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4 Important AI Trends Tied To Mental Health At Work

By Bernie Wong and Nina Tomaro | Edited by Kevin Nix

workplace mental health and AI
Photo by Pexels

Generative AI, like ChatGPT, will significantly change the way we work. Many organizations are exploring this technology to address and enhance mental health in the workplace. 75% of companies globally plan to adopt AI technology in the next five years. But it's still early in the AI era, and we don't know much yet.


As a nonprofit focused on workplace mental health, we’re closely monitoring the conversation for what HR and People teams will want to take note of. We’ve observed four significant AI trends connected to mental health and the future of work.


AI increases access to mental health support amid limited supply.


Demand for mental health care remains at an all-time high amid a dearth of providers. AI programs like Eliza and apps like Woebot are designed to simulate evidence-based cognitive therapies to increase access to mental health services. Some companies see this technology as an opportunity to provide on-demand support to help workers manage daily stressors. This includes helping workers navigate fears in asking HR about employer resources and, instead, asking a Chatbot directly.


Many others voice concerns. The World Health Organization drew caution to the accelerated promotion of these new technologies that need more testing in the real world.


A Psychology Today article shared,

“Most of us got tired of the bot pretty quickly, and it seemed to get tired of us as well. We all reported that as our issues became more multifaceted, its inability to sort our concerns into its standardized set of options caused the bot to end the session, often earlier and earlier.”

And stories have already shown the disastrous impacts of half-baked therapeutics on people’s livelihoods.


Our take:


AI has exciting possibilities but risks over-indexing an individual’s responsibility to address workplace mental health—much like meditation and mindfulness. This can shift accountability away from institutions and systems that propagate harm and inequity. While Chatbots may be a helpful resource, like other mental health benefits, they are nowhere near a substitute for culture change.


AI's impact on diversity, equity, and inclusion and mental health at work is unclear.
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AI could paint a murky future around diversity, equity, and inclusion.


AI and its ability to mitigate or exacerbate bias is divided. Some allege it’s an opportunity to remove human “unconscious assumptions.” Meanwhile, many have voiced concerns and revealed its limitations.


AI therapeutics have demonstrated how bias is ingrained into these technologies. One study found that AI systems were more likely to contact the police in mental health crises involving Black or Muslim men rather than medical help. Another found AI produced stereotyped depictions of mental illnesses.


Others voiced how AI-assisted hiring risks carrying historically biased human data sets and amplifying these inequities. Historically marginalized identities, including women and African Americans, may also be disproportionately impacted by AI job replacement.


The ACLU writes, “There is ample evidence of the discriminatory harm AI tools can cause to already marginalized groups. After all, AI is built by humans and deployed in systems and institutions marked by entrenched discrimination — from the criminal legal system, to housing, to the workplace, to our financial systems.”


Our take:


A mentally healthy workplace cannot truly exist alongside inequity. Social, cultural, and systemic biases are still ingrained in our workplaces and society. AI risks amplifying these inequalities, further harming historically marginalized identities.


AI brings new possibilities in redefining the future of work.


As workloads and responsibilities have grown over the last few years, AI presents a unique opportunity to change the very nature of work—for better or worse.


The research here is new and emerging. One study found that AI improving workplace factors for manufacturing workers in China led to improved mental health, particularly for low-skilled workers. Another survey found that 60% of workers believe AI-powered automation can mitigate burnout and significantly improve job satisfaction.


Generative AI claims to reshape and streamline major parts of HR’s role, help HR make smarter decisions, and allow employees to prioritize more meaningful work. Similarly, AI has the potential to help lighten managers’ load when it comes to coaching their team members.


“HR is going to be a massive use case for AI,” says Josh Bersin, founder, and CEO of the Josh Bersin Company, a human capital advisory firm.

Still, AI’s possibilities don't come without risks. For some, AI may let us work faster but not necessarily better, given its risks of proliferating systemic biases. Meanwhile, the AI conversation often neglects to name the human labor “underclass” upholding this technology. And fears around mass unemployment due to AI, particularly among Gen Z workers, feel substantiated by reports showing that 4,000 jobs in May 2023 were lost to AI. Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum’s annual Future of Jobs Report forecasts more job opportunities and growth.


Our take:


Work can cause the development of mental health challenges. The root causes of burnout lie with the workplace—not workers. Suppose AI can help HR, People teams, and organizations improve the work experience by mitigating harmful factors while focusing on the humans that work there. In that case, overall mental health may improve.


Tech decisions may impact workplace mental health
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AI raises fundamental questions about the relationship between power and wellbeing.


The conversation around AI and its future poses opportunities, concerns, and questions. What is clear is the ever-present role of human beings in that equation. How will those with influence and power leverage these technologies? Will they support people's health and wellbeing and make meaningful improvements in the work experience? Or will the focus be on maximizing productivity and profit?


“Every technology can be used for bad. I think it's in the hands of the ones that use it. I don’t think there is a bad technology, but there will be bad people. It comes down to who has access to the technology and how we use it,” shared one AI expert in this Futurism article.

Early efforts are emerging. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently shared guidance that employers would be responsible for AI decision-making that results in discrimination and bias. Others have joined the growing AI, ethics, and human rights dialogue. It remains to be seen how these efforts will transpire as AI rapidly evolves.


Our take:


Amidst a swirl of ongoing job insecurity, a loneliness epidemic, forced returns to the office, and an increasingly tenuous relationship between employers and workers, AI embodies just one stepping stone in the broader evolution of the future of work. AI is a technology, and like any other technology, it’s subject to human decisions that determine its impact on people's livelihoods.


AI does not remove organizations' role, influence, and responsibility to their people.


Employers still need to ensure that their cultures and systems support mental health. Any AI advances must be—and can be—in service of, not a hindrance to, mentally healthy workplaces.

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