Digital wellness? You read that right.

PwC's Digital team is full of disruptive thinkers. In this piece, Kate Bennett Eriksson considers the correlation between mental health, productivity and the pressure for organisations to innovate, change and remain competitive.

Almost half of Australians will experience a mental health condition at some point in their lives. Much of this population forms a vital part of the national workforce. Meanwhile, at the corporate level, the globalised business environment is forcing organisations to adapt, innovate and embrace change – and to do so quickly.

It’s tempting to perceive these two conditions as mutually exclusive. After all, individuals may manage their illnesses in a private and dignified manner, with little outward effect on their professional output.

Yet in the same way that designing for people with disabilities produces innovations that benefit everyone, a renewed focus on employee health and wellness can assist in truly accelerating innovation and changing agendas. Digital technology can help achieve this, aligning the experiences of both organisations and team members alike.

Approximately 45% of Australians aged 16-85 experience a mental health condition at one or more points in their lives. Of these, 20% were likely to experience a condition in any given 12-month period.

The state of minds

Mismanagement of mental health continues to be a significant issue in Australia. A 2014 PwC report produced in partnership with mental health charity beyondblue found that approximately 45% of Australians aged 16-85 experience a mental health condition at one or more points in their lives. Of these, 20% were likely to experience a condition in any given 12-month period.

Among Australia’s working population, the prevalence of mental health conditions was consistent across several professional industries. In the financial services, up to a third of employees are affected. Similar numbers can also be found in the media, telecommunications and utilities sectors.

This has a sizable impact on productivity. The same report estimated that issues associated with staff mental health may cost companies up to $11 billion per year, due to absenteeism (not showing up to work), presenteeism (reduced productivity when working with an untreated condition) and compensation claims.

Living below the line

Given its impacts on productivity, it’s tempting to frame mental health as problematic, casting underperforming workers as below a ‘baseline’ and designing support programs to return these individuals to an agreed-upon level of normality and productivity.

Such an approach, while no doubt harbouring the best of intentions, is shortsighted and marginalising. Instead, the issue should be solved as part of a larger effort to retrain the whole workforce in thinking differently and innovatively.

Consider the specific symptoms individuals with mental health issues might have beyond lowered productivity: resistance to change or new ideas, reduced confidence or self-esteem, lack of focus, or the tendency to be easily distracted.

"If these symptoms can be addressed and supported for individuals, the solutions could be widened to the entire organisation’s workforce, helping the company to become more focused, more open to change, more bold and ultimately more innovative as a whole."

Checking in with wearables

To achieve this, several companies have been investigating how to use technology to evaluate an individual’s mental state along with their vital signs. Combining measurements from wearable devices with digital surveys, platforms, or psychological profiles to paint a complete picture of an individual’s wellbeing.

Earlier this year, mood-measuring wristband Feel was unveiled by Sentio Solutions. Capturing a range of biometric information such as skin temperature, pulse and galvanic skin response, it sends data from the device to a smartphone via Bluetooth where it is visualised on a digital platform.

Also this year, Cambridge Cognition Holdings announced a trial that observed ‘clinically relevant cognitive performance’ using mainstream consumer devices such as the Apple Watch. On its software platform, devices were able to record the same biometric statistics as the Feel wristband – heart rate, galvanic skin response and skin temperature – to gauge stress levels.

In Australia, two companies have collaborated on combining data from wearables with psychological profiling. Psychological health company Vital Conversations partnered with technology organisation Medibio to develop a mental health check-in program. Participants wear a chest-mounted wearable overnight – which measures sleep quality, heart rate and other vital signs – then complete an online survey.

The resulting data is then used to gauge individual stress, depression, resilience and self-awareness levels, which can be compared against the data from the whole group to develop management techniques (disclosure: the Managing Director of Vital Conversations is my sister.)

Turning data into action

With wearables and psychological surveys able to measure and evaluate more granular data, an organisation’s existing mental health support programs could be better designed and targeted, taking into account the aggregate data of the whole workforce and each individual within it, including those most in urgent need of assistance.

Initiatives recommended in the 2014 PwC and beyondblue report included resilience training, wellbeing check-ins or screenings, coaching and mentoring, and mental health first aid and education.

In 2016, these programs could be improved even further, assisted by employees voluntarily submitting their data produced from wearables and online surveys. Potential improvements could be real-time alerts when individuals are experiencing acute stress and require urgent assistance, or the ability to identify developing conditions at very early stages.

Closing the circle

While digital technology can play a greater role in employee support, it cannot solve these issues alone. Comprehensive programs and strategies are still required, especially those that encourage full employee participation.

To that end, the pivot towards organisation-wide innovation should encompass both mental health support programs and other innovation workshops, whether design thinking, agile development or lean methodologies.

Aligning experiences

Harnessing digital data to improve an organisation’s mental health support programs could do much more than yield a stronger return on investment or improve productivity. It could help individuals understand each other’s experiences – knowing what our colleagues are feeling, when, and why, forming stronger bonds and teams in the process.

It can also help individuals combine mind and body, putting them in touch with what’s really going on and offering assistance when it’s needed most.

By truly empathising with employees, organisations can learn from these experiences and update their strategies accordingly. If done with care and understanding, this could close the circle between employee wellbeing and a company’s mission statement, helping the whole organisation thrive.

You can find the original article on PwC Digital Pulse.

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