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Robots and chatbots can help alleviate the mental health epidemic

The pandemic has added many stressors to people's working lives. - Image: Pexels.com

Managing Partner, Workplace Intelligence

• COVID-19 has piled multiple additional pressures on to people’s mental health.

• AI is already providing assistance in the mental health domain.

• Having mental health technology in place is beneficial for employers as well as employees.

The global pandemic we’ve been dealing with since March has had a profound impact on our mental health. If this feels like the universe is piling on, it’s because it’s true. More than 264 million people worldwide suffer from depression, according to a January 2020 report from the World Health Organization.

Now, workers around the world say that 2020 has been the most stressful year in their lives, according to a new study by Workplace Intelligence, my research firm, and Oracle. Mental health isn’t a new issue, but COVID-19 has intensified and put a spotlight on our mental health problems.

Our study reveals some pretty stark facts:

• 70% of people have had more stress and anxiety at work this year than any other previous year.

• This increased stress and anxiety has negatively impacted the mental health of 78% of the global workforce, causing more stress (38%), a lack of work-life balance (35%), burnout (25%), depression from a lack of socialization (25%), and loneliness (14%).

• The new pressures presented by the global pandemic have been layered on top of everyday workplace stressors, including pressure to meet performance standards (42%), handling routine and tedious tasks (41%), and juggling unmanageable workloads (41%).

Work and life are blended

Because of the pandemic, a vast number of people are now working from home. Many of us have swapped offices and cubicles for living rooms and bedrooms. With no physical boundary between work and home, our personal lives have also been adversely affected.

An unhappy home life leads to even more depression, diminished productivity at work and yet more anxiety. It’s a vicious cycle.

Additionally, our daily commutes – what used to be a respite from the demands of both home and work – has been replaced by more work. The time we used to spend listening to music or podcasts or reading the paper has been filled with more Zoom meetings and late hours poring over spreadsheets.

Add to that a constant barrage of news (including political news during an election year in the US) about rising COVID-19 cases and death tolls, and the stress on our mental health becomes almost intolerable. Meanwhile, our society stigmatizes people who reveal their mental-health issues. Even someone as powerful as Dak Prescott was derided by some for talking about his anxieties.

Who wants to tell their boss they’re feeling burned out or spend less hours online than their colleagues?

Judgement-free technology

It’s thus no surprise that so many people (68%) said they would rather talk to a robot about their mental health issues than to their managers. For many of them (64%), robots and chatbots represent a judgement-free zone where they can seek information without exposing their weaknesses to bosses and colleagues.

A robot isn’t going to judge you, it’s not going to think about your past history – and it’s going to be available 24 hours a day. For example, if you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed at 11pm at night, instead of worrying about how you’re going to talk to your manager about it the next day, you could instead “talk” to a robot or chatbot. From there, the technology can guide you to the best resources for support, such as providing tips for reducing stress, best practices for battling anxiety, or even referring you to a professional if needed.

In fact, technology like artificial intelligence (AI) and digital assistants are already helping to improve the mental health of 75% of the global workforce. Respondents said AI is providing them with the information they need to do their job more effectively (31%), automating tasks and decreasing workload to prevent burnout (27%), and reducing stress by helping to prioritize tasks (27%). Additionally, AI has helped the majority of workers shorten their work week (51%), take longer vacations (51%), increase productivity (63%), improve job satisfaction (54%), and improve overall well-being (52%).

Many companies are now offering virtual therapy sessions for their workforce, and licensing mental health apps their employees can access for free. Starbucks, for instance, offers their employees access to mental health support via self-guided online programs or video sessions with trained professionals. Starbucks also offers subscriptions to Headspace, the daily meditation and mindfulness app, to US and Canada partners.

A partnership between man and machine

This is important not just for employees, but for companies that want to attract and retain talent. Eighty-nine percent of employees would stay with an employer longer if they provided mental health support, and two-thirds wouldn’t work for a company that didn’t have a clear policy on supporting mental health, according to a November 2019 study by Aetna. A different study found that companies with mental-health programmes in place for one year had a median annual return of investment of $1.62 for every dollar invested.

This isn’t to say that technology will replace human beings. Robots and chatbots can’t empathize with us, and they can’t even diagnose our mental illnesses. We still need human therapists – today, perhaps more than ever – but technology can supplement the valuable work of human beings. Because even therapists can feel anxiety, and they could use a little help from our robot friends.

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