The cyborg therapist: can AI alleviate mental health issues at work?

AI that’s specifically developed to deal with mental health issues at work appears to become a welcome alternative as it can provide non-judgemental and discreet mental health support.
Industries: Work
  • Organisational consequences of mental health problems at work
  • How mental health issues at work impact people’s personal lives
  • The importance of tackling mental health problems at their root cause
  • Employees are turning to AI rather than a human manager
  • How exactly is AI used to improve mental health?

The stresses of the past couple of years have had seriously damaging effects on the mental health of employees in companies and organisations across the world. From work stress, to the fear of falling ill, or losing jobs due to businesses closing down, people and businesses are all still reeling from the effects with signs starting to show as increasing absenteeism, mental exhaustion, and stress-related illnesses such as depression. And business owners and decision makers who realise the importance of looking after their workforce, retaining their valuable talent, and surviving the ongoing crisis, are increasingly feeling the pressure to take concrete and sustainable action.

Organisational consequences of mental health problems at work

Stress and (resultant) mental health issues can wreak untold havoc and severely impact someone’s personal life, contributing to headaches, hypertension, back problems, cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal issues, diabetes, and a host of other problems. But what employers often fail to realise is that employees who experience stress or burnout will – as a result – often have trouble focusing at work, missing deadlines and suffering from lack of motivation and efficiency. This leads to reduced productivity, increased absenteeism, a higher risk of human error, which will ultimately all have a significant impact on company profitability. People who are more at risk of (work-related) poor mental health include people in specialty professions, such as teachers, managers, and healthcare workers. Other high-risk occupations include construction workers, personal assistants, and restaurant workers.

Following are some common work-related stressors, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH):

Threatened job security

Organisational changes, such as company takeovers, mergers, or corporate changes can result in incredible (internal) competition and it can make it difficult for businesses to survive. Organisational changes require every person in the organisation – employees, managers, and even CEOs – to step up their game and put in more hours, without any guarantee that the changes or the extra effort will lead to organisational success or job security.

Unrealistic expectations

Unhealthy pressure can result from management putting unrealistic expectations on their employees, particularly if this includes longer working hours, increased workloads, and performance at continuous peak levels, and performing tasks that aren’t part of their role or skillset. All of this can leave employees emotionally and physically overwhelmed and drained.

Problems with superiors or coworkers

Having difficulties with your manager or colleague(s) not only leads to unpleasant situations, conflict, and stress – it can eventually do serious harm to one’s mental health as well, especially if nothing is done to solve ongoing issues, or if attempts to remedy the situation have been unsuccessful. 

Work-family issues

It’s not easy to find a healthy work-life balance. Working long hours, putting in a lot of overtime, or any of the above work stressors can lead to issues in your private life and make it hard to manage or solve them. It is therefore critical to find a work-life balance that allows for equal time for your professional as well as your personal life.

How mental health issues at work impact people’s personal lives

Working in a stress-inducing environment can take a heavy toll on your emotional health. Long hours, a lack of support, and understaffing can all contribute to mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and even substance abuse. And the impact is not just felt in professional lives but ultimately at home as well, with 85 per cent of people mentioning that mental health issues at work have a significant effect on their private lives, according to an Oracle study. And with boundaries between our work and private lives becoming increasingly blurred, effects of job stress most commonly – and increasingly – affecting home life include poor physical health, sleep deprivation, suffering family relationships, and reduced wellbeing at home. Despite these drawbacks, some 60 per cent of people still perceive remote working as more appealing as it gives them more time to spend with their loved ones and enables them to get work done more efficiently.

The importance of tackling mental health problems at their root cause

It is critical to tackle these problems at their root cause – before stress-related illnesses manifest. And as the significance of mental wellbeing has increased in the past couple of years – as well as its impact on employee productivity and resultant organisational success – companies are increasingly reshifting their priorities and creating the appropriate support systems. Not so much in terms of human-centred support, however. With automation becoming an increasingly integral part of HR operations – mainly to enable staff to handle repetitive tasks more efficiently – more and more companies are turning to AI and machine learning tools to improve the wellbeing of employees as well. From boosting employee morale to increasing engagement and happiness, artificial intelligence and other tech applications are playing a steadily increasing role in the overall improvement of the (mental) wellbeing of employees.

Employees are turning to AI rather than a human manager

According to the World health Organisation (WHO), an estimated 280 million people worldwide are suffering from depression and anxiety, which leads to loss of productivity to the tune of a staggering $1 trillion per year. And as more and more people work remotely, companies and organisations are starting to see the increasing importance of (mentally) supporting their staff members, and realising that traditional methods of mental health support may no longer be sufficient. In fact, many people are hesitant to show their vulnerable emotional state to their manager and would prefer to confide in ‘something’ rather than ‘someone’. They are often concerned that if they speak with their manager or the HR department about their mental health issues, they could get stigmatised. They see AI that’s specifically developed to deal with mental health issues as a safer alternative and believe that it can provide a non-judgemental and unbiased space to share problems, and quick answers to questions. AI offers options to anonymously and discreetly talk about feelings and problems, provides validation, determines the seriousness of the symptoms, and assists people in finding the right therapies, treatment, or alternative support like telehealth. 

Data analysis and prediction

AI is already making significant strides in offering support in terms of employee mental health issues. Data visualisation and analysis, for instance, can help detect potential issues before they can cause major damage. AI can process enormous amounts of  data in real time, detect patterns, and provide recommendations. More and more organisations across the world are, for instance, also making use of AI, analytics, and sensor technology for predictive maintenance. This helps them minimise the risk of  accidents and injuries. Some companies even use AI algorithms to predict whether employees feel happy, irritated, disappointed, or stressed, through the exchange of emojis. Developments like these show the importance of embracing technology to help enhance employee wellness initiatives.

Wearables for emotion recognition

Some companies even go so far as to fit their employees with AI-enabled wearables with natural language processing, image and voice recognition, and deep learning models, to track employee behaviour and emotions. The algorithms in these devices can help analyse and provide insights into the meaning of a certain tone of voice, facial expression, or body language. AI can also be used by companies to help improve verbal and non-communication by suggesting the ‘appropriate emotion’ at the ‘right time’. The technology takes cues from detected mood, speech patterns, and body movements, and alerts employees when it detects potentially unhealthy or inappropriate work habits or when it’s time to take a break.

Reducing daily work pressures

Employees in safety- or mission-critical roles, such as operators or engineers, experience stress and fatigue on a daily basis, especially as they’re often in charge of complex infrastructures, such as transportation networks, manufacturing plants, or power grids. This responsibility can lead to incredible pressure, more so because performance issues or outages can occur at any time, necessitating operators to be on call 24/7 to deal with complex and urgent situations, which can result in exhaustion and stress. In order to provide support for these employees, companies can deploy AI-based system monitoring technologies and observability platforms that can function as ‘behind-the-scenes guardians’ – monitoring systems around the clock and preventing employee stress and burnout. These AI-based systems can run initial assessments of a problem situation, provide a root cause analysis, and suggest appropriate and detailed plans of action. The observability platforms can help create an enormous amount of reassurance as the ‘second pair of eyes’ helps build decision-making confidence and reduces stress.

How exactly is AI used to improve mental health?

Artificial intelligence is increasingly used to provide measurement, analysis, and diagnostics for anxiety and stress. AI tools can even help in early detection, evaluation, and treatment of psychiatric illnesses and may possibly also help with prevention.

Ginger, the text-based therapy app

To help their employees, more and more companies, such as Pizza firm Domino’s, use Ginger, a text-based therapy and  counselling app. The smartphone app was developed by a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), with the aim to “build the world’s first mental health technology platform.” Ginger makes use of a combination of human interaction, augmented intelligence, and data science to provide on-demand, confidential mental healthcare via video-based therapy, live text-based coaching, and self-care resources. It makes use of smartphone-based technology to identify patterns of anxiety, stress, and depression and can also alert patients and their healthcare providers. 

AI-powered mental health chatbot Wysa

Another AI-powered tool that is used to assist with mental health problems at work is the Wysa chatbot. It triages users according to their personal needs and guides them through cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) exercises within the app. The chatbot can also suggest alternative mental health services or crisis support. Wysa’s platform provides employers and health services insights into usage rates of Wysa and digital well-being tools, while maintaining user privacy. Wysa’s efficacy has been validated via clinical trials and according to peer-reviewed study results, the therapeutic emotional bonds Wysa forms with its users are equivalent to the relationships between human therapists and their patients. To date, Wysa has over 4.5 million users in 65 different countries. Corporate clients include the Ministry of Health in Singapore, the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK, Accenture, Colgate-Palmolive, and Aetna International. 

“Based on the analysis of one’s facial features, the system can calculate how confrontational, stressed, or nervous an individual is, among other metrics. We can also analyse the person’s emotional response and figure out if they are up to anything suspicious”


Taigusys emotion recognition system assesses employee happiness

The AI emotion recognition system developed by Chinese company Taigusys can monitor the facial expressions of employees and create reports on the emotional state of each individual employee. This is made possible by using an AI algorithm that assesses each individual’s biometric signals and facial muscle movements. It then evaluates these: ‘good’ emotions, according to the company, include surprise, happiness, and being inspired or moved by something positive. ‘Negative’ emotions the system checks for include confusion, anger, sorrow, disgust, or scorn, and anger and ‘neutral’ emotions the system also considers include the level of focus on a task. According to the company, the tool helps to “address new challenges and can minimise the conflicts posed by emotional, confrontational behaviour.” In its product description, Taigusys says: “Based on the analysis of one’s facial features, the system can calculate how confrontational, stressed, or nervous an individual is, among other metrics. We can also analyse the person’s emotional response and figure out if they are up to anything suspicious,” said the company in its description of the system. While the tech itself might seem interesting and even impressive to a degree, systems like these can often be inaccurate and – even more importantly – they also raise serious ethical and privacy concerns.

In closing

Technological innovations are taking place at breakneck speed, completely transforming the way the mental wellbeing of employees is monitored, assessed, and addressed. From providing tips on how to maintain good mental health to detailed, complex – and sometimes downright invasive – monitoring of daily interactions, AI is increasingly emerging as a tool for organisations to help maintain and improve the mental wellbeing of their employees.

Industries: Work
We’re in the midst of a technological revolution and the trends, technologies, and innovations to look out for are all game-changers. They bring competitive advantages, increase the effectiveness of operations, make our daily lives more efficient, improve healthcare, and significantly change the landscape and beyond.

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