Mental health tech: A solution to a growing problem?

Winter is often the time when people’s mental wellbeing suffers most. Short, dark days combined with financial pressures thanks to the gift-giving season can lead to “Winter Blues” of pandemic proportions.

With mental health services facing this seasonal strain, many people are turning to technology, specifically mobile apps, to monitor and maintain their own mental wellbeing.

>See also: How digital health could revolutionise the mental healthcare system

This trend reveals a potential gap in mental healthcare provision, and points to the proactive role technology plays in bridging it. Employers need to recognise the demand from employees for mental health support year-round and take advantage of the opportunity to provide this via technology, creating a more balanced and productive workplace, and a better employee experience as a result.

Stressed workplaces

The workplace must take some responsibility for the state of UK mental health. Thomsons Online Benefits’ Employee Benefits Watch research, found that half of UK employees feel their workplace has a negative impact on their physical, mental and financial wellbeing. To help them deal with these stresses, people are increasingly turning to consumer applications.

>See also: Digital technology is the ‘only way forward’ for NHS sustainability

AXA’s Stress Index 2017 found that during a typical week, more than 80% of people feel stressed at least some of the time, with people in the UK citing their number one pressure as work.

This is partly due to our ‘always on’ work culture, with 49% of those surveyed saying they were concerned about it and more than half admitting to taking work calls (59%) or checking emails (55%) outside of business hours.

Are mental health apps a flash in the pan or here to stay?

Data from CB Insights shows that more mental health tech start-ups, from meditation apps to counselling programmes, are raising funds. The increase in Series A and B funding deals in this space will increase the provision of mental health technology, and in turn raise levels of access.

These applications are diverse, ranging from telemedicine platforms that enable remote access to care, to interactive apps that track emotional fluctuations and daily motivational text messaging services.

Why is mental health tech so popular?

The growth in the number and range of mental health apps comes at a time when mental health services are under unprecedented strain. Referrals to community mental health teams and crisis services have risen 15%, even while the numbers of doctors and nurses are falling. Meanwhile, 80% of NHS bosses are concerned they lack the necessary funding to deal with mental health issues.

>See also: Data-driven mental healthcare solving the crisis? 

Yet while mental health is catapulting up the public and political agenda, for many it is a topic that is difficult to discuss, either with their employers or a healthcare professional. Technology provides another avenue to monitor how you are feeling and suggest coping mechanisms.

What does this mean for employers?

Increasing numbers of people are clearly crying out for mental health support: our research shows improving mental wellbeing is a life goal for almost 40% of UK employees.

However, at present this seems to be falling on deaf ears, as just 18% of employers support this through their benefits programme.

This is a significant missed opportunity for employers. Supporting mental wellbeing can lead to improved employee engagement, reduced absence rates, and higher productivity.

So how can employers help?

Employers need to invest in software that enables employees to access mental health support on their own terms, wherever and whenever they choose..
Wellbeing apps can form one part of this care, but they are not a one-size-fits-all solution. Today’s workforce is highly heterogeneous and employers need to find a solution that suits everyone. This is where technology is so instrumental, and increasingly indispensable.

>See also: The future of tech in healthcare: wearables?

Flexible wellness pots offer one solution. Through easy-to-use intuitive software, employees are given an allowance to spend on their own wellbeing as they see fit. Employees can choose and be reimbursed for wellbeing benefits, all through a consumer-friendly app. This can remove some of the barriers to care that exist today.

Looking ahead – from prescriptive to pre-emptive

Providing apps or flexible wellness pots should be one part of a joined-up solution. They can also open the door for the use of more sophisticated tools, such as data analytics. Thomsons’ recent Global Employee Benefits Watch 2017/18 found that those employers with developed global benefits strategies and systems in place, are in a far better position on this front.

They can use data and analysis to get to the root cause of stress, and create workplaces that foster mental wellbeing and boost happiness and productivity well before problems arise.

Analyst, Josh Bersin cites one forward-thinking employer who used smart badges to monitor employees’ movements at work. Finding that the biggest contributor to employee happiness was walking around the office – they relocated conference rooms to encourage more movement.

Employers can also use analytics to create data-driven benefits profiles, which can be used to target individuals with communications on the wellness benefits they’re most likely to take advantage of. But putting the technology in place that enables this is key.

>See also: HR can lead AI innovation and help save billions

Caring for employees’ mental health will never be an easy task, but it is made infinitely less complex by technology. Employers can now use wellness apps and wellness pots to give employees the tools to help themselves, while conducting data analysis to determine the best way they can support them too.

Those who do so will gain the competitive advantage, delivering a best-in-class employee experience that retains happy, productive employees.

 

Sourced by David Bourne, head of health and wellbeing at Thomsons Online Benefits

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Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is the editor for Information Age. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and cyber security.

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