Can AI *really* make people in the office feel better?

AI in the workplace

A well-designed corporate wellness program offers a host of benefits to employers: improved productivity, better morale and increased employee engagement to name just a few. Best of all, employees like and value these programs, with a majority saying that the initiatives have a positive impact on their health

That’s why more and more companies of all sizes are establishing wellness programs. As many as 70% of companies offer some kind of wellness program, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. In the face of a tight labor market, companies see employee wellness programs as a critical part of a competitive benefits package, and most are planning to invest more in them. Employee wellness will take “center stage” in 2020, predicts the Workforce Institute.

But savvy employers know that “wellness” can’t just be a separate program. It doesn’t matter how many yoga classes you offer or how great the on-site gym is if the workplace itself is toxic.  The On-demand workplace has brought about many positive changes—like adaptability and responsiveness—but it can also lead to an “always-connected, always-on” culture that can actually harm employees’ health. 

How can technology help companies create not only better employee wellness programs but healthier workplaces as well? And what role can AI play?

Stress

Stress is the bane of today’s workplace. On-the-job stress has brought nearly half of full-time U.S. employees to tears, and 83% of respondents report feeling extremely stressed at work at least once a week. Stress costs the U.S economy untold amounts every year in turnover, absenteeism and lower productivity. This trend doesn’t show any signs of abating any time soon.

One way that AI technology might help reduce workplace stress is by making it easier and faster for employees to get the answers or help they need. Our internal research shows that employees expect answers to support-related questions within five hours—or less. AI bots can get employees the information they need much more quickly, whether it’s the Wi-Fi password or instructions on how to submit expense reports. askSpoke, for example, can answer up to 50% of questions on its own, before those questions even have to reach a human being. 

This also reduces the pressure on your HR team to answer the same question over and over, giving them more time to spend on the higher-value projects that will increase their job satisfaction.

Mental health

AI can also help employees with the deeply personal issue of mental health. Even though an estimated 46.6 million U.S. adults struggle with mental illnesses, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, it still tends to be a taboo topic, particularly at work. 

That’s unfortunate, because the costs of untreated mental illness are massive. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that depression and anxiety cost the U.S. economy up to $1 trillion each year in lost productivity. Half of Millennials and 75% of Gen-Z employees have left a job in part due to mental health issues. Given the cost of replacing and retraining employees, that’s not something any company can afford.

There is some good news. When we looked at anonymous, aggregated data across hundreds of companies, we discovered that from 2018 to 2019, there was a 410% spike in queries to askSpoke’s self-service AI platform for terms like “mental health,” “depression,” “burnout,” “anxiety,” and other mental-health-related terms.

This means that rather than suffering in silence, employees are looking for their companies’ mental health resources more often, and we’ve found that once an employee uses AI to get answers on this topic, they’re likely to do it again. 

But why are employees engaging with an AI bot on mental-health issues, instead of their friendly HR team member? First, AI is getting better at understanding everyday language, so employees can get answers quickly instead of spending stressful hours looking for the right resources. They can also get answers 24/7, on their mobile devices, from anywhere.

Second, employees can ask questions of an AI bot that might be hard to ask a human, particular a human they don’t know very well (or know that they can trust). A recent global survey by Oracle and FutureWorkplace found that 64% of workers trusted AI chatbots more than they trusted their managers. That’s unfortunate, because senior leaders are just as likely to struggle with mental health symptoms as individual contributors. Perhaps AI can pave the way to more openness about mental health across the board. 

Workplace design

While it can’t replace human interaction, AI can be part of efforts to design a more supportive, personalized workplace. askSpoke provides direct support in whatever app employees are using: Slack, email, browser or SMS. When an IT or HR team member receives the request, askSpoke fills in context about the requester, like their title or location, saving everyone time and providing a better experience.

It’s worth noting that “workplace design” doesn’t always mean a physical office at the company headquarters. In the on-demand workplace, companies are offering flexible hours and supporting remote workers, including the one-in-six U.S. workers who are also caregivers. For this latter group, which includes a large cohort of Millennials and aging Baby Boomers, quick access to resources and information about leave policies will be critical and go a long way to reducing stress—and making for happier employees.

Because what it boils down to is that a happy employee is a productive and engaged employee, and that leads to a more productive workplace. Far from being emblematic of a cold dystopian future, AI bots can be a tremendous support to their human counterparts, freeing people from repetitive tasks and allowing them to focus on creating a more humane work environment.


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