‘Wellness chatbots’ join employee benefit plans

Alexis Kayser (Email) Becker’s Hospital Review

Feeling blue? Your employer might have an AI app for that, The Wall Street Journal reported Dec. 27.

Workplaces increasingly are offering employees access to digital mental health tools, including AI chatbots meant to mimic therapists and wellness apps that diagnose mental health conditions, the report said. Over the summer, a survey of 457 U.S. companies conducted by professional services company WTW found that about one-third offer a “digital therapeutic” for mental health support. Another 15% were considering adding one by 2025.

The capabilities and goals of these services vary. Amazon gives employees free access to the app Twill, which uses AI to track users’ moods and create “personalized mental-health plan(s).” A construction workers’ union in Ohio will begin offering access to Wysa, a self-described “emotionally intelligent” AI chatbot that encourages users to “vent or just talk through negative thoughts and emotions” and “let it help you cope with pandemic anxiety and lockdowns.”

“We just didn’t know what to say or do,” Michael Bertolone, who manages the union, told the Journal. “We need to be able to help [the employees].”

Finding human help can be a difficult task. The demand for counselors is surging, but the supply is dwindling. One benefit of AI chatbots and wellness apps is they can be used anytime, anywhere, eliminating the need to drive to an appointment or coordinate schedules.

However, there are concerns about digital mental health offerings. The online counseling service BetterHelp settled for $8 million this year after the FTC accused it of sharing users’ personal information with Facebook, Pinterest and others for advertising purposes; and the National Eating Disorders Association took down an AI chatbot this year after it began giving dieting tips to users with eating disorders. There are still unknowns about the safety and security of these technologies in addition to their effectiveness, according to researchers.

“The companies are well known to be overextending claims about what they can do,” John Torous, MD, director of the digital psychiatry division at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, told the Journal. “Employers offering it, in some ways it is tokenism, saying we’re offering something for mental health support.”