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This smartphone app is developing a chatbot to check you're not too stressed at work

Dr Jay Spence. Source: supplied

The next time you’ll feeling a little burnt out at work, a 60-second check up by an artificial intelligence-based app could help you manage your stress levels and ward off depression.

The wellness app from Sydney startup Uprise, run by psychologist Dr Jay Spence, has been developed in collaboration with major local employers, including property developer Lendlease, Braintree and Telstra.

The online program and app, which is due for commercial release next year, will use AI and chatbots to help people manage stress and check for depression.

It offers a one minute mental health check that helps determine the kind of help someone needs next, ranging from counselling to simple lessons delivered via a digital program.

Dr Spence, Uprise’s CEO, told Business Insider that mental health will become one of the biggest workplace issues in the next few years and his program is aimed at early intervention and getting to people who may not think they need help.

It also tackles the gap between the fact that one in five Australian workers suffer from a mental health condition annually, but only one in 20 use existing workplace counselling programs.

“Depression is going to be the second biggest cause of disability by 2020,” he said.

“You can feel this coming when you’re talking to insurers. I think they’re really concerned about this and they’ve got money to invest in this space.”

Telstra has backed the development of Uprise, which had a seed funding round last year.

Dr Spence became interested in the potential of online treatments and AI when he was involved in early trials at St Vincent’s hospital in Sydney.

After seeing the online clinic treating 90 people a month getting the same results as his own practice treating eight over the same time, he did his PhD how to implement online treatments on a large scale.

Central to his thinking was accessibility and equity.

“The medical profession has been resting on its laurels of saying ‘we’re here and ready to treat you, so you come to us’, whereas it should be about using technology to reach out to people,” he said.

“We have a range of treatments that we know are effective, so it’s not about treatments, it’s getting them out to people.

“Someone who is depressed or anxious isn’t likely to reach out for help, so the system can’t sit there and wait for them.”

One of the reasons Spence developed Uprise was the recognition that not everyone sees their problems as serious enough.

“It’s really hard to get people to use mental health services, but if you can make it easy to start, then you can get them in the door and make it to the next level,” he said.

“Early intervention is a way to start the journey and get them into the next type of support. There’s an issue around equity and the right treatment at the right time — not everyone’s ready to do therapy.”

The tricky thing he says is that it can be hard to spot who needs help.

“I doubt anyone would recognise that person in their office. They’re not complaining, they’re doing their job and not exhibiting risky behaviours,” he said.

Yet there a common complaints, such as feeling like you’re a fraud, which should and can easily be treated and Uprise is his low-key way for people to check in on what’s bothering them and treat it easily and quickly.

“The majority of people coming into program are saying they would never access EAP or go into therapy,” Spence says.

The idea to use artificial intelligence and chatbots in Uprise stems from the fact that psychologists use the same standard questions to evaluate a patient as well as solutions.

“Coaching runs to a set script and there are consistent themes,” Spence explains.

“And we found that we were asking same 20 questions, and could probably automate that in a decision tree. Other research groups around the world were already doing the same thing in cognitive behaviour therapy and automating it.”

But it wasn’t as easy as first thought.

“We thought we’d collect a couple of months of data and have this bot,” he says, but “getting a conversation to sound conversational requires a huge data set.”

There’s also the issue of people with mental health issues not giving standard answers to questions. After two years of trials and data, the AI side is starting to take effective shape, although already, the Uprise program has been effective.

“I have found it more useful than going to therapy and just talking with someone because you have activities to focus on and take action with,” one employee said in feedback after using it.

Initially, users answer five simple questions to check their mental health. Then there’s a more detailed questionaire and options such as a weekly coaching calls from a psychologist and 3-minute “micro-lessons” on coping skills.

The app can determine the level of intervention required. For example, if the responses lead to someone being considered high risk, a video counselling session is organised within 24 hours.

The app has been trialled at Lendlease with about 220 staff and the state government department Jobs for NSW backed Uprise with a grant.

Spence says the program’s outcomes have been strong.

“The thing is we can demonstrate back to a company that there’s a proven business case for focusing on mental health,” he said.

Spence believes that in the future, rather than patients being handed a pill, they’ll be offered a digital solution.

But the greatest potential for Uprise is its ability to attract people with longstanding mental health conditions who’ve simply carried the burden until now.

“People are now realising symptoms they’ve had their whole life are treatable,” he says.

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