When Amanda Hughes’ sister in the UK became sick with COVID-19 shortly after the outbreak of the global pandemic in 2020, she grew understandably anxious.
Her wellbeing took another nose-dive when her husband, who’d been working interstate when the borders of their home state of Queensland were closed, was locked out for four months.
"I felt isolated, lonely and nervous,” says Hughes, a senior administrative coordinator at global design consulting firm Stantec.
“A lot of anxious thoughts would swirl around in my head; usually at night. I also found myself suddenly suffering shortness of breath when invited to social engagements without my husband.”
Hughes began using the corporate wellness product ilumen, which her employer Stantec had introduced from May 2020 to its employees in offsite or remote locations across Australia, New Zealand and India.
"It asked me a lot of questions about my day-to-day moods and how I was dealing with various situations,” says Hughes.
“It told me that I was showing signs of anxiety and depression. I felt reassured that it wasn’t just in my head – I was genuinely feeling down. And it made me realise that I needed to do something about it.”
If an individual has high scores in feelings like anxiety or stress, they receive a confidential notification that prompts them to modify their behaviour, or could connect them with a service like the Beyond Blue helpline.
“We're not diagnosing people – we're giving the individuals a view of their mental wellbeing,” says Jennifer Solitario, senior vice president of corporate health at Medibio, which released the app in 2018.
“We are measuring the signs and symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress. There are also other important corporate metrics like engagement, disengagement, resilience, time management and trust.”
ilumen provided Hughes with personalised nudges to change her daily routine. She used the app’s guided meditation links, started a gratitude journal, improved her diet and swapped her evening glass of wine for a brisk walk. As her day-to-day mood began to lift, the app reinforced this by tracking the improvement in her wellbeing.
“I felt a sense of achievement because I’d taken control of my mental health,” she says.
Stantec has credited the tool for helping them understand their employees’ sentiment during a difficult period when it was more challenging for managers to check in with their teams. The ilumen program saw a voluntary uptake among 564 Stantec employees, almost a third of staff.
Stantec is not alone among employers in seeking new ways to combat mental health concerns among employees, which many in the field say has been on the rise since the pandemic began. Even prior to COVID-19, the Productivity Commission’s draft report into mental health estimated the cost of workplace absenteeism (the inability to go to work) and presenteeism (the inability to fully function at work) due to mental ill-health was up to $17 billion per year.
In response, a raft of online tools, apps and platforms have bubbled to the fore to measure mood and help mental health and wellbeing, including those by the Black Dog Institute, FlourishDX and Moodflx among others.
Moodflx, developed by a Melbourne based tech-startup, is an app that analyses mood against things like physical activity, screen time, weather and lighting. It can sync with sleep and diet tracking apps and it will soon be available as a wearable device.
The app prompts the user to reflect on their mood several times a day by selecting one of 24 moods. Among the choices are ‘street words’ like ‘stoked’, ‘chilled’ and ‘humming’, which aim to enhance engagement with younger people.
The default setting is anonymous, though an employee may share data with their manager if they wish. There are incentives for using the app, such as gym membership discounts, coffee vouchers or extended lunch breaks.
A team leader could initiate walking meetings or a step challenge if they note via the wellbeing dashboard that their team is sedentary and its mood is broadly low.
“The employer is showing that they are listening to the employee, which is a leadership capability. They're not intervening in terms of a clinical diagnosis,” says Dr Natalie Lander, senior research fellow at Deakin University who led the research behind moodflx.
She says that while it is not a replacement for face-to-face check-ins, the technology fulfils an important purpose.
“There's no better time for this because the workforce is displaced,” she says. “It is harder for HR departments or managers to do check-ins and we no longer have those incidental conversations. So having this real time feedback is invaluable.”
But Westpac’s chief mental health officer David Burroughs urges caution in the way mood tracking apps are considered and used in workplaces, particularly given their focus is generally on the individual, rather than addressing broader organisational barriers.
“When it comes to workplace mental health, every major researcher will tell you the solution is not to fix the worker, but to fix the workplace – by addressing psychosocial risk, job design, psychological safety and the like,” Burroughs says.
“To be effective, any apps really need to look at why people may be stressed, and not just at who is stressed. Otherwise, they run the risk of providing a band-aid approach to more systemic issues.”