Virtual therapy and stress-busting apps: can tech support mental health at work?


Imagine stepping into the break room in the office and instead of making yourself some coffee and complaining about work, you put on a virtual reality (VR) headset and listen to the voice of a therapist guide you through a meditation session with the aim of transporting you to a calming place far away.

Whether the experience would have the desired effect is debatable – and there’s growing awareness of the potential downsides to mindfulness, but this form of therapy is part of a brave new world of office-based tech designed to support wellbeing at work. VR technology previously only used by psychotherapists to treat clients is now being sold to corporate human resources departments.

Businesses in Spain have started to sign up Psious, a VR and augmented reality (AR) technology company which has developed ways to use VR and AR to help mental health and behavioural issues from phobias to anxiety disorders.

“We initially launched Psious to provide exposure therapy; you can use AR to show spiders to someone who is afraid of them, for example, without having to show them real ones or rely on imagination,” says Xavier Palomer, the Madrid-based company’s chief executive.

Palomer, who has a background in bio-engineering, came up with the idea for the business four years ago while chatting to a friend who had a fear of flying. He realised that the relaxation techniques his friend had developed with a psychologist, alongside exposure therapy tools, could have a wider appeal. “It can be used to help people calm their nerves, relax, become better speakers, all useful things,” he says.

Palomer says he tapped into a trend as clients were already introducing mindfulness programmes at the office and so were ready to embrace the idea. As the technology has become cheaper and more accessible, possibilities have opened up. Other services on the market include Clevr, a VR service to help treat social phobia (among other issues) and Guided Meditation VR.

An array of apps and online services have launched to help workers manage their mental and physical health. And with stress, anxiety and depression being the most common reasons for taking a day off, employers certainly have an incentive to provide support.

But mental health experts caution against relying on tech to aid wellbeing. Sarah Crozier, a senior lecturer in occupational psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University, says any workplace revolution in mental health needs to have a holistic approach: “It is encouraging to see that organisations are equipping their employees with these resources that can potentially help to manage wellbeing.

“But there is the possibility of overburdening ourselves with smartphone technology – it becomes a further demand and can replace engagement with social support (such as spending time with family and friends), which we know is very helpful in promoting our wellbeing.”

Apps that have become available through employee benefits include Tictrac, which is offered through health insurance providers. It works by pulling in smartphone data about a person’s health and wellbeing – such as the number of steps taken during a day or hours slept – from devices such as Fitbits and Runkeepers. The user can then use this information to understand trends in their behaviour.


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