Can robots be good mental health coaches? Scientists say these machines can help improve people's mental well-being at work, but on condition that the employees like their appearance.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge carried out a four-week-long study in a tech consultancy firm with 26 participants. The results showed that although the robots had identical voices, facial expressions and scripts for the sessions, their physical appearance greatly impacted how the participants responded to the coaching.

Two kinds of robots, a toy-like one and its humanoid counterpart, elicited different responses from the participants. The employees said they could relate better with the former, Tech Explore reported. Based on the findings, researchers concluded that what piqued people's interest was the simplistic appearance of the toy-like robot, which made it easier to communicate with. On the contrary, participants who worked with the human-like robot found their expectations didn't match reality.

Experts said people's perception of robots was largely shaped by pop culture, which fostered high-end expectations that robots could do extraordinary things. This is the reason why people are largely disappointed when they meet a robot in the real world. Despite the differences between expectations and reality, experts said robots can be a useful tool in promoting mental health awareness in workplaces.

The results of the study will be presented at the ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction in Stockholm on March 15, reported Science Daily.

The use of robots as means of promoting workplace mental health is recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) also. But there are fewer examples of the real-time implementation of the practice and the research is still largely limited to laboratories due to a lack of resources.

"We wanted to take the robots out of the lab and study how they might be useful in the real world," said Dr. Micol Spitale, the paper's first author.

"We interviewed different well-being coaches and then we programmed our robots to have a coach-like personality, with high openness and conscientiousness," said co-author Minja Axelsson. "The robots were programmed to have the same personality, the same facial expressions and the same voice, so the only difference between them was the physical robot form."

"Our perceptions of how robots should look or behave might be holding back the uptake of robotics in areas where they can be useful," Axelsson added.