This experience critically engages with mental well-being apps used in the workplace.

The meditation you will hear is compiled from multiple apps.

May your reflections be enlightening.

The full experience is only
available for the desktop.

This experience critically
engages with mental well-being
apps used in the workplace.

The meditation you will hear is
compiled from multiple apps.

May your reflections be enlightening.

What is this project about?

"Well-being Struggle" invites us to question the instrumentalization of positive psychology, mindfulness, and meditation content available through digital mental well-being apps by employers as a substitute for tangible corporate culture change and mental health resources in the workplace. 
A reliance on these products as a solution to employee burnout has numerous current and potential risks such as 1) setting deceptively unrealistic expectations around personal goals,   
2) shifting the responsibility for maintaining a healthy workplace away from the employer and toward the employee, and   3) amplifying harmful mentalities such as performative positivity as predominant values of contemporary work culture to a vulnerable user base.

Why does this matter?

Over the past decade, the market for employee wellness tools and resources has ballooned. While currently estimated to value $56 billion, it is expected to reach $109 billion by 2030. According to a Harris Poll survey conducted on behalf of Fortune, more than a third (36%) of employees say their companies have offered some kind of mental health support since the COVID-19 pandemic. The use of digital apps to promote employee well-being is gaining momentum, as the rate of employee burnout skyrockets. A report from Tufts Medical Center, claims the decrease in workplace productivity caused by depression and/or burnout is estimated to account for $44 billion in losses annually in the US. However, the geographical context is less important to this phenomenon, as it applies to situations where ever company culture is prominent.

What are the current risks?

Among other issues, mental well-being apps present a high risk of data privacy and surveillance concerns. When these apps are introduced by a workplace, personal data takes particular importance. Information related to an employee’s mental well-being is harvested, aggregated, and shared with third parties. Subsequently, such data could be harnessed to make decisions related to wage and healthcare discrimination or simply for management purposes.

The Mozilla Foundation’s Privacy Not Included guide demonstrates that, despite dealing with incredibly sensitive issues like depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and PTSD, digital mental well-being apps routinely share data, allow weak passwords, target vulnerable users with personalized ads, and feature vague or poorly written privacy policies.

While the users of mental well-being apps have no insight into how their emotional data is collected and used, other parties such as data brokers have an active interest in such data. For example, investigations into the Lyra Health incident revealed that mental health data from Facebook, Google, and Starbucks employees might have been shared with their employers.

“In the age of Big Data, joining a wellness program is less akin to a confidential visit to your family doctor than it is joining public social media, precisely because of the potential for porous flow of information through those programs.” - Kate Crawford, Founder of AI Now Institute.

What are the potential risks?

In this dicey ground of data ethics, Well-being Struggle aims to draw attention beyond the current privacy debate and focus on the content that digital mental health products offer for workplaces.

The majority of these apps, especially in their dedicated “work” sections, repeat positivity messages in an attempt to improve user productivity, suggesting that this method will improve creativity, leadership skills, and more. We believe this inadvertently:

  • Creates deceptively unrealistic expectations. The repeated messages are often embedded in a meditation form, with an end goal and a few steps. However, setting high standards for happiness or ineffective goals to achieve it often leads to disappointment when one’s current state falls short of those standards, as noted by social psychologists Brett Q. Ford and Iris B. Mauss in their chapter, The Paradoxical Effects of Pursuing Positive Emotion: When and Why Wanting to Feel Happy Backfires. Goal-oriented short meditation exercises not only foster impractical hopes but also create an unrealistic expectation of the meditation practice itself which yields results, arguably with time, patience, and consistency.
  • Shifts responsibility for creating healthy workplaces. By offering a mental well-being app as a perk, companies may be attempting to shift the responsibility for employee mental health onto the individual, implying that mental health issues are solely the employees' problems to solve. Additionally, presenting access to these apps as an employee perk can send the message that work-related stress is an inherent part of the job, which employees should manage themselves. This fails to acknowledge that excessive stress and burnout often result from unhealthy work environments and unsustainable workloads.
  • Accelerates a cultural shift toward “performative positivity”. The expectation to be positive is increasingly ubiquitous in our everyday interactions, more explicitly in professional environments. The digital mental well-being industry not only commodifies this trend, but it also accelerates the shift toward a societal attitude that negative emotions should be stigmatized. According to the report “Wellness Capitalism: Employee Health, the Benefits Maze, and Worker Control”, as part of this debate, we should also consider the risk of discrimination toward employees who want to opt out of their company's well-being incentive structure or express reluctance to participate in it, even if they are performing adequately at work.

Maintaining a healthy work-life balance might require mental health support. However, the creators of digital mental well-being apps need to rethink how they ensure that users are protected both from data surveillance and from the negative effects their content can have when used as a substitute for more robust mental health resources. 

What was our methodology?

App analysis: We selected an initial set of 26 digital mental well-being apps based on their popularity measured by their download count, the psychological methodologies they use, and the presence of a dedicated “work” section among the app’s offerings.

We interacted with each app for a week, shortlisted 13 that primarily use affirmations and meditations and created a manual database of their content. This enabled us to create a generative meditation piece that highlights the repeated positivity messages often embedded in these types of apps.

Evidence research: We investigated existing literature and data related to the various topics addressed in this project, such as the critical importance of the current app market for employee well-being resources; data privacy incidents related to these apps, especially those linked to workplaces; and the dark patterns of using positive psychology.

The major reading resources can be found on this channel.

Expert interviews: We interviewed psychologists, psychology scholars and thinkers, Buddhist practitioners, cognitive scientists, and AI experts to help us understand the potential harms of using goal-oriented positive psychology methods in digital mental well-being apps, from different perspectives.

Who are we?

This project was created by Sena Partal (interaction designer and researcher) and Sasha Smirnova (audio and visual artist)     as part of the Mozilla Foundation 2023 Creative Media Awards cohort working on AI and responsible design.

A special thanks to our collaborators:
Lars Kaltenbach, concept design assistance
Carlos Carbonell, website development
Eugene Markin, generative meditation algorithm
Yang Li, app analysis and research assistance
Katya Teague, copy editing

Michelle Roginsky, film direction
Charlotte Savage, film editing
Ohanzo Soundlab, sound mix 

To our mentors:
Abeba Birhane, for the research and content
Pau Garcia, for the digital experience design

And to the Mozilla Foundation, for funding and supporting this project.

What would you like
to achieve with this meditation?
0% Creativity
0% Productivity
0% Leadership
Who do you think has a vital
role in shaping a healthy workplace?
So, what happens when performative positivity becomes an obligation for employees?
Follow the infinite meditation piece compiled from real mental well-being apps.
learn more
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