MARKHAM, ONT. – More than 30 staff members at Saint Elizabeth Health Care who also care for sick or frail members of their own families have finished a pilot project using Tess, a chatbot powered by artificial intelligence.
Tess offers personalized, mental healthcare in the form of education, coping mechanisms and supports for self-care. The computerized solution gives employees a powerful tool for managing their own stress, grief and anxiety.
Tess can be accessed anytime, and uses text messaging or instant messaging applications to coach people dealing with emotional and physical challenges. The chatbot quickly provides feedback and advice that normally comes from a trained therapist.
Tess, however, is remote software that is taught to act like a counsellor, and ‘she’ can actually learn about the person she is coaching over time.
“Thirty-four people started [the month-long trial] and all 34 were still using it at the end of the 30 days,” said Mary Lou Ackerman, vice president of innovation at Saint Elizabeth Health Care, noting they were all very positive about the technology.
They gave Tess a good workout, too – Ackerman observed that over 12,000 text messages went back and forth between Tess and the employees over the test period. Tess helped employee caregivers to build self awareness, set goals, manage emotions such as grief, ask for help and avoid caregiver burnout.
She said that Tess really did learn – while responses were fairly general at the beginning of the pilot, they were very specific and personalized by the end of the 30 days.
Tess often answered messages from employees about exhaustion, acknowledging the strains on them and also reminding them about self-care – urging them not to forget to take care of their own physical and emotional needs, as well as those of the people they were caring for.
As well, Tess would make suggestions, like building a network of helpers, and not trying to accomplish everything on their own.
If a person is in a serious state of anxiety or depression, Tess will advise speaking with a professional. It will even connect the person to a hotline, to make the appointment.
While it may seem odd to discuss personal matters with what is essentially a machine, Tess responds very much like a person and soon enough, people forget that Tess is an AI program and they treat her like a real person.
And the benefit is that Tess is available anytime – unlike many therapists, who must be booked well in advance for discussions.
Allyson Kinsley, senior vice president of corporate strategy at Saint Elizabeth, commented, “It’s easy to reach Tess, whenever it’s needed. If you’re stressing out in the middle of the night, you can reach Tess right away.”
She added that Tess also provides a “safe environment to vent,” something that’s an emotional relief to many caregivers. “Many of them didn’t want to be a burden to anyone else,” said Kinsley, so they kept their feelings bottled up inside.
With Tess, they could get their feelings out into the open.
Ackerman observed that Tess is also proactive – it will reach out on its own to a user, asking how the person is feeling. “The users really like this about Tess,” she said. “They felt like Tess had their backs.”
Saint Elizabeth is the first organization in Canada to use Tess, which was created by a company in Mountain View, Calif., called X2 AI. The Silicon Valley-based company developed Tess to act like a therapist for a variety of psychological situations, but the caregiver support role was a first for the system.
To ‘educate’ Tess about the needs and issues of caregivers, X2 worked with Saint Elizabeth Health Care’s staff to customize the system, something that only took about two hours. Once set up in this way, Tess then learns on its own, developing further expertise about the problems of working people who are also caring for frail parents, children or other relatives.
Because of the overwhelmingly positive reception to Tess, Saint Elizabeth is hoping to include access to the chatbot as a part of its Elizz caregivers in the workplace program, which Saint Elizabeth offers to its own staff as well as to companies across Canada, and internationally.
This newly launched employee support program gives access to online resources, as well as in-person coaching, and helps working people cope with the pressures of caring for aging parents, ill spouses and disabled children while holding down a job and in some cases, raising a family, as well.
Care-giving can be a huge employee retention issue for corporations, noted Kinsley. “Twenty-six percent of employees take a leave of absence for family care, and 10 percent quit,” she said. Elizz is designed to help them manage the stress of caregiving while simultaneously keeping their jobs.