Why it’s time to embrace AI to deal with mental health at the workplace…

A recent study by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence highlighted the critical role of technology at the workplace in helping people’s personal, professional and mental health especially through the recent pandemic. 

The AI@Work Study 2020 was conducted to find out the role of organizations in employee mental health, what types of support are employees asking for, and if AI and other technology can meet the mental health challenges employees are facing, just as it has proven to be a solution for keeping people connected in digital workspaces.

The survey included more than 12,000 employees, managers, HR leaders, and C-level executives across 11 countries, including India, Japan, China and Korea in Asia Pacific (1,000 employees, managers, HR leaders, and C-level executives from each market). 

A key finding was that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased workplace stress, anxiety, and burnout for people by almost 70% for people all around the globe. The study also found that employees prefer to rely on robots for support. 

Workers in Asia Pacific, especially in India (89%), Korea (84%) and China (81%), witnessed their mental health being negatively affected by the pandemic.

91% of workers in India and China also expressed a preference to talk to a robot over their manager about stress and anxiety at work. 

Employees in the region look to their organizations to provide more mental health support. But if support is not provided, it will have a profound impact on global productivity as well as personal and professional lives.

The time for organizations to start embracing AI and explore tech solutions is now, according to Shaakun Khanna, Head of Human Capital Management (HCM) Applications, Asia Pacific, Oracle, with whom DigiconAsia discussed the findings of the study:

Shaakun Khanna, Head of Human Capital Management (HCM) Applications, Asia Pacific, Oracle

What have been the COVID-19 pandemic’s most critical areas of impact on the workforce in Asia Pacific?

Shaakun Khanna (SK): As people were forced to shift into remote work practically overnight –– at the peak of a pandemic, no less, a new generation of workers is evolving and getting ready to take on the new world of work. For the first time ever, different generations are starting to think alike as they develop new skills, embrace new paradigms and re-adjust their worldview. In response to this pandemic, they are learning, unlearning and recalibrating themselves.

These individuals seem to have reset themselves according to our new circumstances and have evolved into a new generation –– Generation R.

While Generation R is working harder than ever to find new ways to achieve productivity, balance, and a sense of purpose, anxiety and stress have also reached a tipping point. According to the latest AI@Work Study 2020 by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence, the COVID-19 pandemic has created the most stressful work year in people’s lives, and for 82% of the workforce in Asia Pacific, this has negatively affected their mental health.

Since the pandemic started, 30% of remote workers in the region say they’ve been putting in significantly more hours (10 or more per week) — that’s over 40 extra hours per month, and 29% say they have been burned out from overwork as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Furthermore, mental health at work is not just a workplace issue. Staying at home while trying to juggle work, childcare, schooling, and unpredictable finance have taken a toll on working families. It is also negatively impacting personal lives, as our study revealed that 85% of the workforce in the region have had their mental health issues at work negatively affect their home life, causing sleep deprivation, poor physical health, reduced happiness at home, suffering family relationships, and isolation from friends.

With the global pandemic introducing new pressures on top of everyday workplace stressors, mental health is becoming one of the biggest challenges for employees and employers to manage. Now more than ever, employees are looking to employers to open the mental health conversation and step up to provide more support in new ways.

What are some ways organizations could effectively help to relieve the various forms of stress employees experience in times like this?

SK: Workplace stress and the related mental health implications are not a new phenomenon. It’s just that it took a global health crisis to call attention to another global workforce crisis — employee mental health. This is an issue that isn’t going away and can’t go ignored. Left untouched, mental health issues at work can have profound impact on global productivity as well as the personal and professional lives of the global workforce.

To support employees’ mental health, the issue needs to be first and foremost, a priority across the board. This means that across all levels and departments, there is the need to re-examine how organizations can create an environment that focuses on mental well-being and keeps employees happy, engaged and productive. 

With 85% of respondents in Asia Pacific stating that their company should be doing more to protect the mental health of their workforce, our survey also sought to understand the employee perspective what would help relieve the various forms of stress.

Interestingly, what we found was that technology has pushed the boundaries beyond what many of us know and understand as mental health support in the traditional sense — so much so that 76% of respondents in the region would actually prefer to talk to a robot over their manager about mental health at work, and 82% of people globally believe robots can support their mental health better than humans.

It may be also inconceivable to most that the global workforce would be open to robots providing their mental health support, but thanks to human resilience and the ability to adapt, there is now an almost universal open-mindedness to innovative solutions.

The pandemic launched a mass adoption of collaboration and video conferencing tools, and now that people have become comfortable with the wonderful ways that technology can support them, they are seeking more. This includes solutions that can help them cope with workplace stress and mental health issues.

Technology, in part, contributes to the work stress and anxiety in the new reality. How does technology also help to improve mental health and overall well-being of workers?

SK: Our survey revealed that employees today are asking for technology to help. For instance, 85% of the Asia Pacific workforce would like their company to provide technology to support their mental health, such as self-service access to health resources, on-demand counseling services, proactive health monitoring tools, access to wellness or meditation apps, and chatbots to answer health-related questions.

With the demand for technology solutions to support remote work on the rise, organizations are also turning to AI for a variety of workplace initiatives. More than just a one-off tool to support employees through tough times, our survey found that AI has actually helped improve mental health for 81 percent of people either directly or indirectly, by giving them necessary information for their jobs, automating and prioritizing tasks, thereby reducing workload and stress to boost productivity and job satisfaction.

From the employee’s perspective, the benefits of incorporating AI also goes beyond increasing productivity to actually improving company culture. Some of the reasons why employees may prefer talking to a robot over their manager about stress and anxiety at work is because AI is seen as unbiased, offer a judgement-free zone, and can provide quick answers to health questions better than humans can.

Looking ahead, what do you foresee as AI’s role in the workplace of the future?

SK: AI is winning more hearts and minds in the workplace, as 92% of the workforce in Asia Pacific want AI to continue helping them at work.

While only time will tell if there will be widespread AI adoption for mental health in the future, it’s safe to say that remote working experiences have helped alleviate digital apprehension that may have once created a barrier.

Organizations that are early adopters of technologies that improve the mental well-being of their workforces will be seen as forward-thinking and more supportive. Employees are already accepting AI as an important tool for their work-life balance and for mental health support, and the business benefits of an increased productivity and enhanced culture of caring are clear.