Proactive approach reflects increased awareness and understanding about mental health – yet workplaces lag on policies and culture

Workers in the U.K. are open to using a range of technologies — from online chatrooms, mobile apps and GP services to artificial intelligence and virtual reality — to help look after their mental health, according to results of a survey from Accenture (NYSE: ACN).

The survey of more than 2,000 workers in the U.K. found that four in ten people (39 percent) are already using technology — such as online services, mobile apps and wearables — to manage stress, improve sleep and boost mental wellbeing; the number is even greater — 46 percent — among those who have experienced mental health issues. This proactive use of technology is happening as significant proportions of people report mental health challenges, with more than half (55 percent) of respondents saying they’re either experiencing mental health issues now or have had mental health issues in the past.

Not surprisingly, most workers (77 percent) believe that people should take proactive steps to manage their mental health, and more than half (57 percent) believe that apps and online technologies are going to become the first option many people use to do so. The majority have used or would use online counselling services or helplines (72 percent), apps for meditation or relaxation (69 percent), online chatrooms and support groups (67 percent) and interactive GP services (65 percent). In addition, approximately half (52 percent) would use a chatbot powered by artificial intelligence to support their mental wellbeing, and slightly more (55 percent) believe that virtual reality can be helpful in managing mental health issues.

Two-thirds (67 percent) of workers who have used technology to support their mental health said their choice of technology was based on recommendations from healthcare professionals. However, one in three workers (32 percent) are willing to use technology to support their mental health without any professional guidance, and three in four (75 percent) would consider using tech without knowing how well it was tested.

“As the range of technology for mental health expands, organisations can support their employees by providing them with access to tools that have been tested and found to be most effective,” said Barbara Harvey, a managing director at Accenture and mental health lead for the company’s business in the UK. “However, technology will only ever be part of the solution — there’s no substitute for people talking and supporting each other. It’s all part of creating a truly human workplace where everyone feels safe to open up about mental health.”

Nearly nine in 10 respondents (87 percent) believe that there is increased awareness about mental health and that people are more willing to talk openly about mental health issues than they were a few years ago (82 percent). The impact of high-profile people speaking out about their own mental health challenges was believed to be the biggest factor influencing people’s willingness to talk openly about mental health issues, cited by more than half (53 percent) of respondents.

In contrast, within the workplace just one in five employees (22 percent) said they would be open with colleagues about mental health issues. The most-cited reasons why respondents said they wouldn’t discuss mental health issues with colleagues were fear of being treated differently (39 percent), embarrassment (30 percent) and the belief that it would damage their career prospects (27 percent). Only 14 percent said their company’s senior leaders had communicated about the importance of managing mental health in their workplace.

Among other key survey findings: Only one-quarter (25 percent) of respondents were aware of wellbeing initiatives at their organisations to keep staff mentally healthy, and only one in five (20 percent) knew their organisation had a written policy on mental health.

“Recent high-profile initiatives have made mental health in the workplace a priority across UK business and are providing unprecedented information and support for employers, which will be vital in changing attitudes and practices,” said Sophie Dix, director of research at mental health charity MQ. “To capitalise on these advances, we also need to develop effective ways to treat and prevent mental health conditions in the workplace. Accenture’s survey shines a light on the potential for using technology to achieve this goal — but also points to the major lack of evidence that exists for current interventions. Through research we can change this, and at MQ we’re working with business to make this a priority.”

The survey also found that younger workers are far more likely than older ones to use technology to support their mental health. For example, 75 percent of Gen Y and Gen Z respondents said they would use smartphone apps to manage their mental health, compared with just 53 percent of Gen X respondents and 36 percent of baby boomer respondents. Male workers are particularly likely to seek support through technology: Among Gen Y respondents, 86 percent of men — compared with just 66 percent of women — have used or would consider using apps or interactive tests online which help diagnose mental health.