Warning: You’re About to Have a Breakdown

Emotional and mental stress is increasing in the workplace. A new pilot program in California may offer corporate leaders a remedy.

Tommy couldn’t let go of the argument from the last team meeting. It was two days ago, but he still seemed agitated. He took out his smartphone and began typing out a text message to his colleague. That’s when the phone started flashing a mental-distress signal and directed Tommy via live chat to a counselor.

A test program between California mental-health professionals, patient advocates, and two Silicon Valley start-ups offers a glimpse into the promise and peril of using digital technology for emotional well-being—and the implications it could have for the future of corporate wellness. The program monitors phone usage patterns and other signals for users with known mental-health issues and flags them when behavior indicates an episode may be imminent.

“The ability to spot issues before they become serious and provide treatment is a major challenge,” says Tom Flannery, PhD, a senior client partner with Korn Ferry’s Executive Pay and Governance practice who specializes in healthcare. “The use of technology can be a significant tool to help with this identification.”

The experiments come at a time when emotional stress in the workplace is growing. A recent Korn Ferry study found that employee stress levels have risen nearly 20% over the last three decades. The Wall Street Journal has reported that anxiety levels among workers in their 20s and early 30s are higher than they’ve ever been. The bigger problem, however, is that most mental-health issues among workers go unreported. Studies show that more than 60% of employees do not disclose mental-health disorders to their employers, and less than 10% use company-provided assistance programs.

“Companies have been working around the edges of employee mental health, focusing on increased coverage, paid time off, and even leave opportunities,” says Dan Kaplan, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Chief Human Resources Officers practice. “With every high-profile incident, the pressure to do something more directly to tackle the issue of stress and mental health in the workplace will ratchet up.”

In a business climate where speed is prized, the potential for organizations to leverage digital technology to detect emotional or mental issues before they arise could unlock a range of benefits, from reducing or eliminating workplace violence to increasing productivity. Consider that, according to the World Health Organization, depression and anxiety cost the global economy an estimated $1 trillion in lost productivity annually. Conversely, for every dollar invested in offering services to treat mental-health issues, there is a return of $4 in improved health and productivity.

But the program also comes at a time when the value of privacy is as high as the expectations of organizations’ ability to protect it are low. According to Kaplan, many companies already have employee health trackers, gym memberships, and smoking-cessation plans. “It is conceivable they can take the same approach with mental-health trackers,” he says. “But there will be major confidentiality and privacy issues to get past.”

Kaplan says there may be other, less intrusive ways that leaders can assess and reduce the emotional distress of employees. Included among them are creating more flexible working schedules, mindfulness programs, and even a culture that allows for failure. “Mental health is climbing on the human resources agenda and it’s something HR will have to tackle,” he says. “It’s part of caring for the whole employee, the culture, and the safety of the workforce.”