Mental Health – The Perfect Storm And The Role Of AI-Robots
20 Oct 2020
By Bernard Marr
As well as the clear danger to physical health posed by COVID-19, there is a great deal of concern over the impact it is having on mental health. Many say 2020 has been the most stressful year ever. The fear of becoming ill, as well as the worry caused by uncertainty over jobs, finances and reduced social contact all mean that many of us are under a lot more stress than we used to be.
With millions of people working from home, this should mean more time to take exercise and enjoy family life – leading to increased happiness and wellness. In reality, studies are showing that in many cases we are working more than ever while spending less time on exercise and recreation.
Much of this might be down to the challenges of adjusting to change. There’s no “new normal” yet to adapt to, in either society or business. So the stresses bought on by changing situations and circumstances aren’t likely to dissipate any time soon.
Technology can help us manage change – so can it help us deal with the stress and mental pressures created by change, too? To mark World Mental Health Day, I spoke to Emily He, senior vice president of human capital management for Oracle, which has just released the findings of its study AI@Work 2020. I also spoke to New York Times bestselling author and managing partner at Workplace Intelligence, Dan Schawbel, who led on the study.
After speaking to more than 12,000 people across 11 countries, they found that 76% believed their companies should be doing more at this time to protect the mental health of their workforce, while a huge majority – 85% – say mental health issues at work are affecting their home life.
A huge clue to where the solution to this dilemma could lie, however, is highlighted by another statistic. 85% of respondents said they would rather talk to a robot than a human about mental health problems they are experiencing at work.
In part this illustrates the deep stigma that many people still feel is attached to opening up about matters of the mind. There’s still a deeply felt fear that this might mark you out as someone who is weak or unreliable – and that this might negatively affect chances of being given trust or responsibility by higher-ups.
On the other hand, it also reflects that there are undeniable advantages to the idea of artificially-intelligent counsellors or robotic mental healthcare resources. These might include lack of bias, judgement or simply their ability to swiftly and accurately distribute information and resources.
He (Emily He) told me “Mental health has always been an important topic for our society and was already a huge issue before the pandemic. But COVID has affected every country, every business, every organization, every family – overnight people have had to make all of these dramatic changes.
“People in the meantime are also working many more hours because we don’t know where to draw the line between work and health – we’re sitting in the same place all day, and people are feeling incredibly burned out.”
This is highlighted by one area of the study, that found 52% of people are now working at least five extra hours per week since the start of the pandemic, and 35% saying they are now working more than 10 extra hours.
So what can companies do to mitigate against the drop in creativity and productivity that comes with a mentally unhealthy workforce? According to the experts I spoke to, the first step is to ensure that mental wellbeing is treated with the same urgency that is given to physical wellbeing as well as workplace health and safety. While it may not be possible for employers to carry out the same level of physical health assessment as they could when we were all office-bound – such as ensuring our workstations are comfortable and safe – there are steps that can be taken to monitor and assess mental health. Most importantly there are support measures that can be put in place for when they are needed.
He says “In many ways, HR teams have to come together and figure this out – there’s no blueprint for addressing a crisis like this and you have to improvise solutions.”
She pointed out some examples of good practice she has come across at her own organization (Oracle has offered extended leave for employees to manage childcare responsibilities) and others, such as Netflix, which has offered backup childcare services, and Pepsico, that launched a virtual education service to assist parents with schooling children from home.
Other organizations have implemented digital “listening tools” including frequent surveys, often weekly, to take the temperature of mental health across their workforce. Another common approach has been to monitor the quality and increase the frequency of communication between workers and management. He says “when you’re working from home there’s often a sense of disconnection or isolation. It’s important to hear from leaders frequently, so many companies are now holding open Q&A sessions with executives, or ‘ask-me-anything’ sessions – these are all being done virtually.”
So on to the interesting statistic that shows how popular the idea of discussing mental health issues with robots has become (or alternatively, how unpopular discussing it with human managers remains). In fact, the study finds that 82% of people believe robots can support their mental health better than humans can.
There are some obvious opportunities here. Chatbot technology has been enthusiastically adopted across many large organizations, where you increasingly find custom-built personal digital assistants using natural language technology to answer questions relating to day-to-day operations and procedures.
He says “If you can train a digital assistant to provide the right assistance and advice, that would be a huge help for employees.
“The thing I find fascinating when it comes to tech is that employees using digital assistants as additional co-workers is not new, but there’s an added dimension with mental health due to the sense of stigma – people want a safe place where they can ask these questions. That’s the role tech can play, you can ask questions any time you want in a completely private way, and get help faster.”
The findings and statistics thrown up by Oracle’s survey are replicated across many other studies that have emerged since the pandemic got under way. Another study that looked into the impact on people’s lives was just published by the UK Office for National Statistics. The research talks about an emerging ‘perfect storm’ of mental health stresses brought on by lockdowns, economic anxiety, winter weather, enforced social distancing, and isolation. It was found that 69% of adults say the pandemic is having a negative effect on their lives, with 63% worried about the future and 53% feeling “stressed or anxious”.
As we head into the dark days of winter, with infection levels increasing in many parts of the world and continued uncertainty over so much of our lives, it’s clear that technology offers some exciting possibilities. Now employees have made it clear that they expect their organizations to prioritize support for their mental wellbeing, we should expect those organizations to rise to the task, developing and deploying innovative solutions to match the new challenges we are facing. If they don’t, they could find that the mental health crisis will have devastating implications for their business.