Time for mental health

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If our desire to ‘turn back the hands of time’ is a forlorn hope, much of human history has been taken up by efforts to overcome time passing and things inevitably being forgotten.

Writing itself was invented to preserve and represent speech and thought; photography and film do the same for the visual world. Beyond just recording and representing past events to future audiences, such technologies can also influence the future. Just think of the power of images that triggered the Arab Spring revolutions.

Yet, the passing of time is a fundamental experience for us all and has always limited our efforts to record and reproduce an idea or event. Generally, even in this age of the ‘selfie’ and an all-pervasive social media that hits us with a constant stream of up-to-date news, most of our lives pass into the past, never to be seen or lived again.

This applies to our time at work with our experiences and our responses to any risks mostly unrecorded and unnoticed. But with ‘real-time data’ this might all be about to change with consequences that few of us appreciate.

For the first time, technologies can capture, calculate and represent a picture of the world in the present. These technologies can do this for individuals and aggregate this data to create patterns about the ‘here-and-now’ at the population level.

Real-time data could be used to help employees manage their mental health better, or give their employers more of an insight into their workforce

More than just influencing the future, such records can intervene to predict the future and provide information-rich content to direct decisions. Our cognitive tools, thousands of years after the invention of writing, have finally caught up with our lived experience of time.

At this year’s Mad World Summit, technologies that use the power of real-time data to help manage mental health issues were everywhere.

Statistics explain why the latest technologies, artificial intelligence and machine learning are getting involved: Business in the Community’s National Mental Health at Work survey shows that 39 per cent of employees have had a mental health issue related to work, nearly 50 per cent don’t feel safe talking about this, and even 9 per cent have been dismissed or not promoted for doing so. If this is a true reflection of the national picture, then HSE’s recent announcement to enforce stress standards is particularly welcome.

HSE’s own statistics show that work-related stress, anxiety and depression are the main causes of work-related ill health in Britain. So, new approaches are welcome. At the Mad World Summit, many of the speakers – Mind’s Paul Farmer, CIPD’s Peter Cheese, BBC’s Kate Silverton – made the point that though there has been a quiet revolution in mental health, too many people are too frightened to raise the problem, and if they do, they don’t get the support they need.

In this context, tools that use real-time data are at the frontline of risk management: as long as they are introduced with staff and not ‘applied’ to staff.

Rather than expecting people to talk about stress, anxiety, line-management problems, all things they can find difficult to talk about, imagine an app using biometric data that gives workers and employers an insight into the mental health of the workforce. Immediately, and in real-time.

This data could relate to an individual or to the whole workforce, it could trigger suggestions, warnings and adjustments for the employee to help them reduce stress or cope with anxiety and give the employer a true picture of their workplace. After data collection has had time to build causal relations and correlations, it could even be used to predict stressors and suggest ways to plan for psycho-social risk assessments. 

Too many organisations suffer from a disconnect between the boardroom and the shopfloor. In some cases because an employer would rather not know, sometimes because workers don’t want to speak up. Real-time technologies might just crack open all this pretense and shine a light into some very dark places that for too long have driven some people into a mental illness. The business case for good health at work – whether we are talking about productivity or turnover – might just be enough motivation for employers to take a deep breath and offer their workers the power of technology.

Mike Robinson FCA is Chief executive of the British Safety Council


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