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Humans favour robots for mental health support at work

Eighty-two per cent of people believe robots can support their mental health better than humans, according to a study by Oracle and HR research and advisory firm Workplace Intelligence.

The Covid-19 pandemic has made 2020 one of the most stressful years in living memory, negatively affecting the mental health of many people, both at home and at work.

According to the Oracle/Workplace Intelligence study, involving more than 12,000 employees, managers, HR leaders and C-level executives across 11 countries, the pandemic has increased workplace stress, anxiety and burnout for people all over the world. Intriguingly, the study also revealed that the vast majority of people would prefer robots instead of other humans to help them.

Globally, 70 per cent of respondents said they were more stressed and anxious than ever before at work, although the number was a little lower for the UK specifically at 62 per cent. UK respondents also were a little more cynical regarding using AI to help their mental health at work compared to other regions (60 per cent vs. 75 per cent globally), although 77 per cent of UK respondents said they wanted their employer to provide more technology to support their mental health, with 69 per cent being open to having an AI or robot therapist.

There were also stark generational differences in the UK, with 94 per cent of 22-25-year-olds saying that work stress impacted their home life (vs. 85 per cent globally) and 89 per cent saying the pandemic has affected their mental health (vs. 78 per cent globally). Highlighting a possible connection, the study showed that the younger generations have taken on more overtime: 66 per cent of 22-25s and 59 per cent of 26-37s worked at least five more hours a week than before the pandemic, compared to 48 per cent of 38-54s and 31 per cent of 55-74s.

“Employers’ role in supporting staff’s health and wellbeing has never been more important. Many businesses have stepped up and supported their staff’s mental health and wellbeing throughout the pandemic and technology has played a crucial role – from online social activities to tailored mental health plans to assist employees,” said Eugenia Migliori, principal policy advisor, CBI.

“The months ahead will be challenging and with the winter coming, employers must double down efforts and play a greater role in supporting the mental health of their workforce.”

People across the world are battling increased levels of anxiety and depression at work due to Covid-19, with 78 per cent of people saying it had negatively impacted their mental health. Increases in stress (38 per cent), a lack of work-life balance (35 per cent), burnout (25 per cent), depression from no socialisation (25 per cent), and loneliness (14 per cent) were reported.

These new pressures have been layered on top of everyday workplace stressors, including pressure to meet performance standards (42 per cent), handling routine and tedious tasks (41 per cent), and juggling unmanageable workloads (41 per cent).

These mental-health issues are also being carried over from peoples' professional lives to their home lives. 85 per cent of people said mental health issues at work had affected their home life, with the most common repercussions being sleep deprivation (40 per cent), poor physical health (35 per cent), reduced happiness at home (33 per cent), suffering family relationships (30 per cent), and isolation from friends (28 per cent).

As boundaries have increasingly blurred between personal and professional worlds with people working remotely, 35 per cent of people are working 40+ more hours each month and 25 per cent of people have been burned out from overwork.

Despite such perceived drawbacks of remote work, 62 per cent of people said they found remote work more appealing now than they had done before the pandemic, saying they now have more time to spend with family (51 per cent), to sleep (31 per cent), and to get work done (30 per cent).

Regarding the role technology can play in this dynamic, respondents said they wanted more support for their mental health. Only 18 per cent of people said they would prefer humans over robots to support their mental health, as they believe robots provide a judgement-free zone (34 per cent), an unbiased outlet to share problems (30 per cent), and quick answers to health-related questions (29 per cent).

Robots also make good listeners, according to the study, with 68 per cent of people preferring to talk to a robot over their manager about stress and anxiety at work, while 80 per cent of people were open to having a robot as a therapist or counsellor.

Seventy-five per cent said AI has helped their mental health at work. The top benefits noted were providing the information needed to do their job more effectively (31 per cent), automating tasks and decreasing workload to prevent burnout (27 per cent), and reducing stress by helping to prioritise tasks (27 per cent).

AI has also helped the majority (51 per cent) of workers shorten their work week and allowed them to take longer vacations (51 per cent). Over half of respondents say AI technology increases employee productivity (63 per cent), improves job satisfaction (54 per cent), and improves overall well-being (52 per cent).

Employees worldwide also indicated that they are looking for their organisations to provide more mental health support and if this help is not provided, it will have a profound impact on global productivity, as well as the personal and professional lives of the global workforce.

Seventy-six per cent of people believe their company should be doing more to protect the mental health of their workforce; 51 per cent noted that their companies had added mental health services or support as a result of Covid-19.

Eighty-three per cent of the global workforce would like their company to provide technology to support their mental health, including self-service access to health resources (36 per cent), on-demand counselling services (35 per cent), proactive health-monitoring tools (35 per cent), access to wellness or meditation apps (35 per cent), and chatbots to answer health-related questions (28 per cent).

Eighty-four per cent of workers have faced challenges while working remotely, with the biggest factors being no distinction between personal and professional lives (41 per cent) and dealing with increased mental health challenges like stress and anxiety (33 per cent). Forty-two per cent of people said workplace stress, anxiety or depression causes their productivity to plummet, and 40 per cent said it leads to an increase in poor decision making. Eighty-five per cent said work-related stress, anxiety and depression affects their home life.

“With new remote-work expectations and blurred lines between personal and professional lives, the toll of Covid-19 on our mental health is significant and it’s something that workers across every industry and country are dealing with,” said Dan Schawbel, managing partner, Workplace Intelligence.

“The pandemic has put mental health front and centre – it’s the biggest workforce issue of our time and will be for the next decade. The results of our study show just how widespread this issue has become and why now is the time for organisations to start talking about it and exploring new solutions.”

Emily He, senior vice president, Oracle Cloud HCM, said: “With the global pandemic, mental health has become not only a broader societal issue, but a top workplace challenge. It has a profound impact on individual performance, team effectiveness and organisational productivity. Now, more than ever, it’s a conversation that needs to be had and employees are looking to employers to step up and provide solutions.

“There is a lot that can be done to support the mental health of the global workforce and there are so many ways that technology like AI can help. First, organisations need to add mental health to their agenda. If we can get these conversations started – both at an HR and an executive level – we can begin to make some change. And the time is now.”

The study, conducted July-August 2020, involved 12,347 global respondents, 22-74 years old, from the US, UK, United Arab Emirates, France, Italy, Germany, India, Japan, China, Brazil and Korea. Those involved were asked general questions to explore leadership and employee attitudes around mental health, artificial intelligence technology, digital assistants, chatbots and robots in the workplace.

Technology is already playing a large part in the treatment of mental health conditions, as Dr Stephen Schueller, executive director of Psyberguide, explained in an E&T interview earlier this year. A number of cutting-edge technologies are being deployed to explore the issues around mental health.

It has also been shown that interaction with robots and regular computer use improves the mental health of older people.

Conversely, overexposure to social media is proving detrimental to the mental health of young people. The Royal College of Psychiatrists published a report earlier this year demanding that social media giants aid research into the potential harms they cause by sharing data and funds with researchers. 

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