Researchers from Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University, in collaboration with AWARE, have developed an innovative pilot project to explore the link between mental health training and improvements in wellbeing in the workplace.

People in Northern Ireland experience 20-25 percent higher levels of mental health illness when compared to the rest of the UK, and around one in five adults are reported to have a diagnosable mental health condition at any given time.

AWARE, in partnership with the technical design company Creativ3, developed an online stress reduction programme, iAmAWARE, with expert advice and input from the cross-university research team and employees at PwC and the McAvoy Group.

The programme introduces participants to signs and symptoms of depression and anxiety, offers suggestions for potential coping strategies and stress reduction techniques, and is based on the principals of cognitive behavioural therapy. It also features the ‘Take5 for Your Emotional Wellbeing’ which focuses on the five most evidenced ways of looking after our mental health i.e. Connect, Be Active, Take Notice, Keep Learning, and Give.

The inter-disciplinary research team was led by Dr. John Moriarty, Lecturer from Centre for Evidence and Social Innovation (CESI) and the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work; researchers from CESI and the School of Nursing and Midwifery at Queen’s University; and researchers from the School of Applied Social and Policy Sciences, the School of Health Sciences, and the School of Nursing at Ulster University.

Dr. Moriarty, Principal Investigator on the project from Queen’s, commented: “Work is good for mental health, but a negative working environment can lead to physical and mental health challenges. There are many effective actions that organisations can take to promote mental health in the workplace; such actions may also benefit productivity. Many employers put facilities such as flexible working and workplace accommodation policies in place but find it difficult to clearly signpost staff to these provisions.

“The COVID-19 outbreak has caused huge upheaval to working life and underscores the importance of ensuring workers are skilled at recognising signs of strain in themselves and in colleagues, which is what the iAmAWARE programme sets out to achieve.”

The researchers have been working with employees at PwC and the McAvoy Group, who trialed the online pilot programme and took part in focus groups to gauge whether it has improved their understanding/symptoms of mental health issues in order to make a positive difference to health and wellbeing at work.

The preliminary findings include:• Participants were eager to learn about mental health challenges and potential coping mechanisms• Participants showed a desire to upskill themselves in this way, to be involved in the research and to support others facing mental health challenges in the workplace• There was enthusiasm among participants for the iAmAWARE programme, in particular its interactive and multimedia content.

Michael Willis, PwC Director, who chairs PwC NI’s Wellbeing committee said: “Our focus on mental health – through initiatives like this and others, including our mental health first aiders- is one of the ways we show we care. It’s crucial in empowering our people to speak up when they need help. Normalising conversations about mental health is good for our people, and for our business.”

Dr. Paula McFadden, from Ulster University, said: “Employers have a duty of care towards individuals experiencing both physical and mental health challenges, but beyond any legal duty these are very human issues affecting all of us. Fear and stigma delays access to support for many people.

“As a cross-university collaboration, we have been studying workplace wellbeing for a number of years and it is encouraging to now see enthusiasm among employers towards taking preventative action at all levels of the organisation to support mental wellbeing.”

Marina McCully from AWARE said: “Mental health training has not always been a priority in the workplace. However, in today’s busy and constantly changing work environment organisations are now recognising a need to introduce systems and training to support their staff and their wellbeing.

“Online mental health training will allow participants to complete training at a convenient time, easily fitting into their daily work routine and with less disruption to the organisation. This helps to positively impact absenteeism/presenteeism and creates a commitment to staff wellbeing and a more productive workplace.”

Following this pilot programme, the research team aims to involve further organisations and to facilitate employers to personalise the programme for their employees and their specific work context.