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Bringing CBT to the Workplace

Case Study

None of us are gung ho about our jobs 100% of the time — but research has found that the average person is even less excited about their work than you might think. In Canada, only a quarter of employees are categorized as “actively engaged” with their jobs. In other words, the vast majority are emotionally checked out while they’re at work.

It goes without saying that a lot of different factors play into employee well-being, including things like compensation, management style, clarity of workplace communication, and so on. But whether or not employees are motivated and happy at work doesn’t just come down to these external factors; it’s also a function of cognitive factors. The beliefs people hold about themselves, and the ways in which they interpret the world around them, are major contributors to their mental health (or ill-health). 

Imagine, for example, that you’re in a meeting and you have a small disagreement with a coworker. If you’re somebody with low self-esteem, or you worry a lot about how your coworkers see you, this incident could set off a downward spiral: you may buy into cognitive distortions that convince you that your coworkers hate you, or that your idea was stupid, or that there’s no point in even trying at this job. By contrast, if you’re confident in yourself and you’ve developed the skills you need to manage conflicts, this whole thing will be like water off a duck’s back — that is to say, it probably won’t faze you at all.

Therapy: Brought to you by robots

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps people become aware of the unhelpful stories they tell themselves that may be sabotaging their mental well-being, and build skills to challenge and change the way they interpret the world around them. Widely considered the “gold standard” of psychotherapy, research has found CBT is effective even when it’s not delivered by a person

The flexibility of CBT has led to an explosion of AI-powered apps and other digital tools that let people access therapy from wherever they are, whenever they’re able to. However, one of the big roadblocks with these products is that they tend to have low adherence: people often drop out of digitized programs before they’ve gotten the full benefit of CBT. The missing ingredient is human connection: patients are looking for someone they can develop an emotional bond with.

TDL was part of a mental health consortium looking to solve this problem by bringing computerized CBT into the workplace. There’s good reason for organizations to be invested in their workers’ mental health: employees who aren’t feeling their best are also much less engaged and productive at work. Researchers estimate that mental illness costs the Canadian economy $50 billion each year, with $6 billion related to just lost productivity in the workplace. 

So, our question was: if digitized CBT were a part of corporate well-being initiatives, with employers funding access to the platform and giving employees time and space to engage with it, could this solve the problem of low adherence and help people feel better at work? The answer, in short, is yes, it can.

Meet Hikai, the CBT bot

TDL collaborated with a group of leading Canadian mental health professionals to develop Hikai: an AI-powered CBT chatbot designed for the workplace. The bot works by delivering personalized care in bite-sized pieces: users receive content modules tailored to their goals, strengths, and weaknesses, and complete 10-second daily check-ins over email to let Hikai know how they’re doing. The program also provides aggregated reports to management (never individual employee data) so they can get a sense of their team’s well-being, and understand where they can make changes.

There are lots of reasons why a chatbot might be a better fit for some individuals seeking therapy than a human therapist. The flexibility and convenience are two big ones. But talking to a chatbot can also be less intimidating than more traditional forms of treatment: they can still “listen” to users and help facilitate reflection, without imposing any judgment. Overall, automated tools like Hikai are great options for people who are seeking help at a lower intensity and lower commitment level.

But the crucial thing that Hikai brings to the table is his personality. Just because he’s a robot doesn’t mean he needs to act cold and robotic! In designing Hikai, we gave him a backstory and programmed him with friendly, evidence-based scripts, developed in consultation with psychologists. This means that users still have someone to form a connection with as they go through CBT — even if that someone happens not to be a human. This bond is crucial for keeping people engaged and ensuring that they don’t drop off partway through the program.

To ensure a frictionless user experience, Hikai’s interface itself is sleek and easy to use, drawing on the principles of user-centered design to minimize stress and help users feel comfortable chatting with a bot. 

Hikai was pilot-tested in 3 workplaces, over the course of 2 weeks. Just in this short time, we found that the program led to a 71% increase in employee engagement at work, with 82% reporting that Hikai helped them manage their stress. These effects also spilled over into employees’ well-being more generally: not surprisingly, having less work-related stress helped people to feel better even when they weren’t on the job. 

Tools like Hikai will never be a replacement for human support in times of crisis — but they are likely to play a role in our future mental healthcare landscape. Building automated programs into the workplace to deliver CBT and other evidence-based therapies won’t just help workers to be more engaged with their jobs: they’ll also help people to build coping skills and resilience, and will also help keep some of the strain off of traditional mental health supports.


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