As the pandemic blurs the line between work and life of employees working remotely, conversations around the issues around mental health have risen in the last past several months.
In a recently published ‘AI at work’ study, employees around the world said they were likely to talk to a robot about mental health issues rather than their manager. To discuss the findings of the study, People Matters spoke to Emily He, Senior Vice President, Human Capital Management Cloud Business Group.
1. Could you give us an overview of the “AI at work” study and some of the key findings?
The “AI at work” study is currently in its third year, it’s a study that’s published in partnership with Workplace Intelligence. The purpose of the study is to assess the readiness of employees to embrace technology and its use cases. In this edition, over 12,000 HR professionals, C-suite leaders, HR managers from across the world participated in the study.
The findings from this year’s research were both surprising and not surprising. It wasn’t surprising because over 70 percent of the people said that 2020 was the most stressful year. Mental health is impacting over 78 percent of the workforce around the world. It isn’t just impacting workplace productivity; it is also affecting personal lives.
Employees are reporting sleep deprivation, reduced happiness at home, as well as failing family relationships. And employees need help and they are looking at their companies and technology to do more.
68 percent of the employees said they’d prefer to talk to a robot over their manager. In India, that rate is even higher – over 91 percent said they’d prefer a robot. Mental health is no longer a personal issue, it is an organizational issue. And it needs to be on the agenda of HR teams and managers.
2. According to the study, only 18 percent said they’d like to talk to a human. Why are people more comfortable talking to a robot?
There seem to be a couple of reasons – One is the stigma that is still associated with mental health and people don’t want to talk about mental health openly in the workplace. And in particular, they don’t want to talk to their manager about mental health because that could have work implications.
Another reason that people seem to prefer technology is that robots offer a judgement-free zone. They can also provide quick and accurate answers. So if you’re feeling anxious at night, you don’t have to wait, you can use a digital assistant.
The one thing that’s an outcome of the pandemic is that when you talk about anxiety and stress, people no longer think it’s strange. That’s because everyone is experiencing it at a certain level.
3. What are some workplace shifts that are needed at this point – to bridge this gap?
Companies are already changing their benefits plans to address some of these issues. But globally, over 76 percent of the employees say that companies need to do more.
The problem is that a lot of people are not trained to address mental health issues. If there’s an employee who reports being depressed, the instinctual response is to tell them ‘not to feel depressed’.
This is where technology can help. A digital assistant can provide the right response and the right resources. It’s a quick way to make employees feel ‘aware’ of the existing resources.
A lot of mental health issues we’re seeing right now aren’t complicated – it's often rooted in fact that there’s a blurring of work and life priorities. When you’re at the office, there are a lot of breaks that are naturally built into your work. But when you’re working from home, you need to manage your schedule, you need to exercise and meditate – you can’t work 24x7.
4. Workplace productivity is being re-examined as a result of this blurring or work-life and the mental health issues associated with it. How can technology help here?
People are feeling the pressure to meet performance standards, and they’re burned by tedious and routine tasks, and they have an incredible amount of workload.
When the pandemic first started, there was a collective sense of elation, because for a long time people have been asking to work from home but companies weren’t as trusting. Now, when all of us are working from home, the management has realized that people are actually working more. But as there are productivity gains, it is creating more stress and employees are feeling disengaged. There is a real responsibility to help employees cope with workplace stressors.
In India, 65 percent of the people said they are working more than 40 hours per week. So that’s a lot of hours, which previously was measured as productivity.
Just like we have an onboarding process, why don’t we give employees a mental health process? It could give them a mental health process along with guidelines – including information about how they could set up an ergonomic friendly workplace environment at home. They can also share information on managing one’s schedule including physical activity, free subscription to meditation apps or workout apps.
By using a digital assistant, employees can navigate all these resources – including free counselling and tele-health solutions.
5. What are some steps that companies can take beyond just technology based help?
At Oracle, for example, there are additional leaves that employees could avail – to enable employees to take time off when they need to support children taking classes from home, or to care for COVID-19 patients, or they just feel like they need time to get away. Companies are also offering free tutoring, child care services and delivering office snacks home.
The other thing is that employees want to feel connected, when you go to the office, you could have a casual conversation. So we’re trying to re-create these spontaneous moments by leveraging a platform called ‘Connections’ – where employees can share their hobbies and career aspirations with others in the company.
6. What are workplace processes that the HR agenda needs to reflect and seriously think about?
Since we don’t have trained humans with the right expertise to tackle mental health issues, in the short term, digital assistants can help build awareness about mental health resources.
In the long term, there could be apps that could nudge people – when they spend too much time in front of their screen, or they need to take a break or pay attention to their sleep cycle – and they need to exercise or meditate.
We need to embrace the new challenges that employees are facing.
1. Employees need to feel supported as long as they are working remotely. So, HR needs to think about all the business processes, and information that needs to be made easily available and accessible.
2. There’s also a need to reflect on how you can foster a sense of community.
3. Employees also want to feel a sense of career growth – so whether it’s in the form of learning or career growth, there is a need to communicate it effectively.
Employees weren’t as open as they are now about mental health needs. There is a mindset shift that’s needed to address mental health issues at the workplace today. And the HR agenda needs to reflect that.