· 6 min read · Features

Mental health mobile apps: how useful are they?

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Employee mental health has come to the fore, but with so many apps on the marketplace, it’s hard to know what would work best. Simon Kent investigates

According to the Organisation for the Review of Health and Care Apps (ORCHA), around four million health related apps are downloaded every day.


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As a global health app evaluation and advisory body, ORCHA certainly has its work cut out. It claims there are currently around 325,000 health apps in what is essentially an unregulated market.

Not only that but as John Hackston, head of thought leadership at The Myers Briggs Company notes, when it comes to mental health, not every app will appeal equally to every employee.

Apps offering social support, he notes, may appeal more to extroverts than introverts. Apps with reminders or regular check-ins have greater or less appeal according to different personality types.

“Employers need to realise that just because you find a particular app useful doesn’t mean everyone in your organisation will too,” he says. “It may not be straightforward, but you should offer a choice in apps and features where possible.”

Charles Alberts, head of wellbeing solutions UK at Aon, advises care with investment. “The mental health and wellbeing app market has come under some criticism of late with some serious concerns about clinical validity and ability to deliver on the service promise,” he says, citing Harvard Business Review as one source of such analysis.

“It’s vital that employers conduct comprehensive due diligence prior to engaging with a new provider on such a critical issue for their people, or work with expert, independent health, wellbeing and employee benefit advisors.”

When choosing the right ones to suit their workforce, Alberts advises HR to consider their intentions and priorities: Are they deploying these apps for preventative reasons? Helping people take better care of their health and wellbeing? Or is it about treatment? Providing targeted interventions and support for specific issues?

“Positively, there are solutions starting to come to market that address both objectives but overlap with existing benefits and services should be considered to avoid confusing employees in a time of need,” says Alberts.

Looking into some of the most popular wellbeing apps, this feature explores what makes the right fit.

 

Meditation

Meditation-based apps are popular among personal users and some offer workplace deals for employers who wish to offer access across their workforce.

Password management firm 1Password offers Headspace to its workforce. Chief people officer Katya Laviolette says: “We know that mindfulness meditation can positively impact mental and physical health by reducing stress, improving sleep, increasing focus and improving relationships.”

Markita Jack, head of diversity, equity and inclusion at cross-channel marketing platform Iterable says 84% of their employees who are eligible to sign up for Calm have done so, subsequently delivering an engagement rate of 82%.

“It’s accessible,” emphasises Jack, “and approaches mental health in a manner that isn’t prescriptive. Importantly, it’s intuitive, and helps employees to build experiences based on their preferences, history, and needs.”

 

Tracking/feedback

Tracking or feedback apps offer ongoing interactivity with employees based on measurements and recordings submitted as they go about their work and lives. These solutions seek to support the individual user while also offering businesses ideas for improving mental health among workers generally.

MyArkeo is described as mirroring a physical fitness app, building mental strength, flexibility and mental stamina. This in turn aims to help individuals deal with life’s challenges – stress at work, difficult family situations or potentially negative behaviours.

“It’s not about abstaining from anything we know isn’t good for us or changing how we live or who we are,” says Jana Dowling, creator and CEO of MyArkeo. “It’s just about having a clear and simple understanding of our behaviours and putting us in the driving seat when it comes to making informed decisions about our mental health.”

Moodbeam collects employee information through a direct entry app offering prompts and resources to individuals as well as insights for the employer.

According to Richard Coe, project director at built environment business Kajima Partnerships, the app offered a new way to support their staff, especially as the company responded to the impact of the pandemic and moved to a more hybrid method of working.

“Moodbeam has been a big part of our solution; we used it throughout lockdown, as it’s easy to use, helps individual staff members and the dashboard assists managers in spotting any issues quickly,” he says.

“It’s just about putting us in the driving seat when making decisions about our mental health.”

 

Targeted support

Rather than offering a general view over mental health, some apps are more targeted in the conditions they address.

Peppy delivers support across four specific areas: menopause, fertility, new parents and men’s health. Co-founder and co-CEO, Mridula Pore describes the app as an information centre: “With Peppy you don’t need to have anything ‘wrong’,” she explains. “People aren’t ‘ill’ as a doctor would describe it.”

The app provides support at whatever level individuals wish, from browsing through articles and watching videos to engaging with more
active interventions.

Pore says an individual approaching their GP with anxiety, depression or other mental health issues might not be able to give the context in which they are experiencing difficulties.

“Peppy allows people to discuss all the relevant issues and then they can get clinical interventions based on informed choices,” adds Pore.

Jeannie Di Bon, co-founder of Moovlite, an app which helps people living with chronic pain and chronic stress, believes these apps appeal to people who are happy to self-manage their activities, rather than have a coach standing over them and guiding them every step of the way. “If someone is looking to feel empowered and take ownership of their mental and physical health, then apps like Moovlite are a fantastic option,” she says.

 

General mental health

These apps seek to support employees’ mental health across the board, and they do so by offering diverse content and interactivity. Each app has its own underlying ethos or approach that is likely to have more or less appeal to individual employees.

In the case of Unmind, the app is built on clinical psychology and helps employees proactively measure, understand, and nurture their own mental health.

At the same time employers are given the information they need to drive positive cultural change across their organisations by considering insights provided into anonymised data from the app and undertaking relevant training activities.

SilverCloud is another holistic app. It is the mental wellbeing app for Bupa, and it used by many NHS employees. It claims to be the only mental health app which is backed by clinical evidence.

In this case the programmes, tools, content and support are built on the foundations of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Dr Carolyn Lorian, HR expert psychologist, and former wellbeing lead at Deloitte, explains this approach helps people feel better and enables them to manage life’s challenges more effectively through changing the way they think and behave.

BetterUp offers virtual professional one-to-one and group coaching, and claims to be the global leader in counselling and mentorship at scale. The solution is a combination of content, community and cutting-edge AI technology.

“What the last year has taught us, in the midst of the workplace revolution, is that there is an ever-growing demand for employee wellbeing and support,” notes Brent Hyder, president and chief people officer at BetterUp user Salesforce.

Hyder has found the app’s use has helped their international teams navigate the uncertainty of the past years, remote work, and virtual environments. “BetterUp gave us the ability to scale personalised care across the organisation, which has been invaluable to the team’s productivity and peak performance,” Hyder adds.

 

"There is an ever-growing demand for employee wellbeing and support"

 

Going bespoke

Despite the wealth of ready-to-go solutions, companies can still pursue their own bespoke solution to key into existing wellbeing resources. Utilities company Lanes Group built an app in partnership with Techfinity reaching around 1,000 colleagues.

The app simply asked how the person felt at the start of every shift, and if they felt ‘unhappy’ or ‘very unhappy’ they were given an option to be contacted by the company’s in-house wellbeing practitioner Kelly Hansford.

“Since the app was introduced, the number of engineers indicating they are ‘very unhappy’ fell from 11% to less than 1%,” reports Debi Bell, head of HR services at Lanes Group.

“Our management team, with the guidance of Kelly Hansford, have been able to assist colleagues with a range of concerns, including depression, financial problems, family relationships, career concerns and conflicts with colleagues.”

 

Making a choice

Whatever the choice of app taken, one of the most valuable things any HR department can do is to be clear of where any mental health advice is coming from – who is giving it, how are they qualified and on what evidence is it based?

More than this, it is important that the business considers the work environment at the same time. Without this consideration, any app could be viewed as an inadequate sticky-plaster, or a benefit offered to distract employees from underlying problems.

 

Check out more from the 2022 Technology Supplement: Technology with purpose here.