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Mental health app round-up

The lowdown on four apps designed to help employees address and prevent mental ill health

At first glance it seems the Apple and Google Play app stores are overrun with health apps. But, according to digital health tracking company ORCHA, of the 327,000 health apps on the market, just 43 account for 83% of all downloads – and 65% of all apps haven’t been updated for more than 18 months.

Digital support for mental health is an area of rapid development – what you see today is likely to bear little resemblance to what will be available in two to three years’ time as artificial intelligence, data management, new user interfaces and faster 5G connectivity all give health app developers more opportunities than ever.

Artificial intelligence is enabling new types of healthcare interfaces that could offer support both with mental health concerns you know about, and conditions that you aren’t even aware of. Being able to detect changes in someone’s tone of voice in a phone call, for example, could enable the apps of the future to pick up and act on everything from stress to the early stages of dementia.

Emerging platforms such as Apple Health will allow app creators to link together sources of personal data that will help us build our own health ‘dashboards’ – and direct us to various sources of external support such as virtual GPs or services offered by insurance providers.

Digital support for mental health really is only in its infancy. Which means this is also a relatively unregulated area at the moment – while the NHS and organisations such as mental health charity Mind maintain lists of apps, the quality and validity of what’s on offer beyond this is variable.

So here is our round-up of apps that can be offered through an employer programme; in most instances, they are also available for individuals to subscribe to. Many insurance providers also offer branded apps as part of a private medical insurance or income protection offering – but we have focused on standalone products for this round-up.

We’ve tried to include a range of different apps here, including a conversational CBT app, a mindfulness tool and an all-in-one programme only available through employers.

1. The conversational app: Woebot

This DIY Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) app uses a ‘conversational agent’ to guide you through self-help materials and coaching for mental wellbeing. Once you have signed up with a free account, Woebot checks in with you daily and works through questions and exercises that help the app learn more about your mental health. It then uses that information to tailor the ways that it can help you.

In addition to the daily check-ins, the app has a library of exercises and lessons, as well as an ‘intelligent mood tracker’ that shows patterns in the way you feel over time.

It takes around 14 daily check-ins before Woebot has enough information to start delivering a personalised approach. And the more you commit to Woebot, the better it can support you. While conversations with Woebot are confidential, the bot technology gradually learns and improves based on all the interactions it has with its users.

There is a ‘Woebot for business’ option, which is charged on a per-employee, per-month model for a whole workforce, or just based on those that use the app. However, at present there is no link between Woebot and external sources of assistance, such as NHS services.

2. The resilience builder: Thrive

Thrive offers a series of sessions, activities and tools for mood management, using a mix of short videos, interactive exercises and actions that help build resilience. There are some entertaining features, such as the ‘message in a bottle’ which allows you to send a motivational message to other users and see messages ‘wash up’ for you. Plus there is a series of guided exercises to help with calm breathing and the basics of meditation.

It does offer some links to the Samaritans and NHS services if users feel that they need more immediate human support.

There is also a range of options for employers, including the ability to brand the app with a company logo, and create links to employee assistance programmes or occupational health facilities. And there’s a 24-hour text service from within the app that can connect employees with trained mental health coaches.

3. The mindfulness app: Headspace

On signing up, Headspace asks you to input some basic details about your experience with meditation to date, and the personal goals you want to focus on when using the app. These can include Personal Growth or Work and Productivity.

This information is used to tailor your first few meditation sessions. However, if you really want to unlock everything Headspace has to offer, you will need to subscribe. There is a well-defined programme for employers, Headspace for Work, which has been taken up by companies including Adobe, Spotify and Yorkshire Building Society.

4. The business specialists: Unmind

Unlike the other apps in this round-up, you’ll only be able to use Unmind with an employer subscription (or through selected insurance products). It is very much designed with the workplace in mind with good (anonymised) reporting tools for employers, as well as a host of educational and interactive features to help employees take care of their mental wellbeing.

The app includes Zeno, a bot that can help direct employees towards further support beyond the Unmind platform. That could be through the NHS and other providers, or configured to include workplace-specific options such as an EAP or peer support.

This piece featured in our Beyond awareness: taking action on employee mental health ebook in partnership with Perkbox. Read the full supplement, including extra box-outs, here