In a new piece for the Harvard Business Review, Michael Schrage, an author and research fellow at MIT Sloan School’s Center for Digital Business, poses an important question: What happens to mental health at work when our devices know how we feel?
Our devices can already be used to quantify and improve our well-being in the form of wearable fitness trackers, meditation apps, virtual therapists and more. And workplace wellness is a growing area of concern for many executives (including Thrive Global CEO and founder Arianna Huffington, Schrage mentions). Data backs up the need for a hard look at this issue: Schrage points to a recent global survey that found “combined, employee anxiety, stress, and depression accounted for over 80 percent of all emotional health cases in 2014, compared with 55 percent in 2012.”
Based on those numbers, it’s not hard to imagine the union of wellness and technology like wearables will soon be coming to an office near you. Schrage writes, “Your smart watch, in addition to reminding you to walk 500 more steps or get up and drink more water, may also nudge you to speak up more in meetings. (Or perhaps prod you to interrupt less.)"
That could also mean what you say during work may be used to help make the workplace healthier for everyone, which, as well intentioned as it may be, obviously raises some privacy concerns. Imagine having your Slack conversations monitored in the name of mental health, for instance. While many might find that unsettling, it could also help HR intervene in real-time to help understand when “management is disruptively stressed-out or depressed,” Schrage suggests.
“Such data may even help predict future mood states of teams and individuals — for example, proactively signaling when an employee may benefit from a day off to care for their mental health,” John Torous, PhD, a co-director of the Digital Psychiatry Program at BIDMC / Harvard Medical School, told Schrage.
Torous added, “Of course, such apps and wearables need to earn users’ trust and protect sensitive information — without trust there is no health or wellness.”
But in addition to the privacy concern, there’s also the question of what it means to depend on a device for well-being. Schrage points out that common expert advice to promote wellness today includes regularly disconnecting from your gadgets (something we recommend at Thrive). He writes, “Will we get to a point where disconnecting depressed or anxious people from their digital diagnostics is seen as ethically or medically irresponsible?”
“Smartphones have already dissolved work/life boundaries; as they become more sophisticated, the computational commingling of personal and professional behaviors may also be inevitable. For some, that sounds alarming; for others, it may be therapeutically integral to building evidence-based medicine data sets,” Schrage writes.
It’s unclear of what role devices will play in our lives and workplaces in the (very near) future. But while using them to monitor our mental health raises legitimate privacy concerns, it also suggests that workplaces are finally taking mental and emotional well-being as seriously as physical well-being, something that will ultimately benefit everyone.
Read more on the Harvard Business Review.