Could AI improve mental health?

Employees are overwhelmingly experiencing the most stressful year of their lives. Rates of depression, anxiety, burnout and stress are soaring as the pandemic and its associated uncertainties are wreaking havoc on employees’ work and personal lives.

But can technology help improve workers’ mental health? New research indicates it may, pointing to big potential for employers as they look for ways to help.

The vast majority of employees say they would prefer to talk to a robot over their manager about stress and anxiety at work, according to a new study by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence, an HR research and advisory firm. The study of more than 12,000 employees, managers, HR leaders and C-level executives across 11 countries found that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased workplace stress, anxiety and burnout for people all around the world, and they prefer robots instead of other people to help.

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Specifically, 80% of people are open to having a robot–such as an AI-powered therapist or chatbot counselor–as their confidant. And overall, 83% would like their company to provide technology to support their mental health.

Why the trust in technology over human support? It’s because employees believe an AI-powered therapist provides a judgment-free zone (34%), an unbiased outlet to share problems (30%), and quick answers to health-related questions (29%).

Emily He

“People want technology like AI to support their mental health because it’s an unbiased outlet–a robot does not carry the same stigma around mental health that a person would–and because they are an on-demand, 24/7 accessible tool that can provide quick answers and resources,” says Emily He, senior vice president of Oracle Cloud HCM. If, for instance, an employee is feeling stressed, anxious or burned out at 10 p.m. because of their workload, “they could talk to a digital assistant, which could then guide that person to helpful resources like stress-reducing activities, meditation apps or additional information about company-provided assistance.”

Related: Why employers should act now on mental health

Some insiders say technology also may handle mental health issues better than managers.

“Not all people in the workforce are equipped or trained to help others with mental health issues,” He says. “If an employee told their manager that they were feeling overwhelmingly stressed or depressed, the manager may not know the proper way to address the situation. If an organization had a chatbot or digital assistant that was programmed with mental health resources, it could guide the employee to get the help they need, whether through tactics, tools or referrals to professionals.”

Related: 10 strategies to improve mental health

Previous research has found that although employees overwhelmingly want help and want benefits from their company addressing mental health issues, most do not trust their employer or manager for that help. Research from FlexJobs, fielded in partnership with Mental Health America, for instance, finds that just 21% of employees say they were able to have open, productive conversations with HR about solutions to their burnout. More than half (56%) went so far as to say that their HR leaders did not encourage conversations about burnout.

Meanwhile, 30% of employees in a recent Paychex survey say they fear that discussing their mental health could lead to being fired or furloughed and 29% thought discussing their issues could cost them a promotion.

So does all this mean there’s significant potential for tech and AI to help improve employees’ mental health and employers should invest in the tools?

Absolutely, He says. “Technology at work is more than time sheets and collaboration tools. It has the power to make a meaningful impact on our wellbeing,” she says. “While there is no silver bullet that can solve the mental health crisis, the right technology can make a difference.”

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.