COVID-19 and mental health: Why socially assistive robots are better than humans

2020 has been the most stressful year with the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, negatively affecting the mental health of nearly 78% of the global workforce. People worldwide are battling increased levels of stress, anxiety, and depression at work due to COVID-19.

According to a recent study by Oracle and HR research and advisory firm Workplace Intelligence on over 12,000 employees, managers, HR leaders, and C-level executives across 11 countries, 70% of people have suffered more stress and anxiety at work this year than any other previous year.

This has created a new set of problems like lack of work-life balance (35%), burnout (25%), depression from no socialization (25%), loneliness (14%), the pressure to meet performance standards (42%), handling routine and tedious tasks (41%), and juggling unmanageable workloads (41%).

Notably, the impact is not confined to professional lives! People are feeling the effects at home, too. The most common repercussions are sleep deprivation (40%), poor physical health (35%), reduced happiness at home (33%), suffering family relationships (30%), and isolation from friends (28%).

The interesting part of the study comes next. Over 82% of people prefer socially assistive robots instead of other people to help in this crisis. In other words, people expect more from technology than collaboration tools to support their mental health. Why? They strongly believe that robots can provide a judgment-free zone (34%), an unbiased outlet to share their problems (30%), and quick answers to their health-related questions (29%).

68% of people prefer to talk to a robot over their manager about stress and anxiety at work. 80% of people are open to having a robot as a therapist or counselor. A small number of people (18%), however, would prefer humans over robots.

75% of people 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%), reducing stress by helping to prioritize tasks (27%), and automating tasks and decreasing workload to prevent burnout (27%).

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

Notably, socially assistive robots (SARs) with audio, visual, and movement capabilities can play a significant role in assisting people with managing their physical and psychological well-being, besides significantly reducing the risk of infectious disease transmission to frontline healthcare workers during the pandemic. They can reinforce psychological strategies suggested by health experts for users to cope with negative mental states and stress and reduce the adverse health outcomes wrought by social isolation and loneliness.

As social companions for socially isolated people, robots are also capable of playing a significant role in providing in-home methods for monitoring users’ mental and emotional state, especially non-adolescent children and people of 65 years of age and older. They can identify depressive symptoms due to social isolation caused by COVID-19 and connect them with professional help.

The older populations are at the most significant risk of becoming seriously ill and dying from the disease during the pandemic. They may face extended quarantine and prolonged physical distancing beyond what is recommended for the general population. Social robots increase their access to and control over resources and decrease their vulnerability without violating physical distancing or isolation in their pursuit of well-being.

Let’s sum up. To date, most discussion on the role of robots during the COVID-19 has focused only on functions, such as decontamination, telemedicine, logistics such as food delivery and handling of contaminated waste, and reconnaissance, such as monitoring compliance with quarantines.

Diagnostic roles for robots have also garnered attention, including piloting a prototype robot to remotely collect nasopharyngeal swabs for testing. It is good that the medical community is slowly becoming aware of the valuable role that sociable robots can play in reducing social isolation and loneliness for future infectious disease outbreaks.