Ask a person who works in a small business how things are going and the question may elicit a mix of answers. On the one hand, working in a small organization can be fun, exciting and creative. On the other hand, it is often lonely, hectic and stressful.
For Ella Arensman, something about the nature of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) — regardless of industry — makes their employees vulnerable when it comes to psychological and emotional well-being. Unlike larger companies, SMEs often lack specific support in this area.
Small companies, big tests
Arensman is a professor of public health at University College Cork in Ireland and coordinator of the MENTUPP project, which started in 2020 and will continue this year. With partners across Europe, the initiative is pioneering a new approach to help SMEs address workers’ mental health issues, including depression.
“We hope that MENTUPP can support people with their mental health,” Arensman said. “Then maybe the progression of depression can be reversed.”
There are approximately 23 million SMEs in the EU, defined as companies with fewer than 250 employees and an annual turnover not exceeding €50 million. Ranging from construction companies and transporters to cafes and hairdressers, they make up more than 90% of businesses in the EU.
For four decades, Arensman has led international work on self-harm, suicide, depression, anxiety, substance abuse and the stigma surrounding workplace mental health.
She has observed an upward trend in such challenges faced by workers, with dire consequences for the individuals themselves and for society as a whole.
Depression and anxiety are now the most common psychological and emotional problems in the workplace. One in five workers report poor mental health.
The problem has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic that broke out in 2020. Add to that the current cost-of-living crisis caused by high inflation, and the result is a perfect storm for mental health.
The knock-on costs to the economy from lost productivity and absenteeism are staggering. According to global estimates from the World Health Organization, $1 trillion (about €940 billion) in workplace productivity is lost each year due to depression and anxiety.
Against this grim backdrop, the focus at EU level is now on intervention, which is where MENTUPP has a role to play.
Three vulnerable sectors
The project provides a free, online resource for SME employees. The aim is to close a gap in welfare support in three sectors where workers are considered particularly vulnerable: construction, healthcare and information technology.
In 2019, Arensman published a study on work-related risk factors associated with suicide. Since then she has been on a mission to improve support.
“I just realized that we had a lot more work to do upstream before people get into these suicidal crises,” Arensman said.
The MENTUPP team takes inspiration from a suicide prevention program first developed in Australia to help construction workers open up about anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.
Over the past decade, “Mates in Construction” (MIC) has challenged mental health stigmas and raised awareness of techniques to enhance well-being in a traditionally male-dominated industry where such conversations are difficult to foster.
Arensman calls his work “exceptional” in breaking down barriers and increasing the number of employees who have access to support.
A 2020 report from MIC and Melbourne University found that, since the introduction of the ”Mates” programme, suicide rates among construction workers across Australia had fallen by nearly 8%, bringing levels closer to the highest in many Australian states. male average came.
Arensman is now testing MENTUPP’s own online support system. This provides hundreds of evidence-based materials, ranging from suggestions for destigmatizing conversations about mental health in the workplace to increasing the well-being of SMB workers.
In Barcelona, Spain, Dr. Beatriz Olaya has identified similar mental health issues faced by SMB workers.
“When we got into these small businesses, we realized there was just a huge need,” says Olaya, a clinical psychologist. “People need psychological support and often don’t know how to access it.”
She is coordinating a project called EMPOWER that addresses similar issues to MENTUPP and also started in 2020. Running until mid 2024, EMPOWER is an eHealth platform with a website, an app, an online video and text resources.
After registering on the site or app, a person fills out a series of questionnaires that help the project team find out details about current stress levels, depression, anxiety, sleep, and psychosocial risk factors.
From there, the EMPOWER system creates a series of tailored tips to help people feel better. There is also support for people with absenteeism due to psychological problems.
Upon logging in, the user is asked each day to indicate how he or she is feeling before being guided through psychological techniques to lift the spirits or keep the person on track. These include breathing and relaxation exercises plus popular daily tasks to set goals to increase motivation.
“If you decide to run twice a week, by establishing this new habit to boost your mood, the app reminds you and rewards you,” said Olaya.
Some tips are based on cognitive behavioral therapy, which teaches coping skills by focusing on how thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes influence feelings and actions.
Olaya and the team have developed EMPOWER with companies in Finland, Poland, Spain and the UK. Multilingual versions of the app are now being tested with more than 600 people in the four countries.
“We want to show that it’s both cheap and effective,” Olaya said.
As for MENTUPP, the support system also includes an app and the whole package is still being tested. The results will follow later this year.
Arensman expects further improvements and refinements before the system can be used much more widely. As a positive omen, she recalled how a small Irish construction company that used the pack was better able to support the mental well-being of one of its employees.
“They told us that if they hadn’t had these resources, they wouldn’t have identified the warning signs,” Arensman said. “With these resources, they could better identify what was going on and intervene.”
Feedback from other users in MENTUPP’s partner countries is also encouraging. Arensman is hopeful that the project will eventually prove to be as effective as ”Mates” in Australia in reducing self-harm and suicide and increasing job satisfaction and productivity.
“We’re not there yet, but we will be very soon, we hope,” she said.
Presented by Horizon: The EU Research & Innovation Magazine
Quote: Tackling rising anxiety, burnout and depression in the workplace (2023, March 17) Retrieved March 17, 2023 from https://medicalxpress.com/news/2023-03-tackling-anxiety-burnout-depression-workplace .html
This document is copyrighted. Other than fair dealing for private study or research, nothing may be reproduced without written permission. The content is provided for informational purposes only.