Headspace: the panacea for corporate mental wellbeing

Experiencing mental wellbeing issues first-hand has left its Chief Strategy and Science Officer with a passion for reducing stigma

We spoke with Dr Megan Jones Bell, Chief Strategy and Science Officer at Headspace, on the psychological challenges employees are facing today, and how large businesses can support their mental wellbeing through the uncertain climate.

How did you get into corporate mental wellbeing?

My path to joining Headspace and focusing on how businesses can prevent and support the mental welfare of their workforce is rooted in my personal mental health experiences. Experiencing mental health issues first-hand left me with a passion for reducing stigma, preventing suffering in the first place by designing interventions that are health-promoting and help prevent the onset of disorders.

My professional goal has been to improve access to evidence-based prevention and treatment interventions, and I’ve always seen technology as a great enabler of access and way to empower people to self-manage their mental wellbeing. This eventually led me to my current role at Headspace, where part of my focus is on digital health interventions for businesses.

How can you tailor Headspace for Work to benefit all industries?

Through our Headspace for Work programme, we focus on delivering holistic employee wellbeing programmes for businesses in all types of industries. We’re currently working with over 1,300 different organisations, including Starbucks, Adobe, Hyatt and Unilever, to help them build healthier working cultures, which in turn leads to more productive and higher-performing businesses.

Our Headspace for Work members get access to features and content that are specifically designed for their employees. We craft unique packages for each employer based on their needs and goals, and our team works closely with an organisation to build and tailor distinct implementation and engagement plans. We work together to ensure the offering makes sense for them and their employee population.

Businesses receive a suite of products (a provisioning portal, resource toolkit, qualitative and quantitative measurement tools), to make it extremely easy to launch the Headspace for Work offering to eligible employees, engage members and measure outcomes. We also provide those in leadership roles extensive support in creating an effective mental health strategy with Headspace.

How do you mix the science and strategy for Headspace in a big company to help everyone?

At Headspace, we have one mission: to improve the health and happiness of the world. To help all types of people with different mental health issues they face, we are committed to advancing the field of mindfulness and meditation through clinically-validated research.

I led our corporate and technology strategy team, which takes a long-term view on the future of the Headspace business. I also lead an in-house science team, which focuses on developing evidence-based interventions, validating the benefits of mindfulness through over 70 clinical research studies, which are conducted by academic partners. This is hugely important as employee health grows in significance, and the demand for innovative mental health programmes increases. Our aim is to demystify meditation and take an evidence-based approach.

The data speaks for itself. In 25 published studies, Headspace has been shown to reduce stress, improve focus, increase compassion, and decrease aggression.

Many of our Headspace for Work partners are buying our product for their employees as a mental health benefit. What they then see is a reduction in stress and job-related burnout. We’ve also demonstrated reductions in anxiety and depression in some of our published work, with real company customers such as with Google and Roche. This study found that after using Headspace, employees had a 46% reduction in depression and a 31% reduction in anxiety.

By setting organisations up for success and helping them achieve their goals around health and happiness, we can take a step in the right direction to inspire cultural change that has a positive ripple effect. This change will then be seen not just throughout the company, but by everyone, the employees interact with daily.

Do different people need different solutions to mental health?

Of course. Mental health is complex and challenging and affects people differently so that the solutions will reflect this. The pandemic, in particular, has had a devastating psychological impact, from loneliness to financial worries, health anxiety and sleep issues. The Centre for Mental Health predicts that up to 10 million people (almost 20% of the population) in England will need either new or additional mental health support as a direct result of Covid-19.

Business leaders and senior HR personnel should encourage all managers within the business to check in with their staff regularly, especially those who work remotely. During these check-ins, managers should take the time to understand the unique stress points different individuals are facing, so that they can identify how they can support them in the right way. Only once leaders understand the mental health challenges of their staff can they organise effective solutions that meet their specific, individual needs.

Mindfulness is one part of a wider holistic approach to mental health and can be used in conjunction with other types of psychological resources and support. This could be as simple as offering workers the opportunity to take restorative breaks, providing greater flexibility with working hours, or ensuring they log off on time at the end of the working day. At Headspace, we integrate short meditations before we start a meeting or take time out to practice mindfulness throughout the working day so we can come back to our desks feeling refreshed and restored.

Most people are worried about finances and job security. How does Headspace help in the current situation?

A huge effect of this pandemic has unfortunately been economic. Many have found themselves furloughed or unemployed, and there’s a lot of uncertainty about job security in this climate.

The resulting financial and economic stress can feel overwhelming and hard to escape, affecting our relationships, sleep and health. This can permeate every area of life, making it hard to think, focus and generally function. In fact, Headspace’s latest 2020 Mental Health Trends Report found that one of the greatest sources of stress for Brits is financial, with 50% of those surveyed stating this.

Meditation can’t make us wealthy or dissolve our debts, but it can bring an awareness that helps us reframe our approach to finances. Whilst we can’t change the reality of a situation, we can instead change our perspective. It is through the changing of our perspective that we change our relationship with something, and that’s a powerful shift when it comes to money.

Meditation is great for nurturing the presence of mind, helping cut away the noise so that we can get some much-needed clarity on what matters and needs to be prioritised. Associated feelings of financial anxiety, such as shame, can also lead to us adopting behaviours such as avoidance. Having the ability of self-awareness through mindfulness means you are able to recognise this pattern.

In the end, acceptance is key, first by acknowledging our financial responsibilities, and then by letting go of what we can’t control. Headspace has a range of mindfulness courses and sessions to help reframe your mindset towards finance, ease financial anxiety and aid a healthy relationship with money.

Tell us a little about your work with the Child Mind Institute

I recently joined the Board of the Child Mind Institute. The Child Mind Institute is an independent, national nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of children and families struggling with mental health and learning disorders. Our teams work every day to deliver the highest standards of care, advance the science of the developing brain and empower parents, professionals and policymakers to support children when and where they need it most.

Of the 74.5 million children in the United States, an estimated 17.1 million have or have had a mental health disorder — more than the number of children with cancer, diabetes and AIDS combined. Half of all mental illness occurs before the age of 14, and 75% by the age of 24.

Despite the magnitude of the problem, lack of awareness, and entrenched stigma keep the majority of these young people from getting help. Children and adolescents struggling with these disorders are at risk for academic failure, substance abuse and a clash with the juvenile justice system — all of which come at a tremendous cost to them, their families and the community.

We are driven to create a brighter future for our children, and we make three commitments:

  • Give children, and adolescents access to the best, most effective clinical care when and where they need it most.
  • Advance the science of the developing brain to improve diagnosis and treatment.
  • Provide useful, accurate information that empowers families and communities to get help.
 What do you hope can be a positive outcome from COVID- 19?

This year has been very tough for people all over the world, both individually and through business. It has caused health, social and economic concerns, the likes of which we’ve not seen for a very long time.

I hope one of the positive outcomes, particularly for businesses and employees, is the light it will shine on workplace wellbeing, and the crucial role leaders need to play in the mental health of their teams.

Mental health has become a prominent feature of wellbeing initiatives in many businesses over the past few years, but it has become especially prominent in the wake of the pandemic. While health-promoting, preventative interventions and resources in the workplace have always been necessary, the heightened anxiety and stress caused by the pandemic has only accelerated the need for businesses to implement effective mental health initiatives now and in the future.

As a result of the pandemic, employers have to think carefully about what resources they are providing to staff and ensure that the tools and support they offer truly meet the needs of workers.

What does the future of mental health support in the workplace look like?

Despite COVID-19 further emphasising the importance of providing workers with mental health resources, there’s still work to do to ensure organisations implement the right kind of mental wellbeing programme.

Instead of reducing mental health support to a mere ‘tick-box’ exercise, these solutions must be evidence-led. Leaders must genuinely commit to the cause and use the right kind of approach backed by science and hard evidence through clinical studies.

Simply providing wellbeing resources to staff is also not enough. Workplace wellbeing support should be part of a wider holistic approach to mental health that works into the wider company culture. Business leaders have an important role in ensuring the culture of the organisation provides a comprehensive set of arrangements that can support different members of staff with their individual needs.

The business environment is rapidly changing, and the effects of the pandemic are going to last for a long time, so any workplace wellbeing strategies and initiatives implemented by organisations must endure for the long term, and not just cater to the pressures of the present.

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