Putting Mental Health First

Care first is a fitting name for the UK-based provider of workplace wellbeing and counseling programs. The company, under the leadership of Director Lesley Davidson, has been a leading provider of employee assistance programs (EAPs) since 1996. And in 2019, Care first was the first to offer Woebot as part of its EAP program for customers, which include such recognizable names as KFC, Google, BBC, the Manchester United soccer club and Britain’s National Health Service (NHS). Demand then for mental health services was high, but resources were limited.

“We realized that if we could give people access to something that had character and was engaging to support common issues of low mood and mild anxiety, we could keep the limited counselors we have focused on more serious cases,” Lesley says.

The choice proved prescient, because a few months on, the pandemic hit. Now, another lockdown is in effect in the U.K. It means Lesley will likely see an even greater surge in people wanting access to EAP programs, and to mental health resources in particular.

“Right now people are dealing mostly with loneliness,” she says. “Thankfully, we know Woebot can help us manage.”

Lesley points to Woebot’s ability to draw people in, and to assess for early intervention around mental health before there’s a crisis. “There’s no other organization I know that provides a product that is as engaging as Woebot. It gives people coping mechanisms and strategies to be able to deal with issues before they get to a point that they need intervention from a professional counselor.”

Business Development Director Karl Bennett says that kind of early intervention is key right now. “There are many people who are experiencing low mood or anxiety but don’t feel their issue is serious. How do those people start getting support before that issue spirals out of control? Woebot helps us service those people while making sure that we’re not letting anyone with high-level issues slip through the net.”

Care first’s experience also preceded what may end up being a global wave in the use of robots for mental health treatment. A recent study by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence says that 2020 has been the most stressful year in history for the global workforce, and many people want technology to support their mental health. The study found that only 18 percent of people would prefer humans over robots to support their mental health given their belief that robots provide a judgement-free zone (34 percent), an unbiased outlet to share problems (30 percent), and quick answers to health-related questions (29 percent). The study also noted that 68 percent of respondents would prefer to talk to a robot over their manager about stress and anxiety at work, and 80 percent are open to having a robot as a therapist or counselor.

Woebot Health Founder Alison Darcy says a critical factor in improving outcomes is the ability to build a therapeutic bond with users, something Woebot can uniquely do. “We know it’s important to get things off your chest when you’re feeling stressed, and when you do, a service needs to respond to you with respect and empathy, even if it’s software. This is the magic combination to keep people engaged in their mental health.”

Reports from Woebot users in Care first’s customer network underscore the Oracle study findings, and how a digital solution can be of significant help. The vast majority of Care first-related users (98 percent) who have reported drops in depressed mood and anhedonia as well as symptoms of anxiety say they get therapeutic value from Woebot and give it high satisfaction ratings. That means while the future is uncertain, Lesley believes there is a lot of hope.

“Right now, people feel very alone. But we can feel a part of something when we’re using tools like Woebot.”

Read more: This CNBC.com article, which quotes Founder Alison Darcy extensively, raises the prospect that robots are ready to meet the challenge of increased demand for digital mental health support.