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2020 has been the most stressful year in history for the global workforce and people want robots to help, according to a new study by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence, an HR research and advisory firm.

“The pandemic has put mental health front and center–it’s the biggest workforce issue of our time and will be for the next decade,” said Dan Schawbel, managing partner, Workplace Intelligence. “The results of our study show just how widespread this issue has become, and why now is the time for organizations to start talking about it and exploring new solutions.”

The study of more than 12,000 employees, managers, HR leaders, and C-level executives across 11 countries found that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased workplace stress, anxiety, and burnout for people around the world, and 68% of respondents said they prefer robots over other people to help.

SEE: 2 ways to help support your team’s mental health (TechRepublic)

People’s reliance on technology 24/7 is making them feel comfortable turning to robots so they can get answers to questions whenever they want, Schawbel said. “You won’t call a therapist at 3 in morning but … if mental health impedes your ability to sleep, you can type in a question to a robot therapist or chatbot and get a response.”

“And it’s unbiased.” That’s key because there is still a stigma associated with mental health, and a robot is not going to judge someone, he said.

“The No. 1 reason people don’t get help is the stigma,” Schawbel said. “This will also further push companies to be part of the solution and not the problem.”

The study also found that 76% said they believe companies should be doing more to support the mental health of their workforce, with 70% saying they have had more stress and anxiety at work this year than any other previous year.

This increased stress and anxiety has negatively impacted the mental health of 78% of the global workforce, causing more stress (38%), a lack of work-life balance (35%), burnout (25%), depression from no socialization (25 %), and loneliness (14%), the survey said.

What’s more, the new pressures presented by the global pandemic come on top of already everyday workplace stressors, including pressure to meet performance standards (42%), handling routine and tedious tasks (41%), and juggling unmanageable workloads (41%).

Mental health issues at work negatively affect people’s personal lives

Without a commute to help people decompress or mentally prepare going to and from work, 85% of people said their mental health issues at work negatively affect their home life, the study found.

The most common repercussions respondents cited were sleep deprivation (40%), poor physical health (35%), reduced happiness at home (33%), suffering family relationships (30%), and isolation from friends (28%).

As boundaries have increasingly blurred between personal and professional worlds with people working remotely, 35% of respondents said they are working over 40 hours each month and 25% of people have been burned out from overwork, the study said.

Yet, despite perceived drawbacks of remote work, 62% of respondents said they find remote work more appealing now than they did before the pandemic. Fifty-one percent said they now have more time to spend with family, more time to sleep (31%), and more time to get work done (30%).

“With the global pandemic, mental health has become not only a broader societal issue, but a top workplace challenge,” said Emily He, senior vice president, Oracle Cloud HCM, in a statement. “It has a profound impact on individual performance, team effectiveness, and organizational productivity.”

Employees are turning to technology over people for help

The study also found that only 18% of respondents would prefer humans over robots to support their mental health as they believe robots provide a judgment-free zone (34%), an unbiased outlet to share problems (30%), and quick answers to health-related questions (29%). Other findings include:

  • 68% of people would prefer to talk to a robot over their manager about stress and anxiety at work and 80% of people are open to having a robot as a therapist or counselor.

  • 75% say AI has helped their mental health at work. The top benefits noted were providing the information needed to do their job more effectively (31%), automating tasks and decreasing workload to prevent burnout (27%), and reducing stress by helping to prioritize tasks (27%).

  • AI has also helped the majority (51%) of workers shorten their work week and allowed them to take longer vacations (51%). Over half of respondents said AI technology increases employee productivity (63%), improves job satisfaction (54 %), and improves overall well-being (52%).

Mental health impacts work performance

Seventy-six percent of respondents said they believe their company should be doing more to protect the mental health of their workforce, while 51% said their companies have added mental health services or support due to COVID-19.

Further, 83% of the global workforce said they would like their company to provide technology to support their mental health, including self-service access to health resources (36%), on-demand counseling services (35%), proactive health monitoring tools (35%), access to wellness or meditation apps (35%), and chatbots to answer health-related questions (28%).

Some 84% of workers have faced challenges while working remotely, with the biggest factors being no distinction between personal and professional lives (41%), and dealing with increased mental health challenges like stress and anxiety (33%), according to the survey.

The impact on work performance is significant. Forty-two percent of respondents said workplace stress, anxiety, or depression causes their productivity to plummet and 40% said it leads to an increase in poor decision making.