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How to pick a mental health app for your workforce wellness program

Whether your employees are working from home or in your place of business, they need your support in managing the stress and anxiety of the COVID-19 crisis. Mobile apps, while not a replacement for mental health services, are one way to extend self-care support and can be a great complement to your corporate wellness programs. But all apps aren’t created equal. We’ll give you tips on how to find the right mental health app for your workforce.

Growing demand for mental health apps

In the U.S., there’s a high demand for mental health resources. Nearly 56% of American adults have wanted to or tried to get mental health treatment for themselves or their loved ones.1 As the country copes with the stress and anxiety from COVID-19, this demand has increased. People are seeking virtual mental health services, like mobile apps, to find support and relief during the pandemic.

As a result, app makers are seeing a significant spike in mental health app downloads and usage. For example, app company Livongo saw a 140% increase in usage of their mental health app in March 2020 compared to September 2019.2

With the growing importance of physical distancing, it’s no surprise that people are becoming more open to virtual mental health services. Even though mobile apps aren’t meant to be a replacement for clinical therapy, they do offer convenience, privacy, comfort, and access to self-care whenever someone needs it. And it’s all right at their fingertips.

The cost of depression in the workplace: 32 days a year due to reduced productivity for every depressed employee, which is equivalent to $44 billion lost annually.

Why you should add apps to your wellness program

This interest in mental health services — and apps — also extends to your workforce. In Deloitte’s 2018 Global Human Trends Survey, they found that 60% of employees value mental health counseling but only 21% of companies offer this program.3 In the same study, 67% of employees said they value reimbursement for well-being expenses but only 26% of companies offer it. With all this demand, self-care apps with a focus on mental health may be a worthwhile addition to your larger workforce health initiatives.

What employees value versus what employers offer: 60% of employees find mental health counseling highly valuable or valuable, but only 21% of employers offer a program for it. 67% of employees find reimbursement for well-being expenses highly valuable or valuable, but only 26% of employers offer a program for it.

A guide to picking the best mental health app

Choosing an app for your company’s corporate wellness program can be overwhelming. There are apps to help with stress, anxiety, insomnia, depression, addiction, mood, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the list goes on. With so many self-care apps on the market, how do you know which one is safe, effective, and worth the investment?

To help get to the bottom of this, our team of Kaiser Permanente health researchers has been vetting mental health and wellness apps for years. We’ve been reviewing scientific research, talking with app companies, studying consumer behavior, and working with therapists to see how these tools can be used in practice.

Based on our team’s findings, here are 5 tips to help you choose the mental health app that’s best for your workforce wellness program.

1. Narrow your search to these 2 types of apps
The best place to start is with meditation and mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy apps, since they typically have the evidence and science to back up their claims.

Meditation and mindfulness apps like Calm have shown significant results for stress, anxiety, mood, and insomnia. In a recent study of college students, participants who used the Calm app to meditate for at least 10 minutes per day over 8 weeks reported feeling less stressed, plus an improvement in mindfulness and self-compassion.4

Cognitive behavioral therapy apps like myStrength are modeled after talk therapy. And so far, the research shows that these digital experiences can be just as useful and effective as in-person talk therapy. In fact, 74% of myStrength users experienced improvements in depression scores, making it 83% as effective as face-to-face therapy.5

2. Test it out before you buy
Pick an app with a seamless user experience. If the app isn’t easy to figure out, you won’t use it, and neither will your employees. And it will be a waste of your workforce wellness dollars.

Request a free trial for a small group of decision-makers at your organization. Then ask your test group: Was it easy to use? Could you quickly find what you were looking for? Did you find the activities engaging? Did you lean on the app during a stressful time?

3. Pick an app that won’t share your employees’ data
Personal data is a hot commodity in the tech world. And many app companies, especially those behind the free ones, make money by selling user data. Only work with companies that protect your employees’ personal health information.

Unlike a consumer, when you’re a company setting up a business account with an app, you can set data and privacy stipulations in your contract. And when you roll out the app to your staff, let them know their privacy and data is protected so they feel safe using it.

4. Weigh pros and cons of self-guided vs. coaching apps
A self-guided app is one where the user engages with the content, tracks their progress, and the entire experience is done on their own. A guided app, on the other hand, has a trained professional that leads or helps the user through the online experience. The user can ask them what to do next and talk back and forth about what’s working for them.

The price point varies between the styles. Guided versions typically cost more. However, during our review of numerous studies, we found that apps with a coach or guide typically help reduce depression more significantly than self-guided apps.6

5. Go to nonprofit and mental health groups for reviews
Our team’s favorite is Psyberguide. external link. They’re a nonprofit, affiliated with the University of California Irvine’s Department of Psychological Science. They do a nice job of reviewing mental health apps for credibility, user experience, and transparency in hopes of helping consumers and mental health professionals make informed decisions about digital mental health.

Another trusted entity is the American Psychiatric Association. They developed a rating system. external link to help mental health professionals evaluate apps based on security, evidence, ease of use, and other functions.

Apps are a great complement to your wellness program

It’s best to go with an app that’s evidence-based and tested in the marketplace, transparent about privacy, easy to use, and in alignment with your workforce wellness initiatives. And while these apps aren’t a total replacement for in-person therapy, they’re a way to expand access and help your employees achieve their short and long-term mental health and wellness goals.

About our expert

Trina Histon, PhD

Trina Histon is a Senior Principal Consultant in Prevention, Wellness, and Digital Health at Kaiser Permanente’s Care Management Institute. She’s currently co-lead on Kaiser Permanente’s enterprisewide effort to deploy an ecosystem of digital mental health tools to support emotional wellness for members. With a PhD in health psychology from University College Cork, Ireland, Trina has built her career around translating scientific evidence on prevention, well-being, behavior change, and emotional health into health care practice.