We are all familiar with the challenges of 2020, but we may still be underestimating how deep and wide they go.
Seven in 10 employees say this has been the most stressful year of their working lives, according to a report from Workplace Intelligence and Oracle.
For companies, that means the mental-health issues of employees have rocketed from a secondary concern in years past, to a primary one. But making help available, quickly and at scale, is no easy task.
That is where artificial intelligence can come in. Not only do employees say they are open to the help and guidance of robots – in the form of chatbots, wellness and meditation apps, fitness monitoring, and more – but 82% say that AI is better than humans at providing support, according to the Workplace Intelligence study.
And 68% say that they would prefer interacting with a robot on issues like stress and anxiety, as opposed to a human manager.
To find out how AI can help in this moment of workplace crisis, we sat down with Dan Schawbel, managing partner of Workplace Intelligence and author of multiple books including "Back to Human".
How are employees coping in 2020?
Dan Schawbel: Workers worldwide say this has been their hardest year ever, and that makes sense, because no one has ever experienced anything like this. There's such a high degree of uncertainty, and no one knows exactly how this is all going to play out.
You found that employees are very receptive to the use of AI in the mental-health arena – why is that?
DS: People don't want to be judged based on the mental-health issues they are facing. They don't want to be perceived as a worker who has issues, because they think it might hurt their career prospects. That's true even at the top of organizations: Executives in the C-suite are actually experiencing the most anxiety of all.
So how can AI help with this?
DS: The benefit of technology is that it's available 24/7. It doesn't judge you and doesn't care about your race or class or gender. It gives you non-biased responses and helpful health information. It's not like we can call on 3 billion therapists, so there has to be some alignment between humans and technology here, to help people with what they're going through.
What might these AI tools look like?
DS: It might involve chatbots, like Ginger.io, BioBeats or Woebot. It might be meditation apps like Calm or Headspace. It might be fitness apps like Peloton, Fitbit or ClassPass. It might be online counseling providers like Talkspace or BetterHelp. Or it might be corporate wellness platforms like Castlight Health and Virgin Pulse.
How has this year affected the adoption of mental-health resources?
DS: These were all issues that companies were looking at before, but now everything has been accelerated, because the side effect of this global health crisis is a mental-health crisis.
Depression numbers were huge even before COVID-19, and now it's hard to even calculate. I would say most of the global population has experienced some level of mental-health challenges over the past eight months.
AI in the workplace is changing so fast – where do you see it headed in the next year or two?
DS: It's going to be even more robust, more sophisticated, smarter and on a bigger scale, because more data is being accumulated all the time, and more people are going to have access. A lot of this stuff is here to stay and is going to be a permanent part of organizations.
Part of that is because employees themselves are demanding more of their employers: They want to be treated as human, and be supported mentally, physically and emotionally.
With vaccinations on the horizon, does that provide some hope for our collective mental-health challenges?
DS: I'm hopeful, but we will still need to have a good safety net and support system in place, because a lot of people will be dealing with mental-health challenges long after vaccinations are rolled out. The message here is that we need to look at all the benefits technology can bring to this part of our lives. Humans plus machines, will provide the scale and custom support that everyone needs.