Department for Work and Pensions: Researching the potential of digital to scale mental health services

Creating digital tools for mental wellbeing and employment


The Department of Health, Government Digital Service and DWP commissioned us in partnership with The Point People to research and recommend how technology could support people in the UK to access mental health support online across various stages of their working life.


With the growing Mental Health crisis in our headlines on a daily basis, reports are calling for innovative solutions to increase provision of support services in the UK. From online cognitive behavioural therapy to support groups moving online, the possibilities seem endless.

This project was spearheaded by a 2014 RAND Europe report highlighting the potential for digital to scale support in the mental health landscape and calling for further research in this field.

We know that technology isn’t always the answer, and certainly isn’t a quick fix, but it does provide opportunities to scale, support and deliver services in new ways. We set out to understand, across the employment landscape, what the core moments of opportunity are for technology to meet people’s mental health needs – and how.

Putting People First

Interviewing people across the UK, from Dundee to Brighton, we built our understanding of people’s experience of being in and out of work and the impact this had on their mental wellbeing.

Mapping needs across stages

We investigated people’s experiences of accessing support for mental wellbeing and what they needed at different points in their lives. We then mapped these needs across employment stages from ‘looking for work’ to ‘in employment’ to create a baseline of needs we could design for.

Identifying opportunities for digital innovation in service delivery

Our bespoke tools, in-depth interviews, focus groups and workshops helped us to create visual maps of people’s experiences, aligning events in their lives with highs and lows of mental wellbeing. We worked together with a group of people with lived experience of mental ill health to co-design digital platforms and tools that could support mental wellbeing throughout their employment journey.

Throughout the project, we held workshops with the funding partners (Department of Health, Work and Pensions and Government Digital Services) sharing our findings and highlighting what the people felt were priorities for research and development, through the various stages of a person’s working life-cycle.

Designing support for the work life-cycle

So what did we produce? As well as the mock-ups of digital tools, we provided a comprehensive list of service and design principles for anyone developing digital tools integrating mental wellbeing and employment support. These focused on three main phases of employment: finding work, being in and out of work, and managing work. Drawing on insights from the co-design workshops, we created a set of design briefs presenting needs, challenges and opportunities, with related case studies.

Research worth recording

The Department of Health published two reports detailing all the user research. Deep insights into user support needs were recorded and the outputs of the co-design sessions, that focused on developing a range of digital support services.

Impacting the way of working

The Department of Health has historically employed market research techniques to inform digital development. The depth of insights generated through our user research exceeded their original expectations, so much so that they have been woven through developments by NHS Choices, DWP and DoH.

This confirms our core belief that we cannot just design for digital. We research user needs first, reflecting on the insights gained to consider the whole person and all of the ways they seek and receive support. This enables us to design a comprehensive service that works across multiple channels to provide the best experience for those we are designing for, and doesn’t separate their ‘digital’ experience from their wider daily lives.

Some of our findings have been used in wider policy decisions, presented to organisations like Nesta, NHS Choices, and the wider Government Digital Service teams. The Department of Health really welcomed these reports making them publicly available so that they can inform the future design of mental health and employment support in the UK.

“If someone is off with broken arms and legs, people rally round them. If someone is off with mental health problems, they’re like ‘Oh, they will pull themselves together’ sort of thing… A lot of places need to understand it a little bit more.”

– Charles, 45

  • “This research into likely user groups, needs and preferences for a potential online mental health and work assessment and support tool provides invaluable insight into experience and need within our population. It provides information on people’s experiences of living with a mental health condition and service provision. The research outlines where a digital service could benefit particular groups and through the early design and testing of prototypes provides a range of ideas for potential online tools.”
    – Lauren Jones Policy Lead for Mental Health and Work, Department of Health

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