Green maze representing technology for mental health
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Technology to manage mental health at work

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably used a fitness band to make sure you’re moving and sleeping enough, logged your caloric intake on a handy app, or mapped your run around the park to track your training progress. We rely on our gadgets to keep tabs so we can free up our brains for other things. So, how can we use our love of technology to manage mental health at work?

Technology has been invaluable in improving the lives of people with physical disabilities. Everything from white canes that use sonar to warn someone with a visual impairment of an upcoming obstacle, to measuring your heart rate and blood sugar levels through your phone.

But mental health often gets left out of this race to remove barriers. We don’t consider it a disability, even though it often meets the Equality Act definition, and I believe this is one of the main reasons mental health lags behind other disabilities in terms of stigma reduction and support. We’ve also tended to focus on tangible, measurable impairments and ignore the scope for technology to impact positively on our mental health. Sure, there are hugely popular guided meditation apps and online counselling services. But the real test of technology is in tackling the daily effects of existing mental ill-health.

Employers have opportunity to promote tech for mental health

Employers could be leading the work in this space. After all, one in four of their workforce (the percentage of us likely to experience a mental health problem in any given year) are already well placed to help shape and test solutions that can boost productivity and minimise absenteeism and presenteeism.

There’s no better way to encourage open attitudes to disclosure than to seek the wisdom of those who have first-hand experience of mental ill-health. Employees who contribute feel valued, in control and have a better chance of fulfilling their potential. And employers benefit from a more diverse talent pool generated by paving the way in this space.

Here are some of the ways employers can help employees use technology to manage mental health at work.

Training our brains

Cognitive processes including our ability to control our inhibitions and where we focus our attention, working memory, flexibility between tasks, as well as reasoning, problem-solving, and planning (collectively known as ‘executive function’) are prerequisites for performing in any role. We all need to be able to plan, organise our thoughts, process information coming in and make decisions. Yet these are often the things we struggle with most when we’re stressed or experiencing an episode of mental ill-health.

Sukhwinder Shergill, Professor of Psychiatry & Systems Neuroscience at King’s College London is currently working on using a form of brain training to help alleviate some of the cognitive deficits seen in people with psychosis. Similar work has been done at Cambridge University and endorsed by mental health charities. There’s also good evidence that the ‘use it or lose it’ approach guards against dementia and the memory loss associated with ageing, and boosts our ability to use our brains more effectively.

There’s no reason why employers couldn’t roll out brain training as part of regular employee learning. And it benefits people without mental ill-health too. So it’s a win-win.

It’s all in the game

‘Gamification’ can add a new dimension to existing tech tools, driving engagement by giving people a sense of achievement when they improve their score or beat their colleagues.

Apply this to mental health and, with the right apps, you can increase motivation, concentration and promote mindfulness. All good skills to help people stay focused even with the distractions of open-plan offices. And pitching it as a competitive game can make it less like the usual dull offerings so many of us have to sit through for compliance purposes.

The nuts and bolts

There are so many tools already out there that can help take care of the nuts and bolts of daily life to leave us free to get on with deeper thinking.

Better ways to take notes, record and organise information for easy reference, and list tasks with reminders and priority ordering are available as apps.

Conferencing platforms allow remote workers to feel connected during times when the office might be too much. They also help prevent lone workers from becoming isolated and at risk of succumbing to stress.

Virtual staff discussion boards for mental health facilitate the sharing of experiences and ideas. They also give the added confidence afforded by that small level of anonymity we’ve probably all felt through social media interactions.

Employers can promote tools like these by integrating them into existing IT infrastructure or developing in-house versions that have the same capability.

A future of early intervention

Many businesses already offer discounted fitness trackers but could do more to make them a part of the accepted work cultures and keep people using them. Future wearables will include mood and stress level tracking to predict times of vulnerability and allow early intervention. Over the next decade, I predict that taking stock of your emotional state throughout the day will be as common and accepted as checking how many steps you’ve taken.

But beyond wearables, perhaps the greatest potential lies in using intelligent software as an extension of our brains – freeing us up to think freely and without unnecessary boundaries.

Technology is a tool. Here’s your chance to embrace it to find new solutions for managing mental health at work.