Digital solutions for employee mental health | EAPA-SA

There is growing evidence that the use of digital tools is beneficial to enhance the delivery of a variety of health care services. When it comes to employee health and wellness, offering digital mental health support and resources can help to send a message that an organisation cares about its employees’ holistic health, and that it’s also important for people to care for themselves. Developed and promoted properly, digital mental health resources can help in reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness and make employees more comfortable with reaching out for help proactively before mental health issues like anxiety and depression escalate and lead to burnout and impaired job performance.

Definition of Digital Health

The Digital Health market refers to the use of technology to improve health and healthcare delivery. It includes three pillars: digital fitness and wellbeing, online doctor consultations, and digital treatment and care.

  • Digital fitness & wellbeing: This market includes fitness trackers, Employee Health & Wellness resources and tools that help individuals monitor and improve their health and wellbeing.
  • Online doctor consultations: This market includes telemedicine and other digital tools that allow patients to consult with doctors remotely.
  • Digital treatment and care: This market includes digital tools that are used to diagnose, treat and manage medical conditions. 

Mobile devices and internet penetration in South Africa

In recent years, the common use of personal digital devices, such as smartphones, tablets and fitness trackers has enabled many health and wellness programmes to include digital or virtual formats. The wholesale use of smart mobile devices in South Africa has the potential to facilitate widespread access to digital mental health care tools and resources. In South Africa, mobile phones appear to represent a key medium for access to information, particularly among lower income earners. 

  • According to ICASA[1] South Africa’s mobile users increased, increasing smartphone penetration to over 90% in 2019.
  • According to Datareportal[2] as of January 2023, there were 43.48 million internet users in South Africa at the start of 2023 and internet penetration stood at 72.3%.  
  • According to Statista[3] as of the third quarter of 2022, most South Africans accessed the internet using a mobile phone: a share of 97.6% of internet users connected via this device. Furthermore, 72.9% used a laptop or a desktop computer to connect to the internet. This is likely to be work computer as only 10% of South Africans were recorded as owning a personal computer in the first quarter of 2020. 

Possible barriers to digital mental health care services

The uptake of digital mental health interventions in South Africa may be hindered by several factors. Common barriers could include:

  • low levels of digital literacy (and therefore digital health literacy)
  • technical issues such as connectivity and the cost of data 
  • a lack of personalisation and appropriate cultural orientation 
  • worry about the lack of privacy and confidentiality
  • certain mental health issues that hamper engagement

Substantial efforts would need to be made to normalise the use of digital health across all levels of the workforce. These efforts should include upskilling employees through wide-reaching educational initiatives. 

Benefit of digital health tools for employees

A growing body of research finds that if digital mental health tools and resources are seen as useful and get employee buy-in, integrating a range of health apps into a health and wellness programme has the potential to effectively support employee mental wellness. These apps can contribute to improving fitness, healthy eating habits, sleep, reducing stress, improving resilience and fostering a positive work environment, all of which have a positive impact on mental health. 

  • Digital mental tools can reach individuals who might not otherwise engage in any mental or behavioral health treatment.
  • Digital tools make mental-health support more accessible and have the benefit of a low threshold to start dealing with mental-health challenges.
  • Digital solutions provide the opportunity to reach employees early.
  • The use of IoT devices in connected health means greater support for anywhere-anytime-solutions as well as real-time self-care or monitoring.
  • They are convenient, easy to use and anonymous. 
  • Digital solutions can offer therapeutic approaches or support positive behavioural change on a large scale. 
  • They allow the individual employee to decide how they engage with a therapeutic approach.

Practical considerations

Culture and context are two very important considerations when ensuring that digital mental health tools are fit for purpose. A recent McKinsey report[4] entitled, Using digital tech to support employees’ mental health and resilience states:

“Employers should weigh heavily whether the healthtech company they plan to work with can tailor its offerings to suit their organization’s context and culture. They should also consider onboarding best practices, such as making implementation fully digital and anonymous, and reinforcing it with campaigns and personalised support. To be effective, digital solutions can play an important role in the broader organization-wide shift toward valuing employee well-being; as one executive commented, “Mindfulness won’t help if the motivation system is broken.”

It is important to understand that while mental health apps can be valuable tools, they should not replace professional assistance when necessary. If employees are facing significant mental health challenges, they should be encouraged to seek appropriate help from health care professionals such as those available through an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP).