For staff of three New Zealand companies, the answer to workplace stress could soon be to consult a virtual Sir John Kirwan.
The All Black great, ex-Blues coach and longtime mental health awareness advocate is creating a workplace wellbeing programme that will include an avatar, driven by artificial intelligence.
Kirwan says he's aware of recent criticism by ZB's Mike Hosking that banks, telcos and airlines are all fronting virtual assistants styled as young women.
He says his service will launch with an avatar based on his likeness, created by Auckland startup FaceMe - recently in the news as the creator of Vodafone's "Kiri".
"Hopefully they can make me look a bit younger and take off 20kg," Kirwan jokes.
The service will add a mix of male and female virtual assistants, with a range of ages and ethnicities. Long-term, you'll get a completely personalised mental health coach. Some might not even be human, Kirwin says.
Vodafone's Kiri will field queries about pre-pay top-ups. It seems a long way from there to grappling with the complexities of the human condition.
Kirwin says there is a lot of development work to be done with virtual assistants. He wants to be in on the ground floor.
"I want to be the guinea pig – I want to be part of this development so that I know where it's at, can give advice about how it could work better and be part of the growth. I want to do some investigating and, hopefully, take the fear out of it so that others won't be afraid to leverage it as a tool as well."
A half-dozen psychiatrists and psychologists are being consulted as the avatar is developed. Security and privacy consultants have also been drafted in on the technology side.
The "virtual John" will be only part of a broader workplace mental health and wellbeing programme that will also include the likes of cognitive computer games, videos and blogs.
Kirwan readily acknowledges that talking to an avatar is not appropriate for someone in distress. For those cases, people will be able to "break through the virtual wall and talk to a person", he says.
"I am not advocating removing the human touch," he emphasises.
But by the same token, he notes that an AI can be used to track language, tone of voice, body language and other cues that a person could be in trouble. Such technology can be used to complement other tools.
He adds that the service will also address everyday mental health and wellbeing issues such as difficulty sleeping, financial stress and how to deal with confrontation in the workplace.
The exact programme is still taking shape. Kirwan has been visiting staff at three anchor customers - The Warehouse Group, Barfoot & Thompson and Perpetual Guardian - talking to around 1000 staff individually and in groups about workplace wellbeing.
More discussions will follow before a pilot programme is introduced next year.
Kirwan already knows the broad thrust of what he wants to achieve, however. "At the moment we have an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. I want a fence at the top," he says.
The model will see employers paying a fee, and staff accessing the service free. Kirwan has his eye on global expansion once the service is bedded in locally.
There are no government agencies involved. "It's a business," Kirwan says.
FaceMe has come on board purely as a technology supplier to Kirwan's new company, Mentemia, which was created in May to drive the project.
But the two have a backer in common.
Mentemia is owned 50 per cent by Kirwan and 50 per cent by FaceMe chairman and investor Adam Clark - who is also on the board of social media metrics company Parrot Analytics, among other hot startups.
FaceMe chief executive Danny Tomsett says his company is best known for its work in retail. Working with Kirwan is a chance to give back.
Perpetual Guardian chairman and four-day week champion Andrew Barnes cites research that found one in five people in workplace suffer excess stress or other mental health issues.
He says addressing them is not only the right thing to do, but makes a business more productive.