Developing a chatbot for mental health in the workplace

by Gillian Cameron

In 2016, I graduated with a degree in Computing from Glasgow Caledonian University. My final project involved developing a reminiscence application for people living with dementia. From this project, I developed a keen interest in how technology could be used in mental healthcare.

After finishing my degree, a friend had just started a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) – something I had never heard of. Once she explained what a KTP was, I was keen to check out current vacancies.

One KTP post in particular stood out to me, since it involved developing technology for mental healthcare with Inspire Workplaces and Ulster University.

The project aim was to develop an online support programme for employees affected by vicarious trauma – a response to an accumulation of exposure to the pain of others.

The project team consisted of two computing academics and two psychology academics from Ulster University, and company partner Inspire Workplaces – a social enterprise which delivers mental health and wellbeing support to some leading organisations.

As the KTP associate, I was responsible for delivering the project under the supervision of the company and academic supervisors.

People affected by vicarious trauma

With more than 350,000 million photos uploaded to Facebook each day, many of us assume that content unsuitable for public viewing is taken down automatically. However there is a team of people curating this media, known as content moderators. Content moderators can view around 2,000 disturbing images and videos a day, which has a severe impact on their mental health and means they are at risk of being affected by vicarious trauma.

Police officers who perform digital forensics on disturbing media are also at risk. There are screening tools available online, and information on mental health, but after reviewing the market, we found that no programme appeared to incorporate all these aspects.

Creating a solution

These findings led to the development of the Inspire Support Hub, and a chatbot called iHelpr.

The chatbot guides the user through questionnaires on stress, anxiety, depression, self-esteem and sleep. Depending on their score, they are directed to the most appropriate self-help resource within the hub or a face to face service that can be provided by Inspire Workplaces. Within the hub there is a vast amount of self-help resources, psychoeducation materials, and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) based self-help programmes.


The Inspire Support Hub can empower people to take their mental wellbeing into their own hands. In a recent month-long trial, participants using the hub said it helped them to “break down a problem – and help if I was feeling overwhelmed” and would help them be “proactive about a mental health issue.”

What next for iHelpr?

The hub is being launched early in 2019 for a larger trial with Inspire Workplaces’ customers. This will help those organisations to incorporate wellbeing strategies into the workplace, as evidence suggests that 12.7% of all sickness absence days in the UK can be attributed to mental health conditions. If the trial is successful, our focus will move to developing a bespoke student version, as Inspire currently provide support to 200,000 students.

KTP benefits and challenges

The combination of two years of challenging industry experience, and academic research has been very interesting, and provided a wealth of benefits for all involved in the Knowledge Transfer Partnership.

Inspire Workplaces were able to gain access to the latest thinking and best practice in digital interventions for healthcare, and the company now has a new product they can add to their services.

As the KTP associate I had a personal development and travel budget set aside for me, which I used to attend international conferences that were focused on chatbots, technology for mental health, and technical training courses. I shared my knowledge throughout the company following the conferences and training courses that I attended during the two-year project.

The opportunities the KTP offered were far beyond my expectations, and I don’t think I would have received the same experiences in any other role. For example, I was able to travel to St Petersburg with another KTP associate, to present at a chatbot workshop as part of the International Conference on Internet Science 2018. There is a big emphasis within KTPs on networking, as two residential visits are set up for you to meet and work with other associates.

I was also able to complete an MSc in Business Development and Innovation, from Ulster University, alongside my KTP project. However, completing this degree alongside the KTP project work was one of my biggest challenges, and I had to learn to manage my time effectively. The biggest benefit for me personally was being hired as a Software Developer with Inspire Workplaces to continue to develop digital interventions for mental healthcare.

The project resulted in four academic publications on chatbots for mental healthcare. Following on from this KTP, the academics in Ulster University have secured another KTP in the area of chatbots for mental healthcare.

gillian cameron 150Gillian Cameron is a Software Developer at Inspire Workplaces. She was the KTP associate for a project with Ulster University and Inspire Workplaces and developed the Inspire Support Hub. Gillian has a keen interest in how technology can play a part in mental healthcare. Gillian has a BSc in Computing (Web Systems Development) from Glasgow Caledonian University and MSc in Business Development and Innovation from Ulster University.

You can follow @gillibeano and @InspireWBProf on Twitter.

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