How technology can be used to protect and enhance mental wellbeing

There is an ongoing debate about technology and its relationship with mental health, especially at work.

Workplace communication tools have been credited with playing a major role in our always on culture, making it possible to check emails, communicate with colleagues and monitor KPIs with just a touch of a button, at any time of day. 

This can be beneficial if used sensibly, but it can promote overworking as the lines blur between professional and personal life. And the effect on our mental health is clear. 

According to Statista research, 86% of workers now find it hard to switch off outside work hours. The frustrations of tech not working as it should is also exacerbating the problem, with 70% of workers reporting increased stress when technology fails.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are huge and largely untapped opportunities to use technology in the workplace to protect and enhance mental wellbeing, while also enjoying the productivity and financial gains these tools can deliver.


The rise of technology and the decline of mental health

Over the last 40 years, our experience of work has seen a dramatic change. And that’s all thanks to technology.

But for all its positives in making life easier and our decisions smarter, it’s important not to ignore that as tech adoption rises, so too does the prevalence of mental health issues. And this upwards trend is impacting organisations all over the world.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, one in six people experience a mental health problem at work and 12.75 of all absences are attributed to it.

While workplace technologies can make working easier and faster, these figures suggest employees are working even harder and longer to meet these increased demands, resulting in stress, anxiety and burnout.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further complicated our relationship with workplace tech, playing a vital role in business continuity – and this will continue.

Thanks to workplace technologies such as cloud, communication and collaboration tools, employees have been able to carry on at home largely unaffected by the rapid shift to full remote working, after some initial adjusting.

But this fully digital experience has meant many employees find it hard to switch off from work. The temptation to work extra hours and check emails and more frequently is hard to resist. Mental health issues can also develop more frequently among remote workers who feel isolated from communication channels and support mechanisms.


How to ensure workplace tech helps, not hinders, emotional wellbeing

People make a business and employers have an important responsibility to look after their physical and mental wellbeing.

HR teams and business leaders must address potential wellbeing issues before investing in and deploying workplace technologies, bearing in mind poor planning, communication and lack of training on new systems has been found to have undesirable effects for workers, too.

Employees need consumer-grade experiences that support productivity, flexibility and healthy practices and it’s vital HR teams work collaboratively with IT teams to ensure technology and wellbeing are aligned. 

As well as investing in tools and systems which deliver commercial and productivity benefits, organisations must leverage technology to build a strong company culture and support employees’ mental health.

Good practice must start from the top, with leaders and managers exhibiting healthy behaviours and promoting responsible use of technology, like taking regular breaks and annual leave, and not responding to out of hours emails.

Platforms such as Office 365 now have new features such as ‘My Analytics’ which allow employees to monitor and manage their time efficiently. Plus, regular wellbeing surveys and mental health programmes and groups within the organisation allow employees to access the support and advice they need 24/7.

Organisations and business leaders have the power to improve the overall wellbeing of employees through the use of technology, so we must work together to use it to our advantage.

Rebecca Monk is HR director at Softcat.

This piece forms part of HR magazine's special bulletin on Mental Health Awareness Week. Sign up to make sure you don't miss any future bulletins.