Why Most People Trust Robots Over Other People for Mental Health

eWEEK ROBOTICS PERSPECTIVE: We still live in a time when mental health is misunderstood and too little discussed. Can impersonal robots with artificial intelligence step into that gap and help us?

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When Dak Prescott made public his struggles with mental health, the star quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys was met with public statements of support—and some derision as well. To some people, it was a risible admission of weakness. 

Prescott wouldn’t have faced negative reactions if he had been discussing a torn ligament or other physical ailment. All the more reason why, for someone occupying one of the most stereotypical macho positions in America, his revelation was as courageous as it was unexpected.

We still live in a time when mental health is misunderstood and too little discussed. No wonder that so many of us either ignore our own mental health or push it into the background, expecting it to sort itself out. 

COVID-19 is starting to push this discussion to the forefront, as the pandemic has created the most stressful year in recent history and negatively affected the mental health of 78% of the global workforce, according to a new survey by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence, an HR research and advisory firm. 

“With new remote work expectations and blurred lines between personal and professional lives, the toll of COVID-19 on our mental health is significant, and it’s something that workers across every industry and country are dealing with,” said Dan Schawbel, a managing partner with Workplace Intelligence. “The pandemic … is the biggest workforce issue of our time and will be for the next decade.” 

The robot solution

What the survey also found is that, across the board, 68% of respondents would prefer to talk to a robot than their manager about workplace stress and anxiety. This survey was taken by more than 12,000 employees, managers, HR leaders and C-level executives across 11 countries, so we’re not talking about a geographically or demographically limited sample here.

That finding makes sense when you think about it: Employees might not want to confide in their bosses, while their bosses probably live with the expression that “life is lonely at the top.” In fact, according to the study, C-suite executives are more likely (72%) to say they’d prefer to talk to a robot about mental health than employees are (62%). (For the purposes of this report, we defined “robot” as a “machine resembling a human being and able to replicate certain human movements and functions automatically.”)

“It just proves that the higher up you go, even though you make more money, you can suffer a lot more because your responsibilities are just that much greater,” Schawbel says.

And these problems don’t go away when people get home—especially not this year, when work and home are for many people in the same location. Plus, who are you going to call at 11 p.m. when you once again can’t get to sleep?

The surprise here is that not only are people open to using robots as therapists, but they also specifically reject their managers and other people as useful sounding boards for their problems.

  • Only 18% of survey respondents say they would prefer humans over robots to support their mental health, as they believe robots provide a judgment-free zone (34%), an unbiased outlet to share problems (30%) and quick answers to health-related questions (29%).
  • Meanwhile, 80% are open to having a robot as a therapist or counselor. As noted above, 68% of people would prefer to talk to a robot over their manager about stress and anxiety at work.

To be clear, no one is talking about robots providing clinical diagnoses or prescribing medication. But robots are seen as more objective and more available than their human counterparts. 

A competitive advantage 

Companies will also find their employees more productive if they get their worries off their chests. Let’s not forget that the brain bone is connected to the body bone—that mental health issues lead to sleep deprivation, which can make people more susceptible to illness, and that stress is associated with physical ailments such as neck and back aches. 

“When you’re suffering from mental health issues, that’s most of what you’re thinking about every day,” said Schawbel, who has studied mental health in the workplace for decades. “So mental health is a block between people and their ability to reach their full potential in the workplace.” 

What is a vicious cycle of increasing pain can become a virtual cycle of increasing health.

Businesses have awakened to this fact. “A lot of companies are partnering with technology solution providers that have things like apps for mindfulness and virtual therapy,” Schawbel said.

The survey numbers back up just how effective technology can be:

  • 75% of survey respondents say AI-based apps have helped their mental health at work. The top benefits people noted are providing the information they need to do their jobs more effectively (31%), automating tasks and decreasing workload to prevent burnout (27%), and reducing stress by helping to prioritize tasks (27%).
  • AI has also helped the majority (51%) of workers shorten their work week and allowed them to take longer vacations (51%). Over half of respondents say AI technology increases employee productivity (63%), improves job satisfaction (54%), and improves overall wellbeing (52%). 

“In the future, a big part of the job-seeker’s criteria for selecting a job will be: How is this company going to support my mental health and wellbeing,” Schawbel said.

“We need to treat mental health like we treat physical health. There’s a stigma around that—that’s been chipped away a little bit. We want to generate awareness that everyone is facing this worldwide. The thing people have is they’re afraid to talk about it.” 

Cowboys QB Prescott is an outlier when it comes to talking about his mental health issues. Organizations have an opportunity to support their employees, whether they’re outspoken about their health or not. 

We should all be aware that the mental health effects of this pandemic will last long after a vaccine or cure have been developed. And at a time when it would be easy for technology fatigue to set in, it’s encouraging that people still value the enormous benefits of the coming wave of innovations.

Michael Hickins is a former eWEEK and Wall Street Journal editor and reporter who now works for Oracle. This report is special to eWEEK.