2020 has been a very tough year for many employees and I don’t think there’s much need to explain why. Between feelings of isolation, increased pressure, and the difficulties associated with the telecommuting experiment, their mental health has been put to the test.
Companies have understood the urgency to take care of the mental health of their employees. But what no one anticipated is that employees trust robots more than humans and their managers in particular.
All this is the conclusion of a study conducted at the end of 2020 by Oracle that I encourage you to download and that I will of course comment in this article.
2020: annus horribilis
Let’s start by sharing an assessment that will surprise no one: 2020 has been a very hard year for employees. For 70% of them, it was the worst year of their professional life.
The pandemic and its impact on the world of work has of course had consequences in terms of stress, isolation, work/personal life balance, lack of socialization etc.
But I also note with interest that 40% of them say they face daily stressors in the workplace, such as pressure to meet performance standards, routine and tedious tasks and unmanageable workloads.
This puts what I would call managerial and operational factors on the same level as the most important mental factors. But we’ll talk about that later.
If we add to this that :
- 35% of remote workers say they are working 10 hours more per week than before
- 78% of employees say their mental health has been negatively affected during this time
- 85% of employees say their mental health problems at work have had an impact on their home life
It is easy to understand the urgency of addressing the situation on the part of employers, especially since 40% of employees say that their productivity has decreased and that they are making worse decisions at work.
Robots better suited than managers to deal with mental health issues
So of course we might as well get straight to the point because this is the key figure of the study: 82% of employees think that robots will support their mental health better than human beings.
I did not expect another conclusion from a study dedicated to the impact of AI on work, but I will refrain from accusing it of opportunism: already in 2015 I echoed another study showing the preference of employees for robots to the detriment of their managers, and in general this Oracle study is in line with a number of weak signals that we have been seeing for some time.
We could stop there, but the biggest takeaway from the study is why employees believe in the potential of robots.
So yes, employees prefer to talk to robots about their mental health problems because their opinion is not biased and they provide quick answers to their questions. Which is very interesting if you read between the lines.
Indeed, the fact that a robot does not judge and keeps your secrets to himself (although…) is seen as an advantage over a human and this will surprise no one. But what also counts for employees is to have answers to their questions about their mental health. And here I think their reasoning is quite pragmatic: rather than talking to a manager who won’t know what to answer or will have had a quick training to give me basic answers, I might as well talk to a robot who will have had the same information or will even make a more detailed analysis.
Less cuddling, more solutions
The employee seems to have a very practical conception of what he needs. He doesn’t just want to talk, he doesn’t want an ear to listen to him, he wants answers, operational and concrete feedback.
And it goes much further because when employees are asked what they want from a robot they say, among other things:
- help them prioritize their tasks
- complete tedious administrative tasks
- reduce their workload
- find them the information they need
This echoes another very interesting article I was reading recently on mental health in the workplace. It states, among other things, that:
“Do I want classes on meditation? Yes. But do they move the needle on the stuff that matters, that will actually change the way an employee feels? No,”
“All you have to do is ask your employees what they need. And they’ll say, ‘I need to work less hours. I need to be compensated enough to pay for childcare and groceries and to meet my needs. I need more resources at work to do my job. I need to feel safe when I need time off. I need to not be afraid that I’ll fall behind’.”
This is a point that I’ve seen on topics related to the employee experience and that logically comes back when addressing the topic of mental health in times of pandemic: there is a real gap between the approach of some experts and many businesses and what employees want.
For some, it’s all about cuddle therapy. Employees need to talk, to feel good, and therefore, once they have finished working, something must be done to compensate for the impact of work on their mental health.
For employees this is not enough. We must not compensate for what affects them negatively, but remove the causes. They want us to change their work, not to compensate for its negative effects. They want us to break through the glass ceiling that separates initiatives that affect the periphery of work from those that constitute the core of the work flow. This is in line with what I said at the beginning of this article: more than the really “mental” issues, employees were complaining about issues that are really related to the operational conditions and modalities of work.
And more than the obvious interest in robots, that’s what I’ll take away from this study. Employees no longer want a “soft” treatment of mental health issues that would be like “building a sauna next to the torture room”. They want to see what is happening in the torture room addressed.