Marketing is sometimes dismissed as a superficial pursuit – but its core principles might just be key to improving mental health at work.

Effective marketing listens to its customers, creatively using data to understand needs and target solutions to the people that will benefit most. These same principles should apply to strategies to reduce workplace stress and promote mental health. The problem is that the evidence to underpin them has, until now, been missing.

While commercial marketers can draw on huge data sets to inform strategic decisions, employers rarely have accurate insight into the real-world pressures their teams face – and the impact these have on their mental well-being. Businesses know they need to support their staff, but too often they don’t have the data to identify pain points or create solutions that respond to specific challenges. It’s no surprise that many end up guessing the answers or resort to gimmicky initiatives whose long-term effects are impossible to prove.

The signs, however, are improving. Modern-day advances – in science, technology, behavioural understanding and data analytics – mean that the raw materials to end the guesswork are ours for the taking. As we head into an era where preventative health will focus our thinking, technology is creating new opportunities to capture data that can help us take greater ownership of our health.

But the potential of that data extends beyond self-care – it goes to the heart of businesses’ collective responsibility to protect employee well-being. Fundamentally, our ability to use tech and data to tailor personalised solutions – the basics of modern marketing – is the gateway to an evidence base to support better mental health. Building on it is a marketing exercise in everything but name.

Mental illness is a global epidemic. We all know the headline: There’s a suicide every 40 seconds. We also know that mental health issues at work are common.  In the UK, a third of adults have experienced mental health problems at work, but almost half never disclose their issues to a manager.

It’s a silence that speaks volumes. Experts say communication is an important first step to recovery, but communication is a two-way street. Businesses must think differently to create the environment – and the opportunity – for dialogue.

Technology is reimagining how we communicate, providing new ways to manage our mental health beyond traditional services. Employers are seizing the opportunity. For example, it is possible to use wearables to generate aggregate and anonymous bio data. These monitors look at employees’ heart rate, activity and respiration – baseline markers of stress and anxiety – and generate real-world insights into workforce well-being. These insights can be then used to shape more personalized and meaningful approaches to workplace wellness. 

In my own organization we’ve partnered with a start-up to give a pilot group of volunteer employees access to a tech platform that captures physiological and psychological data, and uses it to generate personalized insights to help reduce stress. That same data is being anonymized, aggregated and analyzed, allowing management to see how activities, interactions and environments are affecting workers’ mental well-being. We’re then applying evidence-based behavioural science, as well as our expertise in health and creative communications, to develop mental health support at scale.

Innovations like this rely on the classic principles of customer-centric marketing. According to Philip Kotler, marketing is “the homework we do before we have a product” and “a race without a finishing line.” It sounds like a paradox, but it’s exactly what’s required to support mental health.

Promoting mental well-being isn’t a one-off event for World Mental Health Day; it’s an all-year-round imperative. If we’re going to win the battle, we must do our homework, continually. Technology gives us the chance to offer more help and support for our employees in a never-ending race. But to stay at the front of the pack, we must create the environment for open dialogue – and use insights creatively to guide the solutions. 

It’s the essence of good marketing. And far from being superficial, it could make a real difference to mental wellness at work.

Claire Gillis is International CEO of WPP’s health practice