The future of work: Five benefits of technology in promoting greater mental health support at work

Oct 9, 2019
5 MIN. READ

Mental health conditions are prevalent in the workplace, but will technological advances exact an even greater toll on the psychological wellbeing of workers?

It’s called the Fourth Industrial Revolution—a rapid change involving technological advances that will bring new behaviors, greater mobility, and globalization. It’s the forecast for the future of work and a market characterized by robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), big data, and the internet of things. Set against this future is the forecast for our mental health and wellbeing. It too is predicted to change, which doesn’t make for a happy read.

In 20 years, more people are expected to be affected by depression than any other health-related concerns. Policymakers, health experts, business leaders, health charities, and human resources (HR) leaders recognize the need to consider the future of work in relation to mental wellbeing.

Changing work roles, structures, and expectations

The workplace of the future in the Europe Union (EU) and beyond is likely to involve rapid change, increased technology, new work structures, and innovative roles. It will represent a seismic shift in how we work, where demand for greater flexibility and collaboration takes precedence over traditional patterns of ongoing employment, standard structures, job security, and set roles.

The corporate ladder, which provided incremental promotion to higher levels of management, is flattening out. With fewer layers of management, there is no longer a rigid hierarchy to the top tier. Instead, employees progress by forging alliances with different networks in the corporate world, taking on positions involving new experiences and skills. This generation of workers enjoys the freedom of swapping teams, learning new skills, and coming up with innovative ideas. It’s an advantageous approach for both the employer and the employee.

Currently, one in four of us will encounter a period of mental health issues at some stage in our lives. We spend about one-third of our lives at work, so if we develop a mental health condition, it is likely to affect us in the workplace. Will our exposure to a less regulated and chaotic professional life boost our satisfaction or increase our susceptibility to mental health concerns?

The World Health Organization foresees that, in just 20 years, depression will become the greatest source of poor health. A joint OECD-European Commission report found that costs of mental health to the labor market (in terms of lower employment and lower productivity) equated to an annual amount of EUR 240 billion across all Member States of the EU. This represents 1.6% of GDP. However, the costs do not seem to raise the profile of this important topic, which is low on both political and financial agendas.

It will be a challenge for anyone to adapt to rapid future changes but particularly for those with mental health conditions. And given that, in the future, a higher number of us is likely to experience mental health conditions, it may be you or a loved one who has to confront this stark reality. As this possibility is impending, there is still time to put measures in place to protect everyone and ensure employment rights, responsibilities, and equality for all within the EU.

We know that advances in technology are the main driver of change in the future, so how might it affect us? Any such progress has the potential for good outcomes as well as detrimental ones. While technology is sometimes viewed as a threat to the wellbeing of workers, it can also enhance mental health, with devices that support wellbeing. There are already encouraging developments in this area that are demonstrating tangible benefits.

Five examples of technological advances that support mental health wellbeing in the workplace

1. Data and communications

We have the ability to organize and sort huge amounts of data that can inform decision-making on an unprecedented scale. This, coupled with the sheer volume of data available from traffic flow sensors, environmental devices, and smartphones, gives us unparalleled amounts of information. Big data has helped us understand about the prevalence of mental health conditions. It has guided and empowered people to seek help for themselves and others, breaking down barriers and the associated social taboo.

2. Mental health apps

We can use apps for all kinds of everyday activities, including those for mental health. Such apps are already proving popular following the earliest examples in 2009. They can help create a positive mood, reduce stress, and combat anxiety. These are readily available by smartphone and accessible anywhere. They can offer support to teenagers and young adults, in particular, who are comfortable with using mobile technology and are predicted to experience more stress and anxiety than other groups. While there are many apps geared to the needs of individuals with low-level anxiety and depression, there are now more examples of ‘stepped’ models—where consumers can access personalized options for greater levels of depression and find self-directed care.

3. Workplace tracking technologies

These technologies are already in use in many organizations. Devices for delivery drivers are a good example of how GPS systems can record the position and progress of a driver and their rest breaks. The tracking of more personal information, including health and wellbeing, is not as widespread but is growing where staff are offered fitness trackers. It’s a logical extension of giving employees free fruit and subsidized gym memberships to bolster continuing good health. As well as aiding employees, employers can benefit from fewer days lost to poor health. Some organizations already recognize that wearable technology can promote greater personal awareness of individual wellbeing and encourage exercise and self-care. Innovations are tailored to inform individuals about their mental health and help support self-care. These devices can analyze mood and behavioral traits to trigger suggested ways to intervene and offset panic attacks or increased anxiety.

4. Virtual reality

Although a relatively new area, virtual reality has been helping individuals face situations in a simulated world that they find hard or impossible in everyday life. It has been used to help people with post-traumatic stress disorder and those with anxiety or depression. It can provide a safe environment to desensitize reactions before triggers are encountered in reality. The costs are reducing, and this approach can help individuals take a greater role in managing their own care at home or with their counselor.

5. Automation

Moving money on a smartphone, scanning groceries in the supermarket, looking for a recipe online, and automated eye tests are all activities we take for granted. They may have been daunting when we first tried them, but these machine-based tasks are routine now. Automation has the potential to free us from some of the most physically challenging and monotonous tasks. It might liberate us from workplace activities that are dull, tedious, and risky. Of course, those workers replaced by automation will need new skills and support to find other jobs.

These examples of digitalization and automation can foster greater flexibility at work and opportunities to work from home. They can help maintain better work-life balance for some, and for others, enable vital access to jobs from which they might otherwise be excluded.

Role for policymakers to level the playing field

Trends and forecasts can suggest the shape and texture of the future of work. There’s potential for this future to hold real threats for workers with mental health issues, but it also offers real benefits. The situation requires action now on the part of policymakers, regulators, personnel directors, and managers to anticipate some of the dangers to health and protect employees. If we rise to the challenges sooner rather than later, we have more power to make positive changes for everyone and minimize the threats.

Some workers may welcome the rise of the gig economy and non-standard forms of employment, but they are anathema to others. Such individuals feel they have no control over their hours, no routine, and very few safeguards from exploitation. Workers with mental health conditions may feel even more defenseless in the face of these new work roles. There is perhaps an even greater need for best practices, policies, and regulations to safeguard workers’ rights and wellbeing if freelance employment takes over as the norm. We also need new technologies harness the best working practices for all—as well as good remuneration that’s not limited to just a few people. These amazing innovations should serve us all, not used to control or exploit.

Much employment legislation and health and safety in the workplace was designed to suit norms from a former time. So, there is an urgent need to update these guidelines to fit current and future working realities. Now more than ever, we face a fundamental necessity for new regulations and ethical codes to protect workers from whole-scale changes and avoid the very real danger of driving down standards and lowering pay. If we address the problems of the new era of work rapidly, we will offer greater protection for everyone—including our most vulnerable workers.

By Christina Dziewanska-Stringer
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