Poor mental health costs UK employers between £33-42 billion each year, with the impact on the overall economy at least double that figure.
In fact, an independent review carried out by Lord Dennis Stevenson and Paul Farmer at the end of last year put the total cost at between £74-99 billion per annum due to everything from reduced economic output to an increased burden on the National Health Service.
But a key problem actually seems to be with the workplace itself. According to charity Mind, while a quarter of the UK’s population suffer from a mental health issue in any given year, just under a third of men and one in five women attribute the problem to their job.
To make matters worse, the survey, which was based on input from 15,000 employees across 30 companies, also revealed how few people were willing to talk openly about their mental health problems.
While only two out of five women felt their organisational culture made such an approach feasible, the number dropped to a mere 31% among men. Fears here included possible stigma and potential repercussions in promotion terms.
As a result, Tim Aston, founder and chief product officer of Emoquo, decided to try and tackle the situation by creating a confidential app in a bid to “democratise coaching”. The idea came about when, as a consultant dealing with the people side of change management, he discovered that employees and managers below director level tended to lack support during transformation projects - despite the profound emotional effect that such change could have on individuals at all levels.
Therefore, he started working with more than 25 coaches and therapists to codify different problematic situations ranging from how to deal with being bullied to how to manage a friend following a recent management promotion. Abigail Rappoport, the firm’s Chief Executive, explains:
It’s about giving someone the confidence to tackle and own the issue. So we try to stop small things, such as inappropriate jokes from a colleague or feeling put down by a manager, from becoming big things such as anxiety or depression. The difference between our app and other health tech ones though is that most focus on physical fitness or diagnosing problems, but we’re all about prevention in a mental health context.
Although the machine learning-based app is intended to provide support to employees across the business, one of its key target audiences is Millennials who are new to management. As Rappoport points out:
As people rise through an organisation, they’re often expected to know how to do things without necessarily being provided with the skills and training they require. But Millennials are digital natives who are happy to use technology to find answers and so they see an app as a safe place to go.
The software itself works in a “coach bot-style”.It initially asks users a series of questions based on the subject they would like to deal with as well as how they feel about the situation, which they respond to using a series of drop-down menus. Once the problem and their state of mind is understood, employees are provided with “short, sharp micro-learning content” to help them tackle their problem such as a short video or audio file or three text-based bullet points.
They are then asked how they feel and when they intend to deal with the situation facing them. The night before any event takes place, users are sent a reminder, which includes advice, and are again asked how they feel once any encounter has occurred. Rappoport says:
The app tracks how you’re doing and where you’re at, and you get your own Emoquo score. But the more you use it, the smarter the app gets as it starts to understand your profile – things like whether you’re an introvert or extrovert - and what situations you find difficult. So over time, content is hyper-personalised because the machine learning algorithms learn to understand if they are on the right path and will give you the outcomes you need.
As part of a user-based subscription, senior managers also receive a dashboard, which provides them with a “real-time heat map” of any issues that the organisation is facing and where. Rappoport explains:
Mental health is invisible in the workplace, but because it’s hard to see and measure, it’s difficult to know what’s going on with the workforce. So it’s about providing an early warning system in real time to make the invisible visible.
While Emoquo already has a minimum viable product, the first commercial release is due to ship this summer when it goes into pilot testing with a number of banks, defence and insurance companies. A natural language processing version is also planned for the future. Rappoport says:
We spoke to 100 companies and thousands of their employees to understand the impact of negative behaviour. We looked at measures such as the effect of lost productivity and disruptive behaviour on the bottom line and found it costs an organisation with 10,000 staff who are on a minimum pay grade about $8 million per year – and the figure would probably double if you added things like attrition, grievances and recruitment.
So because companies can’t afford to provide coaching to everyone, apps like this can democratise it and make it available to all.