
Impact of COVID
Within the UK, mental health services have had a vastly different experience during COVID-19 than the acute hospitals who have been coping with managing the infection, where their capacity was significantly increased. Instead, mental health services have been closed, staff re-deployed or had to work from home and referrals have fallen, in some months by up to 57%. This has huge impact on employers and their employees.
There has been a succession of reports in the last few months demonstrating the high levels of anxiety amongst the UK population due to the uncertainties and direct impact of the pandemic. In the summer, the Office for National Statistics reported that almost one in five people was reporting symptoms of depression in the crisis, a rise from almost one in ten from the previous period.
These patterns have an inevitable impact on sickness rates and the demand for services provided by, or through, employers as increasingly unwell and desperate people seek urgent help.
Digital health solutions
This explosion in demand place huge strain on often already stretched face to face services (some of which have been curtailed due to COVID-restrictions) being provided both within the public health system and by employers and their partners. This reduced availability of support means that employers need to seek other ways of providing help to their staff.
As a result, digital health and technology solutions have been much more to the forefront. Rather than being considered a ‘nice to have’, as they often have, they became a key part of enabling health services to stay open and are increasingly on the agenda of large and medium-sized organisations as they review the support they are offering their employees.
It is also because we are at a juncture now where if we are to experience at least a 20% spike in demand for mental health services, the NHS and employers need to re-evaluate and even recalibrate what and how services are delivered most effectively.
Common conditions such as anxiety and depression
There is powerful evidence that shows that digital solutions can play a major role in supporting people who are suffering from a range of mental health conditions, including two of the most common which employees will experience: anxiety and depression.
In June 2020, for instance, npj Digital Medicine published peer-reviewed research amongst NHS service users by SilverCloud Health that showed that treating anxiety and depression with such therapy delivered strong clinical improvements and recovery that over a 12-month period were 91% likely to be cost-effective.
It was the largest study of its kind worldwide, undertaken with Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust. It found that more than half of those with a diagnosis of anxiety and/or depression recovered after three months.
The findings underline the benefits of long-term outcomes and cost-effectiveness of digital mental health interventions through, for instance, SilverCloud, being part of clinical care, including stepped care models such as IAPT. It can help people get back to work more quickly or remain in work and productive, with all the personal and organisational benefits that can bring, whilst getting the help they need.
The evidence suggests that digital mental health care should be viewed as a standard part of psychological support, including from employers. Prior to the pandemic, and perhaps surprisingly, iCBT accounted for just 7% of treatments completed within an IAPT programme. Yet, at its height grew to be over 27%, highlighting the critical importance of digital solutions to manage the mental health crisis.
We are at a key turning point when appropriate supporting and tested digital solutions need to be identified so that a technology-enabled mental health service can be developed, addressing current inequalities, and with built-in flexibility to withstand future health challenges.
Now is a time for employers to look at their toolkit and consider whether they have enough digital solutions at their disposal. The challenges employers face in supporting their staff is going to get bigger not smaller in the coming months as COVID continues to dominate our lives.
What you can do now
We recently released a podcast to support World Mental Health Day in which our expert panel talked about the rising demand for mental health and psychological therapies, often due to COVID-19, which has increased the need for remote and digital solutions and outreach work.
You can listen and share this podcast with your colleagues as you consider whether you and your organisation are ready to support your employees at this time of unprecedented demand.