Could bots help to solve employee mental health problems?

Many businesses are turning to bots to encourage workers to be more communicative about issues and to help identify mental health problems, says Jo Gallacher

It’s a challenging world out there. Uncertainty, quarantines, lockdown, loneliness – chances are you’ll have experienced one, if not all, of the above throughout the last year due to the global pandemic.

One of the largest concerns for HR during the pandemic has been the wellbeing of its employees. Of course, this has always been a high priority, but having to deal with new ways of working, family pressures and reduced freedoms has boosted this well up the agenda.

The scale of change has inevitably taken its toll on even the most ‘resilient’ of brains, and mental health issues are likely to remain long after the pandemic has been brought under control.

HR is often working hard to reduce stigma around mental health and create an open and honest culture away from judgement. But it’s no straightforward task and the switch to remote working has meant it is not always easy to spot those who may be struggling.

Businesses are therefore looking for alternatives to the ‘how are you really’ question, and introducing AI bots to encourage workers to open up about their issues in a safe space away from judgement and any threat of career jeopardy. No, this isn’t in the next 10 years. It’s right now.

In a study by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence of 12,000 employees, managers, HR leaders and C-level executives from across the globe, 82% said robots could support their mental health better than humans. This is despite the common argument that only humans can examine, interpret and understand emotions.

No judgement zone

Though machines cannot replicate complex emotions yet, workers may not want to speak to someone who can only relate to their issues within their own personal context, or worse, misunderstand completely.

Sometimes it’s easier to speak to someone totally detached from the situation. It therefore may not be surprising that 68% of those surveyed said they would prefer to talk to a robot over their manager about stress and anxiety at work.

Do the findings mean HR and managers have failed in their pastoral role? Or does it offer an opportunity to adjust the job description of HR to focus on other issues?

“AI is an opportunity to keep HR relevant,” says HR director of restaurant chain Honest Burgers Chantal Wilson. “Our capability to use technology is outstanding, so I see AI as an awesome opportunity and not a threat to the HR function.”

Honest Burgers has embraced technology and bots in its people strategy by using Workplace From Facebook, which is not only intended to encourage workers to engage with their colleagues and feel part of a community, but also to improve their job.

Wilson says: “I don’t believe in an engagement tool to get free perks. I want to engage in stuff that will make the job easier. So we introduced this big strategic platform where we removed email and instead all conversation went through Workplace, as well as access to payslips, rotas, etc.”

The tech has allowed the people team to create automated bots to answer business requirements and more complex people needs. It’s certainly ‘big picture’ stuff, but Wilson says it needn’t scare HR.

She adds: “You don’t need specialist skills to build a bot, about 40 people in my business know how to make them and we use them for everything.

"We have well over 100, from personal assistants where you ask what your password is and paygrade, to the more complex bots where if you’re in a tiered COVID location you would receive specific training for those new regulations or talk about a concern you have relating to mental health.

“Because it’s built in-house, it allows me to focus on what the business needs in real-time. We have no limitations.”

And the engagement levels with the system speak volumes. In an organisation of 500 people, 98% of the workforce engaged with the platform pre-COVID, with a drop of just two percentage points since the outbreak.

This is all the more impressive when considering most of the workers at Honest Burgers are front of house and therefore not sat behind a computer or in an office where this type of platform is typically accessed.

Instead, employees are choosing to download the app onto their phones and interacting with bots so they can keep up with the workplace community and have any questions they have answered right away.

This engagement rate taps into the potential for AI bots to offer something HR and managers don’t have in their arsenal: a 24-hour response rate. Angela O’Connor is an HR consultant and founder of the HR Lounge.

She argues there’s huge potential for bots to pick up on mental health issues which managers may accidentally overlook, no matter what time of day.

She says: “AI can look at social media posts and pick up features of someone who is depressed or experiencing anxiety, which is interesting for HR if it means we can identify issues.

"There’s a massive shortage of mental health practitioners and horrible queues for services, so if people can have access to AI, which flags them up to helpful resources, it could be a brilliant first step.”

O’Connor believes bots can help foster trust and offer solace to employees who may have a hard time opening up to their line managers or HR leaders. She adds: “When people are expressing vulnerabilities and fears, sometimes it’s hard to do that with a person as you may feel you will be judged by them so it might be easier to interact through a different mechanism.”

As well as acting as a guiding point for workers, AI could help HR find the best talent and better promote and celebrate workers who are doing a good job, creating a more democratic and fairer workplace.

Julien Codorniou, VP of Workplace From Facebook, says: “It’s not just software for the 1%, it’s software for everyone in the company for the first time – which includes first-line employees. When you turn your company into a community, great things happen.

"People have a voice, understand who they work for and the values of the company. By being able to voice concerns to a bot, you are able to reduce the distance between people at HQ and at a store. Everyone needs that right now, so it’s a real competitive advantage.

“[By using bots] HR teams can find the best talent wherever they work and whatever role they fulfil in the company, rather than at just the HQ itself.”

All workers could have access to a bot, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they all will want to use them. O’Connor says the concept may suit certain generations more than others.

She adds: “Younger workers are so used to interacting with tech all the time, much more than older workers are, so there’s maybe more of a feeling of comfort there and feeling they can better express themselves to bots who can point them in the right direction.”

Trusting the unknown

When it comes to sharing an experience around poor mental health, what do workers trust more: their bosses or a machine? Michael Moran, CEO and founder of 10Eighty, says workers turning to bots is an indictment of the manager they work under.

He says: “A lot of people don’t trust their managers; they are unsure whether their manager will give them an honest answer or tell them what they want to hear.

“Employees want managers who care for them, listen to them and develop and stretch them. But if you have a technical leader, it’s not something they can do.”

Moran therefore believes HR is not at risk of becoming irrelevant due to bots, but instead the popularity of tech-based solutions demonstrates a failing in how some leaders manage their teams. He says: “If you can’t see people and it’s going well, it’s a danger you’ll assume you need to spend less time with people.

"HR needs to make sure it’s creating time to have conversations and is alert when things go wrong. Ask employees ‘what’s gone well for you?’ and make sure you’re not taking employees for granted.”

Managers are often under a lot of pressure, particularly in the uncertain times we currently live in, and is it therefore unfair to place all responsibility with them? O’Connor says managers shouldn’t be seen as the answer for everything and that, where technology can offer help, HR should trust in it.

She says: “Managers are supposed to be able to be leaders, technologists, coaches, but they are just humans like the rest of us. It’s down to the individual and what the context is and what the relationship is like with employee and boss.

“Managers are not experts – some are intuitively brilliant and skilled in that area, others not so much. Tech could certainly be part of a wider solution to offer options for people to choose where they want to discuss sensitive issues.”

Rather than solely relying on managers to explore and uncover any issues an employee may have, Honest Burgers has created an Honest Guardian bot where workers can report issues anonymously.

Wilson says: “The idea came up from a conversation we were having as a business during a live chat on Black Lives Matter. We had a lot of different opinions as to what we should be saying as a business. We had 400 people on a call telling us how they feel, and this soon developed into a conversation around race and discrimination.

“We decided that through all these conversation and hearing hesitations people had that we had to build a bot that was AI in the sense of a tech-based system with key resources and links to your rights and policies.”

Workers can communicate a concern either anonymously or openly which then goes straight to the people team where it will be dealt with. Wilson adds: “In two weeks, we had 300 interactions with the bot. Given we have a workforce of 500, that’s a lot of people. We had a lot of meaningful engagement.

“The bot asks initially ‘do you have a problem?’. And this is not to weed out problems, but to make sure that people aren’t downplaying their problems. They may say ‘everyone is white and I’m black and sometimes that feels uncomfortable.’

"It’s not a grievance as such, it doesn’t need to be blown up to meetings where it will get overprocessed. But if they do nothing, they will leave or feed bad. So the bot helps them triage it and tells them that it is a problem.”

Bots also have the potential for blue-collar workers, such as those working front of house at Honest Burger, to feel connected to the wider workplace and begin to feel part of a community, Codorniou adds.

“People who used to be considered as blue-collar now have the same communication tool as the people who work at HQ. The bots can help them do inventory, expenses or shift management and are very democratic and easy to use.

"All HR needs to do is make sure they are mobile and user-friendly, and they will have a more empowered and productive workforce.”

Prepare for imperfection

There is clearly plenty of potential for bots both now and in the future, but HR must also be aware of its limitations, says Brendan Street, professional head of emotional wellbeing at Nuffield Health.

“Although AI-enabled virtual and robot therapy has long been used across a number of medical fields, the integration of embodied or ‘robot’ AI is still at an early stage in mental health care, and arguably the most recent addition to the practice of psychotherapy.

Thus far there has been very little research on patient acceptance and treatment outcomes of fully embodied AI applications in mental health fields.”

Street therefore believes the current bots lack the sophistication needed to provide support beyond limited applications. He also questions the multiple ethical considerations associated with their use.

For example, if they were to give out the wrong advice to a potentially vulnerable person. Yet he still firmly believes tech will be part of the equation for employee wellbeing moving forward.

He says: “Other technologies are however much closer on the horizon in terms of augmenting mental health care, including wearable tech, bio-markers and virtual reality, for example.

"Nuffield Health is currently partnering with Manchester Metropolitan University to research how virtual reality technology can be used to enhance the psychotherapy experience and improve patient outcomes.”

It is impossible to imagine the future of work without seeing a closer alignment with technology. This poses a great challenge and opportunity for HR provided it can develop and facilitate the correct systems.

In order for HR to be effective and develop employee buy-in and trust, it needs to wholly understand its IT processes, Codorniou says.

“In a COVID workforce, IT, HR and internal comms are the three new leaders which have the biggest impact in the company right now. COVID has brought IT and HR together and this is the job of tech – to help people realise their potential, be more productive and stay longer, which ultimately translates into good business sense.

“Look at Honest Burger. They serve fries and burgers, but the way they operate is like a super software powerhouse, people have access to technology which is almost science fiction. The job the workers do is traditional but the way they operate is close to the best technological companies around.”

Wilson says the introduction of bots and user-friendly employee engagement systems has meant Honest Burgers has been more resilient in a time of great uncertainty for the hospitality sector.

She adds: “We were not offering the employment experience that I think was appropriate, so we’ve taken this as an opportunity to change the stuff we don’t like about ourselves and every great business should do the same.

"There was a whole lot of asking people to do old school tasks and making their job longer.

“HR directors need to be embracing tech to be relevant – it has not eliminated jobs in my team but rather enhanced them. Bots are a way of spending more time on the solution to the problems you have.

"I feel lucky I’m in this position now – it takes a strategic shift in your people plan, but I know we’ve now built the blocks we need to make tech our best friend.”

And what about if HR doesn’t have the capacity to introduce these new elements of tech? “If you’re still asking yourself whether HR is at the main table then the answer is no,” she says.

he full article of the above is published in the 2020 Technology Supplement. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.