When Mindy had one of the most stressful weeks of her teaching career, she didn’t expect an AI therapy chatbot to fix everything. But she didn’t expect the advice to be so laughably bad, either.
That week, one of Mindy’s elementary school students had been caught vaping — a crime in Singapore, where she lives and works. The police got involved. Already overloaded as the sole music teacher for 500 students, her nerves were frayed as she dealt with the authorities, the student’s angry family, and yet more administration. Exhausted, Mindy decided to try Mindline at Work, a government-supported online mental health portal with a section catering to teachers.
Selecting the “Need a listening ear?” option, a friendly cartoon penguin popped up on the screen. “So Bud, what’s your mood like today?” it asked. When Mindy recounted the week’s ordeals, the penguin suggested she try a breathing exercise. An abstract animation gently pulsed in and out, and she laughed out loud.
“I was like, no, I just want someone to listen!” she told Rest of World. “I want to be heard!” (Mindy asked to use a pseudonym due to fear of reprisal at work, since she wasn’t authorized to speak to media.)
Launched in August 2022, the Singapore Ministry of Health and Ministry of Education’s Mindline at Work for MOE tool was built for public-sector teachers as part of a broader mental health initiative, and a chatbot component had been trialed during development.
Coming to the portal for help, however, anxious and burned-out teachers were met with comments such as: “Remember our thoughts are not always helpful. If a friend or family member was in your place, would they see it the same way?” Scathing screenshots of the chatbot interactions went viral on Reddit, Twitter, and Instagram.
As part of the initiative, the Singaporean government partnered with Wysa, one of the best-known names in the AI therapy app business. Wysa is recognized as having one of the strongest evidence bases among similar apps, and comes clinically recommended by expert groups like the Organisation for the Review of Care and Health Apps (ORCHA).
In conversations with Rest of World, however, users described Mindline at Work as a one-size-fits-all program that struggled to meet teachers’ specific needs. More generally, psychology experts caution that partnering with digital wellness or therapy apps can backfire when the root causes of mental health problems in the workplace remain unaddressed. A growing critique of “workplace wellness” points out that through such partnerships, employers can outsource the responsibility to address mental health in the workplace, leaving other problems — work pressure, toxic environments, or unsafe conditions — to fester.
Brian Hall, a global health professor at NYU Shanghai, told Rest of World that there’s often a wide comprehension gap between companies and the mental health needs of their employees. Like advice to take yoga or mindfulness sessions, he said, “It’s like a blanket intervention that ticks a box, but might not meet people where they are, when what they need is not being provided.”
Demand for remote mental health support jumped globally during the Covid-19 pandemic. The trend was acute across Asia, where support can be less accessible due to cost barriers, poor insurance options, or fewer practitioners.
Wysa, founded in 2016 in India and with offices now in Bengaluru, Boston, and London, is among a wave of startups developed to meet that need. The company is a success story: It counts Google Assistant Investments and British International Investment among its backers, and has cited a revenue-generating user base of over 4.5 million individuals in 65 countries. Wysa saw an uptick in users over the Covid-19 pandemic, with a pronounced Asia user base in Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Hong Kong, the company’s lead psychologist Smriti Joshi told Rest of World.
Singapore’s government was the first to bring Wysa’s bot into a national-level service. The original Mindline.sg initiative, launched in June 2020, was intended to help anyone in Singapore “access and navigate care” during the Covid-19 pandemic; the bot was integrated four months later, in partnership with the Ministry of Health’s Office for Healthcare Transformation, as an “emotionally intelligent” listener. As teacher burnout became a prominent news topic, an extension was rolled out for public education employees as a more tailored effort.
Just days after the extension’s launch, though, complaints began to emerge. Irate users were unimpressed by the bot’s generic advice, and said it wasn’t the right tool to address the actual problems leading to teachers’ stress — a demanding performance appraisal system, large classroom sizes, and uncapped working hours.
“From the teacher’s point of view, it’s pretty useless, lah,” Mr. Chow, a public-school teacher in his late 20s, who requested a pseudonym as he was not authorized to speak to media, told Rest of World. Having taught for two years, Mr. Chow is on a government bond that requires him to teach for several more. He clocks so much unpaid overtime, he said, that he estimates his real hourly wage to be lower than 10 Singapore dollars an hour. Between teaching classes, completing administrative tasks, and running an extracurricular group, he says, “sometimes you feel like your brain is going to crack.”
Mr. Chow says that no one he knows takes the Mindline bot seriously. “It’s a joke,” he said. “It’s trying to gaslight the teachers, to say, ‘Oh, this amount of workload is normal, let’s see how we can reframe our perspective on this.’”
In an email to Rest of World, Wysa’s vice president of marketing, Sarah Baldry, maintained that the app builds “emotional resilience.” “It is important to understand that an app or bot can’t change the behavior of others … Wysa can only help users change the way they feel about things themselves.” In an interview, she credited the Singaporean government with a “fantastic job” rolling out the Mindline service and making it widely available in a short amount of time.
Joshi, Wysa’s lead psychologist, added that the backlash was likely due to the Wysa bot being introduced when teachers were already in a “state of angst.” “I think that led to [teachers] feeling like it’s one of the checkboxes,” she said, referring to criticism that the Ministry of Education was only superficially addressing burnout problems.
Baldry said, instead, that the teachers themselves should try to change their workplace conditions by raising issues directly with management, and that some of Wysa’s features could help them prepare for difficult conversations. She referred to Singapore’s non-confrontational culture as context for possible reticence, a statement she later withdrew.
But fear of professional reprisal has hampered teachers from raising concerns: the teachers in this piece all requested pseudonyms for that reason. Mr. Chow said that three other teachers he had tried to put Rest of World in touch with refused, citing the need for media authorization. And while channels for feedback exist, teachers have complained that these are plagued by slow bureaucracy and a lack of receptiveness.
The Ministry of Health, under which the Office for Healthcare Transformation sits, would not comment but directed Rest of World to speak to the Ministry of Education, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
According to the ministry, cited in Channel News Asia, a June 2021 internal survey showed that seven in 10 teachers said “they can cope” with work stress. The education minister recently shared that fewer than one in 20 teachers resigning in the past five years cited stress or workload as a reason.
Even if Wysa doesn’t claim to solve workplace problems, many similar startups’ stated aims are, to some extent, tied to improving mental health in a work context. Singapore and Indonesia-based Ami says its mission is to “help elevate highly accomplished, motivated, and engaged workforces.” Singapore-based Intellect seeks to “nurture a thriving workplace.”
Even when apps don’t primarily pitch themselves as workplace tools, they generally include a separate tab on their homepage for potential business clients. Malaysia-based PlusVibes, for example, tells businesses that their employees “deserve a stress-free work environment.”
Their propositions have drawn investors: Ami recently closed a $3 million seed round including Meta’s New Product Experimentation team. Intellect raised $10 million in a series A round in January, and another $10 million in a series A extension in July. Wysa raised $20 million the same month. Aside from Singapore’s Ministry of Health, its biggest clients now include Accenture, Colgate-Palmolive, Aetna International, and the U.K.’s National Health Service.
Wysa declined to share a breakdown of its revenue model, though Joshi says generating revenue is necessary to its original goal: keeping the basic app free to use. While Wysa doesn’t use advertising, individual users can pay to speak to a mental health professional, or for a premium subscription.
The company also offers these subscriptions on a larger scale to institutions. In addition to individual subscriptions or in-app purchases, business-to-business-to-consumer programs for corporate clients are generally a key source of revenue for this kind of freemium model. Top apps like Calm and Headspace all offer package options for employers, with Calm’s business package for five users priced at $291.85 a year.
Hall, the NYU Shanghai professor, remarked that the need for revenue can change an app’s incentives. “When you get into a for-profit space, the contingencies are a little different … get in as many phones as possible, hit downloads,” he added. “I’m not saying that’s wrong, I’m just saying that’s a different kind of model than a public health model.”
Some research shows that apps do hold promise in alleviating symptoms of depression and anxiety, although a significant problem is that most are not evidence-based. Other barriers can be low engagement, and concerns about data privacy.
Reetaza Chatterjee, founder of the Singaporean mental health collective Your Head Lah, works in the nonprofit sector. Her job gives her premium access to Calm, a meditation app, which she’s never used. “I don’t trust that these apps wouldn’t share my confidential information and data with my employers,” she told Rest of World.
Most companies, Calm included, assure users that partner employers only get anonymized and aggregated insights into employee data. But privacy remains a weak point overall — digital rights nonprofit Mozilla Foundation found that many mental health apps “fail spectacularly” at it. Mozilla noted that Wysa was a strong exception, though users Rest of World spoke to hadn’t used the chatbot enough to think about it.
In Singapore, at least, there is one app people turn to for venting about working conditions: Instagram. In the face of strict laws on labor organizing, and ahead of basic protections for gig workers set to apply in 2024, workers in different sectors have taken to the platform to vent frustrations through anonymous, collective accounts. Delivery riders (@sgriders), health workers (@sgnightingales), and teachers (@ed_ffirmations) have their own Instagram pages, filled with memes and infographics complaining about dangerous or unreasonable working conditions, and the subject of mental health comes up, in various forms: On @ed_ffirmations, parodies of the Wysa bot abound. On @sgriders, posts detail dangerous and exploitative working conditions.
Over the pandemic, delivery platforms Grab, Deliveroo, and Foodpanda have each offered mental health initiatives for contractor delivery riders or employees, sometimes in collaboration with startups. Earlier this year, Grab partnered with the Singapore-based Intellect and Ngee Ann Polytechnic to offer a mental wellness program for their workers. One of the delivery riders behind @sgriders, who wasn’t comfortable sharing their name out of concern for losing their job, told Rest of World that they work with all three platforms but had only heard of the initiative in passing. “It’s basically greenwashing for mental health,” they said.
“Technology is there as an aid, but we need to know what we’re assisting,” says Hall. “We need to … actually meet people’s needs.”
Hall is part of a team that developed Kumusta Kabayan, a support program designed to be used by overseas domestic workers from the Philippines. For a test run in Macau, the program was designed based on a World Health Organization app, and adapted with input from a local NGO, a university, and the end-users themselves. The app includes an in-person component, where users are connected with clinical psychologists in training. It was generally well-received by users, and Hall says they are looking into scaling the program up elsewhere.
Still, any app can only do so much in the face of adverse conditions. The Kumusta Kabayan study noted that many of its potential users reported being too tired or busy working to use it.