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The Practical Employer

Is Technology the Answer to Your Employees’ Mental Health Problems?

Employers need to adopt a systemic and holistic approach that recognizes mental health problems as they arise.

The world was rocked last week, first by the suicide of Kate Spade and then by that of Anthony Bourdain.

American suicide rates have skyrocketed, up 30 percent since 1999, emblematic of the larger mental-health epidemic we are facing.

Many point to the isolationism and perfection seeking created by our personal technology devices (and the social media they feed to us) as one the main causes of this epidemic.

But what if the analytical power of these devices could actually alert us to mood changes and create an earlier awareness of an impending personal mental-health crisis?As noted by the Atlantic:

As people start to slide into depression, for instance, they may do several of the following things easily sensed by a phone’s microphones, accelerometers, GPS units, and keyboards: They may talk with fewer people; and when they talk, they may speak more slowly, say less, and use clumsier sentences and a smaller vocabulary…. they may spend more time at home and go fewer places. They may sleep differently.

Assuming our devices can do this for us, what happens when this tech makes it way into the workplace, and employers have access to these mental health warning signs? According to the Harvard Business Review:

Data-informed managers may be able to use real-time interventions to defuse stressful situations before they get out of hand. HR can and should want to know when and whether management is disruptively stressed-out or depressed; leaders should want to see how management moods and methods correlate with morale…. Privacy concerns are unavoidable.

Lots of laws will be impacted by the intersection of technology and mental health at work.

  • The ADA, its rules on the confidentiality of medical information, and its prohibition against discrimination on the basis of mental impairments.
  • The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, which would limit an employer’s ability to request or gather the genetic information (i.e., medical history) of an employee or their family members.
  • HIPAA, although it does not apply to employers in their capacity as employers.
  • State biometric privacy laws, which require some type of notice and voluntary consent before an employer collects biometric information. Currently, only Illinois, Texas, and Washington have such laws, but it’s fair to assume more are on the way.
Tech may be part of the solution, but it cannot be the only part. The only way to solve our mental health crisis is to continue to have open and frank discussions about mental health.
  • Educate your managers and supervisors about the mental-health warning signs for which to look.
  • Offer employees help, both via an employee assistance program and by publicizing other mental health and suicide prevention options (i.e., the phone number for the national suicide prevention hotline — trust me, it saves lives).
  • Respond quickly and decisively to all harassment or bullying.
  • Know what you don’t know. If an employee is talking about suicide, seek professional guidance. Don’t go it alone if you are not trained to handle the situation.
It is dangerous to rely on technology alone to solve our employees’ mental health problems. It is not only fraught with legal risk, but it ignores the very human side of this issue. Instead, employers need to adopt a systemic and holistic approach that recognizes problems as they arise, and understands how to direct employees to the help they need when they need it. Tech might be part of this solution, but it can’t be the only part.
Jon Hyman is a partner at Meyers, Roman, Friedberg & Lewis in Cleveland. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Hyman’s blog at Workforce.com/PracticalEmployer.