Who doesn't love a good wellbeing webinar over lunch? No? Me neither. Even though the good ole 'lunch and learn' needs relegating to lockdown room 101, with the right planning mental health webinars and workshops can still be a powerful tool in organisational wellbeing strategies ....
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During COVID and the post-lockdown years that have followed, there has been an explosion in the demand and supply of workplace ‘mental health and wellbeing workshops’. Indeed, here at Amplify we have seen a surge in requests for ‘lunch and learns’ on a range of topics from how to prevent burnout, through to managing the psychological impacts of menopause and beyond. Yet whilst wanting to celebrate the increased attention to mental health and wellbeing in the workplace, at Amplify we have also considered each of these requests with increasing amounts of care……
…. Why so?….
To put it mildly there is a sense that employees are rather burnt out by the constant stream of mental health workshops and wellbeing webinars. The over-focus and over-reliance on them in recent years has been so great that for many businesses this tool now risks being a breeding ground for employee cynicism and ridicule. When thousands of people share a Tik-Tok mocking the use of the wellbeing webinar, it’s probably a good sign to pause for some critical reflection.
So given the ambivalence should organisations continue to deploy mental health workshops and webinars? In our view the answer is a surprising yes. They can be powerful awareness raising tools when a part of a cohesive and credible mental health strategy but it is important to be clear on what they are, what they are not and where we can use them to most effect.
What are you trying to achieve?: The two key types of mental health workshop
At Amplify we are often asked to deliver two key types of workshop - Awareness Raising workshops and Skills Development workshops. But being clear on how they differ and how they meet the goals of your mental health and wellbeing strategy is key:
1. Awareness Raising Workshops are an effective way of introducing topics at an entry-level, and starting an internal conversation about mental health. In most cases, these are expert-led, didactic sessions for larger groups. They help people to get familiar with basic information and often provide some simple strategies for positive mental health that people can take into their everyday life. Whilst these workshops have their place, they are also limited. Few studies have looked at the longer-term impact of interventions of this type (or any other workplace mental health type) and those that do usually find that any positive effects diminish quickly over time.
2. Skill Development Workshops are usually for smaller groups; they focus on developing managers or certain groups of employees to better support the mental health of their teams and to help them feel more confident in dealing with mental health situations. They might include looking at attitudes to mental health, mental health first aid techniques or even mental health risk management. These sessions tend to be immersive and experiential in nature and attendees have the opportunity to talk through with their peers case studies, reflect on their skills and improve their knowledge. Although the evidence base for interventions of this nature is small and few studies have looked at longer-term follow-up; those that have suggest that the effects of the intervention could be sustained over time, at least in part.
"No matter how good a workshop or facilitator - it is no match for wider systemic problems such as unrealistic workloads, untrained managers and poor working cultures."
Being Aware of the Limits: What Mental Health Workshops Can’t Do
1. Workshops alone can’t meet employee expectations
During the COVID-19 lockdown's, mental health workshops were often seen by organisations as a good starting point however the world has changed and employee expectations and cynicism have grown. In a post COVID world, running a standalone workshop risks being seen by employees as a perfunctory tick box exercise rather than as a genuine effort to drive positive change. As the 2022 Headspace Workforce Attitudes Towards Mental Health report makes clear employees are now ‘Much more aware of what quality care looks like and in this new era of increased healthcare consumerism, they have come to expect it for themselves and their families. They want care that’s based on methods deemed effective by mental health professionals and they want that care to be easily accessible, financially feasible, and deeply personalised’.
Workshops alone simply won’t cut it.
2. Workshops can’t address systemic problems
In some cases, organisations think that commissioning a series of workshops on mental health will ‘solve’ the problem of poor mental health at work (or at least be “seen” to be doing something). Unfortunately, thinking like this ignores both the evidence base and the clinical reality that whilst individual cognition and behaviour is important, poor mental health at work remains highly contextual and is often driven by a combination of difficult personal circumstances, and unhelpful organisational contexts.
No matter how good a workshop or facilitator - it is no match for wider systemic problems such as unrealistic workloads, untrained managers and poor working cultures.
Instead mental health workshops will provide much greater value if they are deployed as part of a wider mental health strategy that also includes:
Quick access to 1:1 personalised mental health support;
Actionable data-driven insights that drive change at the organisational level.
Put simply, systemic change requires intervention at the individual, team and organisational level - thinking that rolling out a few workshops will do the job is simply unrealistic.
3. Workshops can’t help all employees
Despite the best intentions of workshop providers and employers, mental health workshops will not reach or resonate with all employees. For some - this approach will not suit their learning style, some will avoid attending in case they find it upsetting, and some will be on leave or simply not see attendance as a priority when compared to other commitments. When all these groups are added together it is likely that a decent percentage of the workforce is missing out. It is worth considering how else those who don't want to or can’t attend a workshop can be engaged (i.e get feedback). The more universal the nature of interventions the better.
So What Can Mental Health Workshops Achieve?
1. Workshops can start the conversation and help build skills and knowledge
When deployed as part of a wider strategy on mental health, workshops are a great way of kicking things off, raising awareness, building basic knowledge and increasing the appetite for developing further skills.
2. They can have a powerful normalising influence
Stigma surrounding mental health is still pervasive and it can be very easy to think you are the only one not coping, particularly in high performance organisations. Naming difficult subjects and seeing other people attend can give a powerful sense that employees aren’t alone in managing some of the difficulties they face but as an organisation you are not shying away from difficult subjects.
3. Workshops boost the utilisation of other internal mental health support benefits
Workshops can act as active, immersive advertising for an organisation's benefits. They are an excellent vehicle to raise awareness of existing solutions such as wellbeing champions, peer support networks, EAP and PMI (employees need constant reminders of what is available!).
For in-house wellbeing services, workshops can help demystify the service and the clinicians within it. Meeting the clinicians who work in the service outside the traditional context of a 1:1 appointment can reassure employees that those who work in the service are approachable, credible and have an understanding of the business context within which they exist. This initial removal of barriers makes it much more likely that an employee who needs help will reach out early, reducing suffering and enhancing their chances of a quick recovery.
What do we need to consider to maximise the impact of Mental Health Workshops?
Think strategically - what are you trying to achieve with this workshop and where does it fit in the broader wellbeing strategy? Try to think of them like you would any intervention from Learning or Organisational development - embedded, consistent and well thought through. Reactive, one off webinars with no link to long term objectives will do little to change behaviours but in the short term might drive up utilisation on a wellbeing benefit for example.
Think less is more - Not every awareness day requires a workshop or a webinar. Human’s need variety and having webinars every week creates fatigue and undermines what you are trying to achieve. Are there other ways outside of a workshop or webinar that we could achieve the same goals?
Think appropriateness - Is this topic appropriate for a webinar? To state the obvious mental health is sensitive and a whole organisation online webinar isn’t always appropriate or the best way of addressing the subject.
Think practically - Who is going to facilitate? Do we want outside expert perspectives? Or more internal perspectives? What medium - face to face, video or hybrid? How many attendees? Which attendees (managers and direct reports will create a certain dynamic)? One off or part of a series run over the year? Over lunch? - think again - lunch breaks are pivotal for wellbeing not a space to add more "to do's".
Think about what support is in place in advance of running the session. These aren’t neutral activities. They have an emotional impact. How are you going to prepare employees for that and how are you going to follow up if people are distressed? A phone number to a random PMI or EAP benefit may not be enough. For example at Amplify we offer tailored follow-up for attendees agreed in advance with the host business.
Finally, be realistic.
Workshops are only ever going to be part of the answer, not the whole solution. You will need other ideas, other solutions and a genuine commitment to supporting the mental health and wellbeing of your organisation for the better.
Dr. Stacey Hemmings is a Clinical Psychologist and Contracts Operations Lead at Amplify, an in-house mental health service provider offering 1:1 employee support, consultation on complex cases, workshops & unique data-led strategies to help HR teams and organisations get back to what they do best.
After a 3-months long open dialogue with over 20 HR directors and senior managers, Amplify recently launched the HR and Manager Consultation programme, a pioneering service that specifically helps HR teams and managers reduce the stress of caring about how they manage mental health at work.