Appy days

Written by: Sophie McCarthy Posted: 08/02/2021

BLDigital_Wellbeing illoThe digital wellbeing space has seen such proliferation in recent years, But how and why have we embraced technology in this way and what does the future hold for the ever-evolving relationship between mental wellbeing and technology?

Boundaries and balance both took an impressive hit in 2020. “Human beings are a social species that rely on interaction for a host of facets of their wellbeing,” explains Leonie McCrann, CEO of change management firm Marbral Advisory. 

“Being thrust into a form of isolation was challenging for most of us, owing to the fact that the interactions that we unconsciously rely on were threatened. 

“For many people, the small hits of dopamine, the hormone that makes us feel positive, and which you gain through day-to-day human interaction, all but completely disappeared. 

“What’s more, relationships that were being conducted remotely suffered because, all of a sudden, we were unable to pick up on all-important non-verbal cues.” 

McCrann goes on to explain that as a direct result of this ever-present reality, the already fine line between work and play has become increasingly blurred. “Working remotely has also meant that in several cases, the home and the office have become inseparable,” she says. 

“Too many people were and are continuing to work long hours and are neglecting to take the necessary breaks to clear their heads.” 

Add into the already combustible equation the fact that commutes have been eradicated, more emails are sent and answered, and we are attending infinitely more meetings (albeit shorter, virtual ones), and the blurring of the lines is clear.

In April, internet usage soared to previously unseen heights. ‘Zoom fatigue’ has become a recognised phenomenon, as video calls require more focus than a face-to-face chat.

And given that a huge proportion of the population has been both working and socialising remotely for the best part of nine months, people are walking a delicate tightrope when it comes to digital overload. 

In fact, a worrying one in five British men admitted greeting colleagues and friends online before their partner in the morning during lockdown. 

Mark Brady, Group Partner at Appleby, agrees that the relationship between tech and wellbeing has been exaggerated because of the crisis. 

“Lockdown physically separated us from our traditional social and support networks and, as such, we turned to technology to help us maintain these,” he says. 

“Meanwhile, our work and home lives have become less separated and, again, technology has been central to maintaining proper balance.” 

Taking all of these factors into consideration, you’d be forgiven for assuming that technology has been more detrimental to our mental and physical health than it has been beneficial during this unique period. 

Technically fit

In fact, digital wellbeing has kept millions of people both safe and sane during this hugely turbulent time.

For some, fitness and keeping occupied brought tech to the fore when the physical world was all but put on hold – virtual trainers saw subscriber numbers rocket, while gyms and studios were forced to pivot, and quickly, in order to keep pace and maintain memberships. 

Others, meanwhile, experienced a very real and pressing need for digital services such as therapy sessions via Zoom. 

As we know, the pandemic has had a devastating impact on mental health – almost one in five adults experienced some form of depression in June 2020 compared with one in 10 before the pandemic, and 85% off us felt stressed or anxious. 

Face-to-face solutions were impossible to facilitate; many relied on digital offerings. Downloads of the most popular mindful apps rose by 80% during lockdown. 

It is, however, crucial to remember that, while Covid-19 may have acted as a catalyst for a never-before-seen boom in an industry that is now at an inflection point, wellbeing tech is by no means new. 

Online cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) treatment for depression has been in clinical use for more than 10 years (and originally delivered via PCs), and the first fitness smartphone applications became available in 2010, two years after the birth of App Stores. 

BLDigital_Wellbeing illo2There’s now a plethora of health and wellbeing apps and platforms available – offering everything from affordable online counselling, to guided meditation, suicide prevention toolkits, menstrual cycle tracking, negative thought management, emotional health check-ups, suggested breathing techniques and panic attack prevention. 

The technological advancements in this sector appear to know no bounds. Youper is an emotional health assistant that uses AI to personalise therapy techniques and mindfulness to fit a user’s needs; Sleep Cycle wakes you up during your lightest sleep phase in the morning, allowing you to arise well rested and less groggy; eQuoo turns emotional intelligence into an adventure game; while Wysa lets you talk with a penguin chatbot about whatever’s on your mind. Naturally. 

Wearables have had to up their game in this space, too, with the likes of Fitbit developing watches with electrodermal activity (EDA) sensors, so that users can monitor their body’s physical responses to stress, learn, act and reflect. 

And then we have, of course, the advanced, interactive at-home devices such as the Peloton, which saw sales surge more than 66% during lockdown. 

The way forward

But where do we go from here? What does the future of this sector look like and will this trend still play as big a part in our lives post-Covid-19? 

All the signs look positive. Given the wide reach and ease of accessibility, demand for these services – literally available at our fingertips – is unlikely to decrease post-pandemic. 

Live streaming in all its guises looks like it’s here to stay, and now that so many people have made mental wellbeing a priority and sought cost-effective and time-effective ways of integrating practices into their daily routines, it seems improbable that they would drop or even deprioritise these activities. 

In fact, Kantar Worldpanel reports that six in 10 consumers have said they will continue buying as much online as they were during coronavirus. And a report from Silicon Valley Bank and EY states that health tech deals increased by 18% in the first half of 2020 compared with 2019, signalling real faith in the market. 

With $9.4bn invested up to Q3, 2020 is predicted to be the largest funding year for digital health to date. According to Rock Health, the sector is on track to hit $12bn by the end of the year, compared with $7.4bn invested in 2019 and $8.2bn in 2018. 

McKinsey & Company reports that the three key categories that have the potential to improve vital areas of wellbeing are data and AI, connectivity and platforms, and robotics. 

McCrann agrees that data will and should be a key focus point for the future of the sector. 

“The next step is as much of a focus on mental wellbeing data as on physical wellbeing,” she says. “There have been significant advances in the use of real-time data to assess trends in physical illness, such as diabetes or heart monitoring, and I truly believe we can do the same. When you collect numerous data points, it helps paint a very real picture of mental health, both in the present and in the future.” 

Brady, meanwhile, is convinced that opportunities will remain available both to those businesses that are digitally native and those that have or can successfully pivot from purely bricks and mortar to a combination of physical and online. 

He also believes we’ll see further advances and growth owing to the fact that the pandemic accelerated reach and desire. 

“Technology is now being demanded by a broader demographic than ever before. If it continues to be delivered appropriately, which I suspect it will, then there will be even greater scope to grow.” 

Given everything we now know about digital overload and burnout, turning to your smartphone to help induce sleep or stave off stress might at first seem counterintuitive. 

And while tech can be a curse as well as a blessing, what it provides in terms of mental stability and improvement cannot be overlooked. The key, Brady stresses, is ensuring that tech remains “our servant, not our master”. 

• This feature was first published in the Digital Edition of Businesslife in December 2020

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