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While mental-health apps play an important role in employee benefits offerings, employers must remember apps are the gateway to treatment and not the treatment itself, says the co-author of a new study by the Workplace Safety & Prevention Services.

“Don’t outsource your mental-health problems and think digital solutions alone are a panacea, just because it’s cheap and convenient,” says Bill Howatt, president and founder of Howatt HR Consulting, likening mental-health apps to similar programs and devices for physical fitness. “[The app] is collecting data, providing some education and helping keep me accountable. But that alone won’t get me moving — I may need a personal trainer or to join a gym.”

Read: Employee feedback key to assessing impact of workplace mental-health supports

Sixteen employers promoted a new mental-health app that was created specifically for the study. Among more than 22,000 employees invited to participate, just 150 signed up by completing the first comprehensive assessment, an opt-in rate of only 0.7 per cent.

The study found adherence to the app in a real-world setting ranged between one and 29 per cent, in line with previous studies on other apps. It also cited another finding that adherence to apps in research settings ranges between 44 and 99 per cent.

Howatt says employers need to consider these apps as just one step in the mental-health treatment process, following communication and self-assessment and preceding the treatment itself. He notes apps can also help reduce the stigma of seeking help for mental-health issues.

“The study convinced me that employers can have confidence in mental-health-apps, but we need to stop chasing a magic bullet for workplace mental health. What we learned was that people need people. If you’re going to use a mental-health app, it’s critical in the onboarding to ensure workers understand why and that they’re involved in it and understand it.”

Read: Mental health-related disability rises among Canadians during pandemic: Stats Can