Poor mental health is the leading cause of long-term absence from work. According to recent research from Unmind, 72% of HR leaders have recently noticed an increase in mental health related employee absences. One of the biggest challenges for successful EAP provision is identifying signs of mental illness early. But what if, rather than simply supporting employees to address mental health symptoms once they’ve occurred, employers could play a bigger role in early intervention?

Early intervention has a key role to play in helping to deliver effective preventative mental health care. And by empowering individuals to understand and track their own wellbeing more intuitively – by measuring aspects such as work-related fatigue, sleep propensity, confidence and concentration – employers could help flag and manage mental health concerns earlier, before they snowball into more serious conditions which are harder to treat.

I’m a neuroscientist developing tools to power earlier intervention for mental health issues. Based on our latest research, these are some of the key mental health and wellness metrics employers should consider tracking to intervene sooner when their people start to struggle.

  1. Tiredness 

Tiredness or sleep propensity is a measure of sleepiness: how likely somebody is to fall asleep, given the opportunity. It can be driven by a lack of quality sleep, be that in the form of insomnia, disturbed sleep, jet lag or continuously changing sleep habits. Heightened sleep propensity can make it more difficult to concentrate on tasks and can impact productivity, mood and your general outlook on life. Although tiredness levels vary throughout the day and are expected to peak around bedtime, persistent or chronically high sleep propensity levels could also be a sign of a more significant mood or cognitive disorder such as depression.

Measuring employees’ sleep propensity can give employers the tools to understand how often employees are struggling with tiredness, and when it is most likely to impact their day, so they can support the employee to better understand and tackle the underlying causes. Tracking tiredness can also help employees get to know the patterns in their own energy levels – such as when they tend to be most energised, as well as the times of day when they typically flag – so they can adapt their working rhythm accordingly. It has long been known that people have different chronotypes or natural preferences for wakefulness and sleep (you may have heard that some people are “night owls” and others are “early birds”), but this is rarely taken into account by employers to offer employees more flexible work schedules in order to allow for the sleeping habits that suit them best.

  1. Confidence

Confidence is the measure of how confident someone feels in their own abilities and decisions. Confidence can fluctuate and be impacted by recent setbacks or feedback. Low confidence at work can sometimes surface as self-doubt, a questioning of our ability to deliver on targets; it can affect whether we push ourselves forward and even how likely we are to embrace new challenges. Low confidence can have knock-on negative consequences for our sense of fulfilment at work, as well as whether we are likely to venture out of our comfort zone. Lacking confidence and frequently feeling out of our depth can also lead to heightened levels of stress or anxiety, which can contribute to burnout over time.

Tracking employee confidence levels gives employers useful insights to enable them to create opportunities to build employees up and improve their confidence through targeted training and development opportunities designed to help them overcome the internal barriers that might be holding them back.

  1. Burnout

Burnout or exhaustion is a measure of our physical and mental tiredness as a result of manual or cognitive labour (not lack of sleep). Some of the other factors in this list – such as low confidence or heightened stress – can contribute to feelings of exhaustion. This type of exhaustion, also often referred to as burnout, can manifest as physical symptoms such as headaches or trouble concentrating, or can impact our feelings and emotions. We might feel more emotional than usual, or even the opposite, like we are overly anxious, unable to complete our work or showing higher levels of procrastination. Tracking levels of burnout within a team enables employers to understand how exhaustion is presenting itself and what is driving it, so the necessary changes can be made to ease the pressure on colleagues. It also enables employers to intervene earlier when people start to show early signs of exhaustion, to keep employees well and prevent them from hitting full blown burnout.

  1. Stress 

Stress is a measure of anxiety or how wound up somebody feels. Other wellness indicators in this list, such as burnout and tiredness – can also contribute to heightened stress levels at work. Feeling stressed can make it difficult to focus on a single task or relax. Persistent stress can also have a negative physical impact on our bodies by driving symptoms such as increased blood pressure, digestive issues and muscle soreness (back pain, neck pain etc.) driven by tension. Measuring employee stress levels can help employers spot incidences of concerningly high or persistent stress levels in employees earlier. You can intervene faster to manage the situation and guard against the stress triggers in future, for a happier and healthier team.

  1. Distress

Distress is a feeling of nervousness, worry and like something is not quite right. Distress represents an emotional reaction to recent changes, pressures or challenges compared to the more physical response associated with. Distress also represents someone’s emotional resilience when faced with new challenges. As such, when taken into consideration in tandem with stress, it can be very helpful for employers to understand how their employee teams are coping with existing demands on their time, but also how well they are likely to react if asked to work on a new project, new feature or product release or a marketing campaign with a quick turnaround. Identifying early signs of distress can help employers put in place interventions, ensuring team resilience is high all year round for both work-related and personal challenges.

Dr Emilia Molimpakis - CEO and co-founder at thymia - credit Amy Mace
Dr Emilia Molimpakis
Neuroscientist and Co-founder at thymia | Website

Dr Emilia Molimpakis is a neuroscientist with a PhD & post-doc from UCL in Linguistics, Neuroscience & Psychology. She is an expert in using language as a biomarker for cognition - there are fewer than 10 people in the world doing exactly what she does. Her startup, thymia, is building video game-inspired technology to help doctors quickly, accurately and objectively assess and monitor mental health conditions using biomarkers. Emilia won the Young Innovator's Award 2020-21, has given a Ted Talk and was recently named one of the top scientists for mental health worldwide.