Everyone has a bad day here or there, but empowering employees through mental health and training can provide them with the skills to be more present and focused on the job. This can lead to higher productivity for employers and lower rates of absenteeism and presenteeism with employees.

This is why more learning and development (L&D) teams are beginning to observe challenges with managing employees’ mental health as a skills gap. As a result, many learning leaders are turning to artificial intelligence-(AI) based companions to integrate with L&D’s mental health initiatives and serve as an electronic performance support system (EPSS) for their people. The stigma associated with mental health issues often prevents people from seeking help or finding ways to help themselves. Sadly, the stigma isn’t the only hurdle people encounter when they need support.

Traditional counseling is not always a practical option for some employees because it requires a significant time commitment during work hours and can interfere with a busy schedule. They may not have the time to abandon work for a standard therapy-hour and a round-trip commute. Mental health issues also extend beyond business hours — some employees may need support at night or even during the weekends.

Additionally, employees who struggle with subclinical symptoms — symptoms that are not severe enough to receive a diagnosis — may not qualify to receive reimbursement for traditional therapy from their health plans and may be unable to afford out-of-pocket expenses. When these challenges are examined with employee productivity levels in mind, they can have a palpable impact on an organization’s bottom line. Thus, it is important to find solutions that are both practical and have a demonstrated ability to engage employees who need incentive.

Cutting-edge, AI technology has enabled many L&D leaders to show their support, whereas in the past, they’ve fallen short. Today’s digital companions provide a safe space that is adaptable and easy to understand for employees who may be in need of an employee assistance program (EAP). This can both drive increased EAP utilization — a service that is often underutilized in many companies — and keep people safe by directing them to an appropriate level of care when needed.

Providing employees with an AI-based EAP for mental health, with 24/7, anonymous, guided support, can also deliver notable return-on-investment. These training tools deliver AI-cognitive behavioral therapy (AI-CBT) that enables employees to seek help and build resiliency by teaching them how to restructure their negative thoughts and develop coping mechanisms, so they can derive a sense of accomplishment from their work.

The AI companion has the ability to check in each day and anonymously talk employees through their challenges, allowing users to practice skills that will enhance their work and personal lives, helping to improve mood and resiliency, as well as potentially increasing productivity. The digital companion can help with widespread mental health challenges, like anxiety, sleep issues, fatigue and low mood.

For those who are uncomfortable discussing their with their employers, the AI-based companions provide a sense of anonymity that encourages them to get the help they otherwise may not seek. These systems provide resources that workers can use to guide their own learning, and tools and exercises that allow them to practice the skills that can improve their mental health in a safe and anonymous space.

In fact, one study found that only 18% of people prefer to speak with humans over robots when they need mental health support, because they believe chatbots are judgment-free, unbiased and quick to respond to their questions compared to humans. Moreover, the same study found that 68% of people prefer robots if given the choice between speaking with their managers or speaking to robots about their mental health.

When AI companions are included as part of a mental health outreach and training program, they bridge the gap between discussing the concept of mental health support and actually delivering care to those in need of support. With AI-based companions at their side, employees can gain a better sense of accomplishment, thus, driving increased productivity.