Dr Megan Jones Bell, Headspace’s Chief Strategy & Science Officer, discusses how the COVID-19 pandemic could give organisations the chance to make a step change in caring for their employees’ wellbeing.
Sometimes it takes experiencing a personal challenge to find our path, and this was certainly the case for Dr Megan Jones Bell, Chief Strategy & Science Officer at Headspace.
While in her freshman year of college, studying an interdisciplinary computing and arts degree, she faced a mental health crisis. “I had struggled with an eating disorder and depression for a number of years in high school and I really hit the bottom with it in that beginning year of college,” she explains. “I received really incredible care and I got better very quickly once I gained the support I needed. I remember being in the hospital and deciding I want to turn this experience into something that’s positive.
“I didn’t want it to be something that I’d be afraid to talk about or that was an awful period of my life. I thought ‘I can turn this into something that’s a source of strength and empathy, and commit myself to prevent other people from ending up where I have’.”
When she was ready to return to her education, Jones Bell switched her major to psychology and began volunteering at an eating disorder treatment centre. She also started a non-profit focusing on eating disorder prevention and self-esteem improvement, initially working with a local school.
“That launched me first towards advocating for the reduction of mental health stigma, then to designing prevention programmes. And that just led me into wanting to design programmes that could be made available to anybody that needed them, programmes that could effectively help prevent the onset and progression of mental health problems, as well as facilitate access to care for people that needed that level of intervention.”
This varied mix of experiences across her personal, educational and professional life positioned Jones Bell perfectly to consider how technology could be used to improve mental health; something she started to truly focus on professionally in 2013 when she co-founded a company called Lantern.
The business, which launched at a similar time to Headspace’s app, offered tools to help subscribers deal with stress, anxiety and body image challenges, but Jones Bell says that when they started opening conversations with employers about offering such support as a benefit, they did not always get the responses they hoped for.
“Frankly, the majority of employers that my company interacted with at that point expected there to be a really easily measurable big return on investment (ROI) associated with the implementation of mental health programmes. There is, but that is not the only reason to do it.”
She says at the time, many employers questioned if they held any responsibility for the mental health of their people, but things have come a long way since then.
“What I’ve seen change is that employers are really owning mental health in such an inspiring way, recognising it as something that is on them to address. This is in terms of creating a workplace culture that supports mental health and, for people who do need more assistance, offering them the tools that support across the whole continuum of mental healthcare prevention and early intervention, all the way through to specialised treatment.
“There is a lot more work to do in this regard, but I think many businesses now take ownership of the problem. We have customers that tell us: ‘of course ROI is interesting for us, but that’s not the reason we’re buying it. We are buying it because we believe that this is a problem and we care about the health and wellbeing of our employees.’ So the conversation has really flipped.”
Jones Bell left Lantern in 2017 to become Chief Strategy & Science Officer at Headspace. The company, which was founded in 2010 by Andy Puddicombe and Richard Pierson, has a simple mission: to improve the health and happiness of the world.
Starting off as an events company, they ran courses to help people start meditating. But the founders soon realised that attendees wished to access the teaching at home. They evolved their offer accordingly and created an app. They now have over a million users in more than 190 countries, and have headquarters in San Francisco and London.
Much of Jones Bell’s work focuses on finding how businesses can implement the technology successfully. And while the conversation may have shifted to one of concern for wellbeing, rather than concern for measurable improvement, Jones Bell says that the data still very much shows the benefits of Headspace as well.
“What we’ve proved over and over again in our studies on Headspace is that there is a consistent reduction in stress. Many of our Headspace for Work partners are buying our product for their employees, as a mental health benefit.
“What they see then is a reduction in stress and a reduction in job-related burnout. We’ve demonstrated reductions in anxiety and depression in some of our published work with real company customers.”
One study of users working at Google and pharmaceutical organisation Roche, released in 2018, found the use of the app reduced symptoms of depression by 46 per cent and anxiety by 31 per cent.
Jones Bell adds that the company also sees consistent improvement in people’s ability to focus – a welcome benefit for organisations struggling with productivity.
“This is measured by the reduction in mind wandering,” she explains. “So, when people are sitting down with the intention of being focused, 10 minutes of meditation practice can help improve your ability to let go of distractions and maintain your intention.”
Jones Bell adds that it is vital for Headspace to offer the same support to its own people. In the past this has meant daily all-company meditation practices and helping staff create mindfulness routines. But like any organisation, Headspace had new challenges to overcome when responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. It chose to close its offices in California a few days before this became mandatory and quickly considered what it could provide to its people to help in an increasingly difficult situation.
“We believe in practicing what we preach so we did focus groups with our own employees to find out what support they needed,” Jones Bell explains. “We increased our stipend so employees could purchase a home office set up to meet the same standards we have in our offices.
“Fridays now alternate between having no meetings and having a day off that we call a ‘mind day’. We also have a Monday Zoom meeting with the leadership team so that our leadership group is more accessible to employees.”
The company have also worked with groups of employees with more specific needs, such as caregivers and parents, to see what can be done to help them during the pandemic. And while the support offered to these groups is different, Bell Jones says that measurement is just as important at Headspace as it is for its clients.
“We have an evaluation culture where we try something but evaluate and learn from it to refine our programmes over time.
“Our science team partners with our people team and we launch surveys of our own employees anonymously to try and understand the specific needs of groups within our employee base to make sure that when we’re thinking of new policies or practices, we’re inclusive.
“Qualitative and quantitative data collection [such as user experience and uptake] is used to launch new things and evaluate how they are working, but we also follow up to do the same interviews and surveys again to see if the thing we have tried has worked and addressed the need that we identified.”
While Headspace had to contend with the challenges of remote working and supporting staff, it also reacted quickly to support society more widely, opening up many of the resources it has created over the years.
Jones Bell worked with a cross-functional group of around 40 colleagues globally to consider how the company could support members and partners through the crisis.
“We launched a free, specially curated, collection of meditation and mindfulness content called Weathering the Storm to help people find some space for themselves and to cope with the stress and uncertainty of a global pandemic,” she explains.
The company then moved to support organisations and individuals that might need the most support. In the UK, this meant rolling out free services to all National Health Service staff and giving free access to unemployed and furloughed workers for a year. It has added the latter of these offerings to its Headspace Promise, ensuring its members will be supported with free access should they become unemployed in the future.
While steps like these certainly match up to the company’s mission, organisational authenticity starts with authentic leadership.
At Headspace, on a basic level, this means leaders using the methods and techniques promoted by the company. Luckily for Jones Bell, this did not require a great change in her existing habits: “I was a Headspace user for three years before I joined, using the very first product that Headspace developed. I’m very interested in this space, I usually try everything that comes out, but that was one that I actually used, even though I had my own start-up that was doing a related thing.”
Furthermore, her relationship with meditation and mindfulness went even further back: “It was really an important part of my recovery. I went through a lot of different therapies when I was recovering from my mental health issues. And having a meditation practice and really applying mindfulness to my life was a thread that continued.”
With Jones Bell being so open about the roots of her relationship to meditation, it is perhaps no surprise that she feels at one with her work life and home. “I’m the same person in both places,” she says. “I think that meditation and mindfulness allow me to show up as my best self wherever I am.”
While this year has certainly presented difficult mental health challenges for many people, Jones Bell is optimistic that it could also be the push that businesses need to take employee support to the next level. She says that the conversations she has had with other organisations have evolved since the start of the year.
“The overall level of awareness of companies around mental health has increased. Mental health has been a problem for a long time – one in four to five people experience a mental health problem during their life – and companies were already on this journey to address that and contemplate their place in it. But the crisis has accelerated the pace of change and the level of awareness. Our research shows that about 89 per cent of workers think that their company should offer mental health care to them and their dependents.
“In terms of what companies are asking for, they are better informed about what they should do. I’m observing that more companies are aware that they need comprehensive mental health resources and that employee assistance programmes or access to therapy alone are not sufficient (though they are necessary).
“They realise they need to provide health-promoting interventions to help people before they develop a mental health problem and have swift access to evidence-based care.”
She says that this is particularly important as new generations join the world of work. “In the last decade, the youth mental health crisis is worsening all over the world. Younger employees are coming into companies with a greater prevalence of mental health concerns than prior generations. Our research indicates that around 40 per cent of younger workers suspect they suffer from anxiety and depression but haven’t gotten help for it.”
She concludes that the time to act on these challenges is now, warning that these prospective employees will want to know how the organisation they are considering working for reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I would suggest that organisations think of the steps they have taken during the pandemic not just as a response to a crisis but as something that is long overdue and is addressing a more permanent need. They need to consider how to earn the trust of potential employees and demonstrate that they have built a culture that is supportive of mental health.
“This younger generation, the future leaders, are more demanding. They expect mental health to be addressed and think of it as something their employers are responsible for. Once you begin to address that need, it’s something that is hard to take away again. That is going to be another new normal.”
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About this author
Pam has been at Hays for over 20 years and is the Director of People and Culture working across EMEA. Prior to her current role working across Europe, Pam held a management role within Hays running a large commercial region in the UK. Having benefited from gaining first-hand experience managing teams in a busy sales environment, Pam is now passionate about sharing her experience; providing the best support to our business and ensuring that our workforce is able to adapt to the changing world of work.
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