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February 19, 2021updated 04 Aug 2022 5:31pm

Well-being tech is not enough to support employee mental health

Employee mental health is under strain and technology providers have rushed to offer solutions. But employers should be wary of tech quick fixes.

By Katharine Swindells

After more than a month in winter lockdown, employee mental health and well-being is more of a priority than ever – with many companies reaching for technological solutions. But experts warn these should not be used as a substitute for well-rounded support.

In a survey by YouGov at the end of October, more than half (53%) of respondents said the Covid-19 pandemic had negatively impacted their mental health, rising to 60% among those aged 25-39. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of people reported feeling anxious several times a month or more since March 2020; among women the figure was 70%. One-fifth (20%) said they felt anxious most days of the week or more. 

For employers, poor mental health among staff raises concerns of lowered productivity and “presenteeism,” particularly as remote working makes it harder to notice mood changes among colleagues or check in on their well-being. Analysis by Deloitte published in January found that poor mental health is costing UK employers as much as £45bn a year, up 16% since 2016. 

Technology providers have rushed to offer solutions. These range from the wearable Moodbeam bracelet, which encourages employees to regularly report their mood to their supervisor, or apps such as Wellspace or Okina, which aim to help employees “feel energised, valued and happy”. Jake Adams, co-founder and COO of Wellspace, says that the pandemic has caused increased interest in the platform from companies globally, with more than a 200% increase in organic inbound leads since March 2020.

But the effectiveness of these technological solutions is unclear, especially as workplaces often implement many measures at once, and take-up is often low. Research on workplace well-being programmes conducted in 2017 by Vitality, found that while 62% of the workplaces they studied had health and well-being programmes, only 28% of employees participated.

Other research suggests that, even when employees do participate, well-being programmes have little, if any, effect on productivity. A study in 2019 tracked almost 33,000 employees at 160 warehouse retail companies in the US. It found that after 18 months of an employee wellness programme promoting fitness, nutrition and stress reduction, there was an impact on the physical health of the employees, but none on productivity and job performance.

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Emma Mamo, head of workplace well-being at mental health charity Mind, says that while well-being apps and online platforms can seem like a good solution, they should not be used as a substitute for a full package of support. For Mind employees, Mamo says, the company offers well-being activities such as exercise classes and coffee catch-ups, alongside flexible working policies, access to sessions with a trained counsellor and a confidential 24-hour Employee Assistance Programme.

Well-being apps and technologies are unregulated, so it’s important employers do their research before signing up, and regularly survey their staff to get feedback on any initiatives implemented, Mamo says. “There are lots of apps available, of varying quality, so look for those with evidence of their effectiveness,” she says. “It’s vital that digital platforms are properly maintained, managed and, where appropriate, moderated, to make sure they are safe.”

There are concerns that some well-being measures could be doing more harm than good by increasing employee workload and the number of devices or platforms to which they have to stay connected. A 2020 UK survey of 1,000 HR professionals found that before Covid-19, workload was by far the biggest cause of stress for employees, with 60% of respondents saying it was a top-three cause.

Mamo says that, for all the positives technology has brought during the pandemic, a big negative is the way it has blurred the line between work and home life and made it harder for workers to switch off. Without a commute or social plans, she says, it’s likely many employees will find themselves working later in the evenings, or may feel like they need to be always contactable and constantly checking emails.

A study by NordVPN echoes this trend, finding that workers across Europe and the US are spending longer on their work devices than they had before the pandemic. “While working longer than your contracted hours every now and again is common, long hours and excessive workload are both risk factors for stress and poor mental health,” Mamo says.

Many companies are working to address this issue, or even finding ways to actively reduce the amount technology employees have in their lives. Microsoft has added a “virtual commute” feature to Teams, intended to “create boundaries and structure”. Victoria Higgin, CIO and executive director at Highways England, told Tech Monitor that she encourages employees to swap Teams meetings for phone meetings so that they can take daylight walks during those calls.

Tech policies and mental health

Some businesses have instituted technology policies that forbid emails outside of working hours – in France, this is a legal measure called “right to disconnect.” But, Mamo warns, blanket policies such as these may not be the answer. Although it’s important to promote work/life balance, she says, during the pandemic employers also need to be offering flexibility to staff, particularly disabled staff, those with mental health problems and those with children.

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Greg Morley, CIO of United Living Group, says that the construction company has adopted a flexible working ethos through the organisation. “Productivity isn’t about sitting in front of a screen all day,” he says. “This is something we endeavour to embed into our culture, even more so now with the difficulty isolated working has presented us with over the last year.”

Morley says his company has trained Mental Health First Aiders within the organisation who can support conversation around mental health, and they encourage managers to stay in touch with their employees and check in on their well-being. They also try to maintain balance. “We steer away from a ‘Big Brother’ approach and instead focus on outputs, trusting our staff to manage their time successfully and productively,” says Morley.

What’s key, Mamo says, is that employers’ sentiments about prioritising well-being are reflected in their actions. This includes strong communication between managers and employees, managers role-modelling good behaviour such as taking lunch breaks, and email signatures showing that out-of-hours emails don’t expect a response. “Employers and line managers have a responsibility to embed a culture where staff feel able to get a good work-life balance,” says Mamo. 

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