Tackling Workers’ Mental Health, One Text at a Time


Employers are turning to counseling services that can be accessed on smartphones

Companies want employees to seek mental-health treatment when needed, so they are turning to a tool already in workers’ pockets: their smartphones.

As employers seek to reduce the costs of untreated mental illness among staffers, more companies are trying mobile apps that help workers easily find and receive treatment. Some apps mine data about employees’ phone usage, or medical and pharmaceutical claims, to determine who might be in need of care. Others allow workers to text and video chat with therapists—in what are being called “telemental” health services.

By downloading these apps, employees grant permission to be contacted with care recommendations, though some may not be aware of the full extent of the apps’ data collection, which is laid out in the programs’ privacy statements and other communications workers receive. Employers don’t receive data on individual workers. In some cases those offering these tools hold general meetings with employees to discuss how the services work.

Companies are waking up to the costs of untreated mental illnesses like depression, which is linked to $44 billion a year in lost workplace productivity, according to the University of Michigan Depression Center. The center cites data suggesting that workers suffering from depression cost companies 27 lost work days a year.

Some health advocates worry that providing mental-health treatment on mobile phones could lead to privacy breaches if phones are lost or hacked, exposing users’ health data.

Still, companies are willing to try alternatives to employee assistance programs—called EAPs—which typically offer workers free counseling sessions by phone. Anywhere from 2% to 5% of employees typically use EAPs, according to several studies. Workers may be unaware of EAP programs or feel uncomfortable calling in, benefits experts say.

“For some reason, using it feels like a hurdle,” says Lissa Minkin, who runs human resources at financial-services tech firm Addepar Inc., which has about 200 employees.


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