How technology can help mental health in the workplace

Technology is typically seen as a primary cause of stress in the workplace. Here's how it's being used to help employees thrive.

Many workers are affected by mental health issues today. Research from the Health and Safety Executive shows that 602,000 people in the UK have stress, depression or anxiety as a result of their jobs, while the OECD claims that the cost of this to the British economy is £94 billion per year. But with investment in mental health technology surpassing £500 million in 2019 (according to Octopus Ventures), it's clear that the latest innovation can help to solve this growing challenge.

The power of tech

From mounting emails to a barrage of notifications, we can all agree that technology is often a distraction in the workplace. But Chris Griffiths, founder of software firm OpenGenius and mind mapping app Ayoa, says it can actually offer relief from these stressors.

He tells IDG Connect: "Task management is one form of technology purpose-made to collate the tasks which are often spread across a number of programmes. The great thing about task management is that, in addition to aiding the literal handling and planning of daily tasks, it improves team communication, which is essential in reducing stress and boosting wellbeing."

Griffiths believes that technology allows employees to fulfil their potential. He explains: "Another key element of mental health in the workplace relates to job satisfaction and the fulfilment employees get from their role; nobody wants to be just a cog in the machine. I personally believe there is a clear correlation between creative freedom and mental wellbeing.

"As the creator of Ayoa.com, it was essential for me that our app included features for idea generation and creative thinking, in addition to task management and collaboration features. Giving employees technology which allows them to think, work and communicate in one place both relieves them from stress and empowers them to be creative in their everyday role."

Listening to staff

To enable a strong and productive workforce, many people believe that businesses must pay attention to mental health. Dr Joe Cainey, director of data science at employee engagement platform Peakon, says this is essential. "Poor mental health can be costly to businesses in the long run too, with burnout alone costing the global economy an estimated $323.4bn every year," he explains.

"To properly manage mental health in the workplace, companies need strong, well-informed leaders; clear and well-communicated policies; and a culture in which employees feel safe to confide in managers and peers."

Like Chris Griffiths, Cainey takes the view that innovation can help organisations improve mental health in the workplace. He says: "Technology like digital staff surveys can offer tremendous support in achieving these aims. Frequent, anonymous surveys help companies give all employees a voice - including those who would be uncomfortable raising concerns or speaking about their feelings face-to-face."

The data generated by technology systems also enables employers to address mental health issues. "The combination of real-time insights and employee comments provides firms with a far richer understanding of their workforce, and their evolving needs and expectations," continues Cainey.

"It allows them to point to employees becoming disengaged or heading towards burnout, gaps in policies, signs of a corrosive culture, and much more. It also puts them in a far stronger position to create tailored offerings, such as flexible working or medical benefits, which can support a wide range of mental health needs before it's too late."

Ed Beccle, co-founder of Grasp, is another firm believer in using analytics to tackle mental health. He says: "By analysing company data, Grasp enables employees from across large businesses to connect with each other and form mentoring relationships across different departments, teams and generations.

"It's impossible to quantify the value of a good introduction - the right mentor can improve your confidence, give you career guidance and help you manage stressful periods at work.  If we were able to use tech to connect everyone at work in the real world, it would dramatically improve wellbeing and ultimately benefit workplace productivity in the long-run."

Identifying mental health issues

Steve Arnold, CEO of absence intelligence platform e-days, agrees that employers have a duty of care towards their staff's mental wellbeing and that technology can be used to identify employees in need of support.

He says: "The latest HR software, for example, can flag trigger behaviour that might not be obvious to a human manager. For example, employees unexpectedly missing the same day each month or arranging frequent short-notice medical appointments; even taking extended periods without holiday can be a warning of impending burnout."

However, Arnold says tech doesn't just identify issues but can help solve them. He continues: "It is now possible to integrate absence tracking with medical resources, so companies can connect employees with virtual GP services (or other real-time wellbeing resources such as NHS Choices).

"These solutions are designed to give employees 24/7 access to GP bookings, for video or telephone-based consultations, at the precise time when employees are most likely to need them, accessible from any device, anywhere."

His view is that embedding this technology into HR systems sends the message that mental health is being taken seriously by organisations and that they have the resources to deal with mental illness at the earliest possible opportunity. He adds: "A further benefit to tech solutions is that they can relieve pressure on (and act more quickly than) traditional NHS appointments."

Nick Taylor, CEO and co-founder of Unmind, agrees that businesses must take a proactive and preventative approach when it comes to mental health. He says technology plays a significant role in facilitating this.

He explains: "It is too often the case that employees are only offered support when they begin to show signs of struggle. Ultimately, just like other areas of our wellbeing, we all have mental health, all of the time. While technology should not be seen as a replacement to traditional areas of support like in-person counselling, it can complement these existing channels by helping everyonein the workplace understand and improve their mental health more effectively."

Taylor adds that digital solutions enable employees to understand, track and nurture their mental health. He concludes: "It allows them to proactively improve their mental wellbeing and spot any areas to work on before they become problems. Digital solutions are also non-judgemental; where employees may be uncomfortable seeking help through traditional means, technology provides a platform to seek support and identify the resources they need."

In today's fast-paced world, a lot of people are used to being hyper connected and working long hours. As the connected ecosystem grows, we're likely to see more people affected by mental health. However, it's encouraging to see that organisations are using technical innovation to relieve pressures in the workplace.