What Happens to Mental Health When Our Devices Know How We Feel?

Workplace analytics may ultimately be used to better anticipate or cope with mental health challenges.

Michael Schrage | MIT

Stressed? Depressed? Overwhelmed? The cognitive and emotional demands on managers have rarely been more complicated or intense, and protecting a person’s mental health has become a self-preservation priority.

Online therapies have evolved to include mobile apps that are more personalized and responsive.

Our smartphones seem to be ideally placed to help. In fact, our personal devices will likely become increasingly important tools to diagnose and manage our mental wellness.

“The increasing amounts of time that we spend on these devices, often using them for both leisure and work, means that many of our emotional experiences are channeled through these digital media,” observes Dr. John Torous, who co-directs the Digital Psychiatry Program at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

“Digital therapist” apps can already help users diagnose their moods, and smart watches can be used to monitor a user’s heart rate. There’s even text-analysis software that will alert users to angry-sounding emails.

Smartphone or shrink?

Advancements in technology will inevitably continue to improve the ways in which devices interact with our mental health. Data-driven psychiatric research and mental health metrics will reshape executive coaching, cognition and emotional intelligence.

Your smartphone may one day be capable of serving as your shrink and leadership coach.

“We already have a wealth of clinical evidence that the data collected by smartphones, wearables and even computer use patterns can offer new personalized insights into mental health and well-being,” Torous notes.

Today, wellness experts urge stressed-out managers to find renewal by putting down their devices. But as technology becomes more attuned to our moods, will that still be true? As smartphones become more sophisticated, the computational commingling of personal and professional behaviors may also be inevitable.

Data-informed managers may be able to use real-time interventions to defuse stressful situations. Human resources might want to know whether management is disruptively stressed-out. Leaders should want to see how management moods and methods correlate with morale.

“The potential to use this data to promote workplace wellness is unparalleled,” Torous says.

The future of mental health 

Privacy concerns are unavoidable. The relationship between workplace analytics, mental health and productivity raises many questions. The answers will be found as much in policy as in law.

Organizations will have to become transparent about which behavioral data they will aggregate. Employees will have to provide informed consent on how mental health analytics will be used to evaluate performance.

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Crypto and blockchain technologies will assure the privacy and integrity of sensitive information.

Crypto and blockchain technologies will increasingly be deployed to assure the privacy and integrity of sensitive information.

There is no avoiding the data-driven reality that, as cognitive, emotional and other variables increasingly determine workplace performance and outcomes, expectations around privacy will shift.

Employers and employees alike will want better and clearer insights into healthy and unhealthy workplace environments.

Workplace analytics may ultimately be used to better anticipate or cope with mental health challenges. In short, we are heading toward a future where enterprise morale will increasingly depend on an organization’s ability to better measure and manage mental health.

This article first appeared on Harvard Business Review and was republished with permission.

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Michael Schrage is a research fellow at Sloan School’s Center for Digital Business at MIT.

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