Could technology actually be good for mental health?

While there is evidence for the adverse effects of technology and its overuse, some apps and digital platforms may be good for our wellbeing. Brendan Street, Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing, discusses how certain technologies can help improve work-life balance and provide access to emotional support.

It’s true, technology overuse can have an overwhelming impact on the brain and body.

Smartphones and tablets mean emails can be accessed at the swipe of a screen, especially if employees use their personal devices for work. It can feel impossible to escape constant notifications and individuals may struggle to switch off from work, long after the day has ended. The situation has been exacerbated by the pandemic, with employees engaging in 'bedmin' right up until they fall asleep.

Technology can have a physical impact on the body too. Devices encourage a ‘down and forward’ posture, as the person is constantly hunched forward looking down at a screen. This can put an unnecessary amount of pressure on the neck and spine and may lead to musculoskeletal issues. Prolonged staring at screens can also put a strain on our eyes.

Using technology wisely

On the surface, blanket policies, which limit technology, might seem like a sensible approach. But the rise in remote working means it’s now almost the new norm for employees to work more flexible hours.

The University of Sussex even launched a report suggesting banning out-of-hours emails, and the resultant perceived reduction of autonomy and flexibility, ‘could harm employee wellbeing’. For some, briefly checking emails in the evening allows people to organise their schedule for the following day to avoid stressful mornings.

Instead, businesses can introduce policies that help to balance the benefits and risks of technology. When used in the right way, technology can improve work-life balance and provide accessible emotional support.

Support at your fingertips

Apps and digital platforms can complement corporate wellbeing programmes positively, making investments more cost-effective and beneficial to both employers and employees.

Businesses are developing in-house technology to better monitor and support employee physical and mental health. Nuffield Health have launched an online digital platform called PATH (personalised assessment for tailored health), which uses historic and real-time health data to understand the physical and mental wellbeing needs of employees.

In-house digital platforms help businesses provide a more tailored benefit to reduce absenteeism and increase productivity. Many use several evidence-based mathematical algorithms to determine a person’s risk factors and generate a completely tailored assessment for them. The data collected can be used to drive an organisation’s future wellbeing strategy, increasing the success rate and return on investment.

Technology is making the process of seeing a GP faster and simpler, without employees having to join lengthy waiting lists and take time out of the office. For example, our online GP service Nuffield Health Virtual GP, powered by Doctor Care Anywhere, allows employees to get the advice and treatment they need via secure online video or phone consultations, anywhere and anytime.

Outside of the professional workplace, there’s been a growth in downloads of mindfulness and meditation apps. Encouraging employees to use subscription-based services in their free time like Calm and Headspace can be beneficial, so they can learn to nurture better self-care outside of work.

These apps offer digital escape through guided relaxation and stress-reducing exercises. During the first lockdown in March 2020, downloads of these apps hit 750,000, marking a 25–29% increase since the start of that year.

Talking to tech in crisis

For many people, the notion of sharing a vulnerability or admitting a problem is a barrier in itself. However, some research suggests counselling conducted online is as effective as face-to-face sessions.

The Center For Mental Health predicts that up to 10 million people will need either new or additional mental health support as a direct consequence of the Covid-19. For those employers without wellbeing services, now is the time to review which technological tools will make a difference to your workforce. There are plenty of wellness options that can be offered to staff, which are successful both in-person and remotely.

For example, certain platforms are available that allow patients to complete courses of cognitive behavioral therapy. It can also be delivered safely and effectively by phone, video or email for flexibility and privacy. We deliver CBT sessions securely via the Nuffield Health My Therapy App, and during 2020 our therapists delivered 3.7 million minutes of therapy remotely.

Other types of therapy, which are also safe, effective, and accessible remotely, include counselling (e.g. relationship, bereavement), interpersonal therapy, and access to psychiatric assessments.

More accurate data collection

Many assessment methods in mental-health care and research rely on self-reporting, but the resulting data are subjective and burdensome to collect.

However, mobile phones and other internet-connected devices provide an opportunity to continuously collect objective information on behaviour. This generates a rich data set, which provides insight into the mental-health needs of individuals within the workforce. This data collection becomes the ‘pulse’ of the organization, informing wellbeing strategies.

Insights can be used to alert people to the need for self-management before potential issues – and the associated symptoms – become more severe. Individuals can also choose to share these data with health professionals or researchers.

Digital communities

Research shows communicative technologies can be effective intervention tools for loneliness. During the period of physical distancing, maintaining contact with friends, loved ones and work colleagues via technology was often the only option.

Research supports the idea that communicative technologies and digital services can be effective intervention tools in these circumstances.

A meta-analysis that examined loneliness interventions for older adults in Poland and Italy discovered interventions involving technology were some of the most successful ways to decrease loneliness during the pandemic.

What actions should UK workplaces take?

While the future of what a post-pandemic workplace will look like is not certain, it does seem like a hybrid work environment – a mix between remote and in-office working – is here to stay.

1. Personalise wellbeing offerings

The one-size-fits-all, laptop-and-go concept isn’t supported by research. Support should be tailored for individual staff members if businesses are to provide facilities or the expectation that staff may be required to work additional hours or from home.

So instead of placing limits on technology, employers should personalise their wellness offerings to the needs of individuals. This means working out what suits your workforce, identifying staff at higher risk of stress or distress, and coordinating the right support.

Businesses may send regular online surveys to employees, allowing them to vote on working preferences such as flexible opportunities and work perks. Business leaders can then use the data to tailor benefits to their team. For example, data may reveal some employees prefer to start work later and continue into the evening, allowing them to exercise during daylight hours or complete a hobby in the morning.

2. Offer mental health support

Emotional wellbeing support should meet the needs of remote workers and it’s up to employers to signpost it.

This may include providing access to Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), which include direct telephone access to a mental health specialist.

Similarly, remote Cognitive Behavioural Therapy sessions allow individuals to speak with a psychotherapist who can help them to understand and address unhelpful behaviour and thinking patterns, reduce distress and increase productivity.

3. Customise technology policies

If companies decide that stricter policies around answering out-of-hours emails are required, this should be customised to the type of work each team carries out. For example, they could implement policies that discourage emails sent over weekends. Often a simple message in email signatures can create a more balanced approach to work:

“I work flexibly and as such may send emails outside of standard working hours. I don’t however expect you to respond to my email outside of your working hours. I very much value and promote the maintenance of healthy work/home boundaries and look forward to your response when you are next working.”

It’s also useful to set guidelines for what constitutes as an ‘emergency’ requiring an immediate response, as well as setting notifications on devices to support this.

4. Encourage time away from tech

Other measures for those back in a physical workplace could include introducing break-out areas, which encourage employees to take time away from their computers and devices during the working day.

Emotional wellbeing support for employees

To find out more about how we can support employees’ mental health at work, at home, and in the community, visit emotional wellbeing support.

Last updated Monday 6 September 2021