AI: Finding our Feet Among Endless Possibilities

The messaging around AI tells us that it is essential in all areas of life and that the possibilities to support and improve life are ‘endless’. While many potential developments in AI are still firmly in the future, in the workplace AI is making inroads, from workplace wellness programs to the software platforms used every day. When appropriately implemented, AI promises to ‘connect the dots’ in ways heretofore unseen and improve the lives of employees. However, far too often, the potential benefits remain unrealized.

It is only recently that technical advances created the possibility of putting AI into the hands of ordinary people with digital assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, and onto the average employee’s work computer with tools like Microsoft Insights. Now that AI is being integrated into many of the daily driver software products used across wide swaths of industry, the potential benefits both to the employee and the employer are becoming more apparent.

Programs: Wellness for the Bottom Line

Far removed from the early days of skin-pinch BMI meters and belt clip pedometers, today’s workplace wellness programs go far beyond mere ‘health’ and focus on overall ‘wellness’ through smartphones, apps, and wearables that generate mountains of data.

“AI has the potential to spin this ‘straw into gold’ by sifting through this data to make unseen connections and recommendations to not only the individual employee,”

but also if desired – and under strict privacy laws – to their physician and the company’s management.

It is this concern over what will happen to this data ‘gold’ that might be one of the greatest barriers to the general employee acceptance of AI in the workplace, even more than AI itself. Data privacy gaffes by IT companies in the early days of in-home AI assistants resulted in only half-hearted laughs and lingering questions about who exactly was listening 1. That said, nobody really goes to work worried that their computer will become sentient and lock them in the company data center à la HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

For a generation, employers have relied on easily quantifiable metrics such as step counts or weight loss which evidence suggests may actually do more harm than good 2. Historically this makes sense, as some of the reasons for employer buy-in to workplace wellness programs circled around the financial – reduced absenteeism and healthcare premiums. While these metrics may improve certain aspects of physical health, the evolution from a ‘health’ program to a true ‘wellness’ program requires far more buy-in on the part of both employers and employees.

AI: Employee Support

The true value of AI in the workplace is in data driven, dispassionate observations and recommendations in the pursuit of happier and more productive employees. Some of these changes could be truly revolutionary. For instance, AI could suggest adjusting working hours for each employee based on a productivity model. Likewise, a potential AI recommendation might be when to stop working and take breaks.

Employers reluctant to provide pro-employee accommodations to increase engagement often fail to see employees as individuals and the data suggests this strategy is outdated and not working. Recent studies show workplace engagement resulted in 41% lower absenteeism, 58% fewer safety incidents and 40% fewer quality defects, while disengaged employees cost American companies between USD 483 billion and USD 605 billion each year in lost productivity 3 4.

There’s an App for That: Mental Health and AI

Millennials are among the most stressed generations in recent memory, with nearly 1 in 3 suffering from a mental health condition 5. With many workplace discussions around mental health limited to the employee assistance plan folder during orientation, they aren’t often getting the help needed to manage workplace derived stress.

The United States National Council for Behavioral Health estimated in 2017 that the country lacked over 15,000 psychiatrists 6. This shortage means that access to mental health professionals is constrained and those who are lucky enough to get an appointment often do not have the time required to get treated effectively. Artificial Intelligence presents the brightest hope for not only identifying but preventing mental health issues in the workplace.

Surprisingly, 82% of people prefer the idea of interacting with a chat-bot versus a human as they feel it can provide a judgement-free experience with quick access to the answers they are looking for 7. The massive strides in natural language processing means AI can potentially pick up on clues that might otherwise be missed such as variables in speech that could indicate, for example, depression 8. AI chatbots can also check in with individuals far more often than a human clinician could and be available 24 hours a day. Studies have shown that regular check-ins – even via an AI-enabled chatbot – can help identify and even prevent suicidal behavior 8.

These advancements came not a moment too soon, as a joint study by the database giant Oracle and HR consultancy Workplace Intelligence found that due to the COVID-19 pandemic 2020 was the most stressful year in recent history with 70% of people reporting more workplace stress than any other year and 78% of people reporting a negative impact on their mental health 7. A forced shift to remote work almost overnight required herculean efforts and long hours of sustained work while disconnected from family, friends and social activities.

While 51% of respondents to the Oracle/Workplace Intelligence survey noted that their employers added mental health services during the COVID-19 pandemic, 76% of respondents felt that more needed to be done 7.

“Indeed, AI can go far beyond identifying and treating mental health conditions by making the job easier.”

Drawing on the organization’s data generation, AI can automate tasks and improve access to data needed by employees during the workday. It can also make recommendations on how to work smarter instead of harder.

The AI industry has realized this and is working to integrate AI into its existing product lines. At its Ignite conference in March 2021 Microsoft announced a new employee experience platform which would integrate AI to ‘automatically [organize] content and expertise across [the] organization’ and provide ‘data-driven, privacy-protected insights and recommendations to improve productivity and wellbeing’ 9.

There is Hope for the Future

While Artificial Intelligence promises to improve productivity, reduce workplace stress and make the job easier and more engaging, it can only do so with the consent, privacy protection and buy-in from both employers and employees. Proactive employers will embrace AI and seek to integrate it wherever possible and give its recommendations the careful consideration they deserve. An evolving, technically literate work force will want it to improve their work lives, mental and physical health.

Picture of Andrew Nordin

Andrew Nordin

Andrew Nordin is a writer, freelance journalist, and IT systems engineer. When not writing fiction he writes about information technology, politics and social issues. He has an A.B. from Ripon College in Politics and Government and a commercial helicopter pilots license.


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