As a business leader, looking after your mental health or that of your employees is by far one of the most effective ways to improve relationships, efficiency and productivity, regardless of the industry you're in. And statistically, it's not a matter of if you'll have to deal with a mental health issue, but when--20 percent (46.6 million) of American adults experience a mental health illness in a given year according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, with most of those individuals still showing up for work as they struggle. But what if the treatments we've come to trust and use aren't worth the paper they're recommended on?

Lots of treatments, not much certainty

A new paper published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology took a close look at 78 "empirically supported treatments" (ESTs). These are therapies that, based on clinical trials, are considered to have "strong" or "modest" scientific backing. The new research tried to figure out whether that evidence was both reliable and replicable, analyzing four key areas (misreported statistics, power, R-index and Bayes factors).

The overall finding? The bulk of ESTs might not be as grounded as we thought.

  • More than half (56 percent) of all the ESTs examined fared poorly across most metric scores, with just 19 percent faring strongly.
  • 52 percent of the 50 ESTs designated as having "strong" research support fared poorly, with 22 percent faring strongly.
  • 64 percent of the 28 ESTs designated as having "modest" research support" fared poorly, with 14 percent faring strongly.

3 takeaways for the office

In a press release from the University of Kansas, co-lead author John Sakaluk stressed that the results do not mean that therapies don't work. It's simply that we can't necessarily say one therapy is more science-based than another.

Still, co-lead author Alexander Williams notes there are times when professionals go through "medical reversal", which means they reject practices they discover don't work, are harmful, or cost more than effective alternatives. If clinical psychologists discover that there's a need to reject certain options, that could lead to other therapies getting a closer look or increased promotion.

A second big takeaway, according to Williams, is that researchers might benefit from rethinking the size and power of their trials, collaborating more, and appraising, publishing and evaluating studies in new ways.

The last point, which is perhaps the most important for the office, is that it's incredibly important to evaluate progress in a therapy on an ongoing basis and to make adjustments as needed. If the individual isn't responding, then the treatment plan needs tweaking, regardless of how statistically effective the given treatment is said to be.

"This research can especially inform employees' choices about how they pursue therapy," Williams asserts. "When the employee meets with a psychologist, the two of them cannot have as much confidence that a given form of psychotherapy will be beneficial. As such, a two-way dialogue between them is essential. The employee should feel empowered to ask a prospective therapist how they will know if therapy is working. A good therapist should encourage two-way, ongoing communication about whether the employee is getting what they need out of therapy."

And as a leader, you can be involved in the discussion, too. You might not be able to ask the details of a therapy session, for instance, but you can let an employee know that you'll be flexible with their schedule to accommodate options they want to try, or you can make sure they know who to talk to in HR about medication changes. If employers, workers and mental health professionals all work together to determine what's working and what isn't, workers can find the best support and path forward as they try to do their jobs.