The terms “AI” or “bot” often conjure thoughts of cold, impersonal technology, basically the opposite of what is human. But more often than you might think, properly applied AI can help employees open up about some of their most private concerns, according to the just-released Oracle AI@Work 2020 Study: As Uncertainty Remains, Anxiety and Stress Reach a Tipping Point at Work.

One striking finding was that 68% of people surveyed said they would rather talk to a robot than their manager about work-related stress. An even larger majority — 80% of 12,347 respondents worldwide — reported they are “open” to using a robot for therapy or counseling in dealing with anxiety. For this line of inquiry, the survey defined a robot as an “AI powered therapist or chatbot counselor.”

That is quite a statement since the COVID -19 pandemic has ratcheted up stress across all segments of the population over the past seven months.  Seventy percent of survey participants said they feel more anxiety at work this year than last — so the need for outlets and counseling is likewise on the rise.

One reason robots may be accepted-as-confidantes is that they provide a “no judgement” zone for employees looking for information on Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) or other benefits, whereas a human manager might react (or seem to react) negatively to an employee looking for help. That lack of judgmental attitudes is important for the many people who think any indication of a mental health issues reflects poorly on them, or their ability to do their jobs.

Some see progress in reducing the stigma attached to mental illness as evidenced by the increased willingness of public figures — entertainers and athletes like Lady Gaga, Dak Prescott, Bruce Springsteen, and business figures like venture capitalist Brad Feld — to open up about their own depression or other mental health issues.

However, risk of such disclosure persists. In Prescott’s case, for example, a sportscaster criticized the Dallas Cowboy quarterback’s statement as showing weakness unseemly in a “leader.” What was somewhat different in this example was that the sportscaster’s own comments were roundly panned by other athletes, coaches, even his employer.

Given all that hubbub, it’s easy to see why someone might hesitate to share his or her difficulties with a manager. This hesitancy shows the limitations of human relationships and highlights where a robot can help people with human problems even if that means just referring them to the best sources of care.

The research bears that out. Only 18% of those surveyed said they preferred humans over robots when it comes to supporting their mental health. Slightly more than a third (34%) said they see bots providing the aforementioned “judgement-free zone”; another 30% see bots as an unbiased channel for sharing problems, and, 29% said bots are good at supplying fast answers to health-related questions.

While the number of people wanting to interact with bots vs. humans may raise eyebrows, there is a trend here. Last year’s Oracle AI@Work Survey, for example, found that 64% of people surveyed said they trusted bots more than their managers, and more than 50% turned to bots rather than their manager for advice. The prior year a huge majority — 93% of respondents — said they were willing to take direction from a robot. This year’s results, though, reveals the limitation of human relationships, i.e., our deeply rooted judgement against and the resulting stigma associated with mental health, especially in the workplace.

Work-related stress is not new. What’s different this year is that the pandemic adds another layer of anxiety to the mix. And, while many people like being able to work from home, 41% said remote work erases the boundaries between work life and home life — not an optimal situation. Additionally, 35% of respondents said they are now working 40+ extra hours per month than before COVID-19 hit.

The silver lining is: the pandemic has helped call attention to employee mental health and prompted organizations to start taking action. What is clear from this year’s results is that people want their employers to do more to help them deal with this increased stress. More than three-quarters (76%) of respondents said their companies should do more to protect the mental health of the workforce while just over half (51%) said their companies had, in fact, added more services to address mental health issues.

Companies should look at this data carefully, since a stressed-out or depressed employee is by definition not a happy or productive individual. And these numbers in aggregate mean that productivity as a whole will be impacted eventually, if it hasn’t already happened. Given the sheer number of people who report increased stress this year, employers would be well advised to invest in services — including AI-based tools — that respond to these concerns and help turn a negative into a positive.


  • Emily He

    SVP of Human Capital Management Marketing, Oracle

    Emily He is the SVP of Human Capital Management Marketing at Oracle Corporation. With over 20 years of experience in enterprise software, Emily is known for highly differentiated messaging and innovative takes at traditional marketing. She is a recognized thought leader on digital transformation and the future of work with insights featured in The Economist, Fortune, The Financial Times, Forbes, Fast Company, and more.   Emily has an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business and has previously held key marketing roles at Saba Software, E2Open, Siebel Systems and DoubleDutch.