2020 had been the year of unprecedented change. Millions forced into self isolation, wearing face masks in public places and social distancing from family members. This year definitely took its toll and many people’s mental health has suffered as a result. As the CEO of District Technologies, it has made me reflect on the importance of focus on mental health and wellbeing in the workplace and how technological solutions can help.
I spoke with three experts; Luciana Carvalho Se from MindCheck, Josh Artus from Centric Lab and Sara Hamilton from Brink, who are working in different capacities within mental health in the workplace.
Covid an accelerator for change
Digital transformation and an opportunity to create a new reality
Covid has accelerated change in many forms, and wellbeing in the workplace is not excluded. Luciana Carvahlo Se, Co-founder & CMO at Mindcheck said: “I like to believe that Covid was a massive agent for change.” Mindcheck is a social enterprise that provides holistic and personalised feedback for both individuals and companies – providing them with the insight to make changes to improve their wellbeing.
Luciana went on to say: “It’s accelerated digital transformation across industries particularly within digital health and it’s also allowed us to think about the ways in which we designed our work and our personal lives beforehand. It’s given us the opportunity to think about ways in which that wasn’t normal. Everyone’s talking about creating a ‘new normal’ – I don’t think a lot of the things that we used to do was normal. So how about we think of creating a new reality that is inclusive, that’s accessible that’s mentally, physically and emotionally healthy.”
From my own experience, Covid has definitely accelerated workplace trends for the better. This includes a shift in attitudes towards flexibility and a move towards a hybrid style of work that supports a better work-life balance. I also agree with Luciana’s point about inclusivity, and I believe that Covid has forced companies to accept remote working as the norm which has levelled the playing field particularly for working moms to stay in work and not drop out of their career completely as so often happens.
An accelerator enabling ALL workers to thrive
Sara Hamilton, Team Lead for an exciting new project at Brink funded by The Wellcome Trust had her own interesting perception around Covid as an accelerator for change. Sara’s background is as a hospital consultant, but shifted careers as she had a yearning to achieve impact at scale – addressing the root cause of health problems. Sara said: “Organisational leaders are well aware of the mental health crisis and the increased rate of COVID-19 deaths in their essential workers. I don’t think that any of their problems are new in terms of food, insecurity, overcrowded housing, lower rates of pay, but I hope that Covid has changed the lens through which these workers are viewed and valued by society and therefore by their employers and organisations.
So it’s an opportunity to actually give something back to these workers and enable all workers to thrive in an organisation. Not just the highly paid, highly skilled workers. That’s what I would hope to see Covid as being – an accelerator or enabling all workers to thrive not just the more highly valued workers traditionally.”
A data-led approach to wellbeing
One size doesn’t fit all
Mental health is so diverse and so different for everyone. It’s so individualised, and presents itself in different ways. How can we ever have a solution to that? We can start by understanding that it’s not a one-size-fit all, and we can start by asking the right questions to try and pinpoint the right bespoke solutions.
I think that the future of probably anything to do with employees has to be about what their specific needs and challenges may be and if you don’t know what those needs are you have to ask them and then measure and benchmark that over time.
After several years working in tech and innovation, Luciana’s personal and business life collided. She was driven to launch Mindcheck to help others by using data and technology to provide personalised results for individuals that look at the holistic picture of mental health. Luciana said: “One thing that we’ve recognised from our [The founders of Mindcheck] individual and personal experiences; it’s not a one size fits all. My depression manifests differently from your depression and what works for me is different than what works for someone else.”
Luciana went on to explain that often the problem with corporate approach to mental health and wellbeing is that it’s too standardised and blanket. She said: “We decided to build a data driven holistic and personalised platform that takes a snapshot of lifestyle and that’s on the individual level. Based on neuroscience, psychology and psychiatry research we’ve identified the 12 most common contributing factors to particularly; stress, anxiety and depression. In the workplace, from the collective data, we give the company a snapshot of their workforce’s collective mental health.”
Josh Artus, Director & Co-Founder of Centric Lab had an interesting point to add in terms of structuring surveys and questions to get accurate results. He said: “When you ask people and you intelligently structure that survey to understand what data points you’re looking to collect, not just asking do you want this, do you want that, you’re trying to understand more about their lived experience.” Centric Lab works with private, public and third sector organisations who all intersect the built environment and their aim is to create strategies to elevate public health. Their expertise is in neuroscience and so they’re well versed in understanding key indicators in responses.
He went on to explain: “You’re looking for bio markers and how they’re responding to questions in which you can then go: Wow, we’ve got 30% of people who are actually suffering from a sleep disorder – that’s our problem to solve and what are the solutions around that. But you have to have an informed way of asking that question that isn’t just ‘do you want A or B’ you’ve got to let someone actually express something because people don’t often know the answer but they can express it in a certain way.”
Symptoms and drivers
Brink utilises a lot of data for their program, but Sara explained how it typically describes the symptoms. She said: “Symptoms are things like if I just take the UK, we know the types of workers that died in greater numbers in the first wave of the Covid pandemic and those workers were workers in the front line. They were workers who couldn’t work from home, they were in the majority men and a lot of workers were from BAME communities. Covid surfaced the inequalities in society. So the people who worked in the greatest numbers were the victims of structural racism in this country. That means that workers who are at the lowest pay band tend to be from BAME communities, workers who are living in overcrowded housing, workers who don’t have the choice about how they get to work so were using public transport, workers who couldn’t work from home; care home workers, refuse collectors, construction workers who are likely to be living on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum.
So when it comes to the data we know that first of all those workers died in greater numbers in the pandemic we know that things like obesity, mental health all tend to be higher in those workers – but those are symptoms they don’t describe the drivers.”
Sara explained that at Brink they’re trying to create interventions that have a sustained impact. But, in order to do this they need to be designed around the causes or drivers for a particular symptom. She went on to say that: “We’re interested in using the research in a very nuanced way, so using existing data and research but being very aware about the gaps or the blind spots in terms of gender, in terms of race, in terms of class, in terms of education and where we have gaps we want to go in and do deep dives within organisations both to surface the data but also to get into what the lived experiences of people’s lives so that we design fit for purpose interventions.”
A system-based approach to wellbeing
Health is a system-based conversation
When I asked Josh from Centric Lab to sum up his view on wellbeing in one word he said: “system-based.” Josh said that: “Health is a system-based conversation. Health is not this binary, singular-led thing that someone achieves health through their own agency. Health is something that happens to us and so it’s important to understand the ecosystem in which people live, work and thrive in order to really look at; what is wellbeing, what is wellness and what is health, and that’s where we work as a lab to understand the broader environmental, urban and other economic determinants of health.”
Empowering the underserved in the system
Sara’s focus is on impact at scale and implementing system-wide changes. She had an interesting viewpoint on how data can be used to improve the power structures in society: “Data is one part of the process why whereby we’re trying to amplify the voices of those in society whose voices aren’t heard for different reasons whether that’s to do with gender or sexuality or race or social inequality. Data it’s about amplifying the voice of people whose voices aren’t often heard and I think one of the reasons I’ve stepped down from being in a very secure high status comfortable job for life was that I became more interested in using my rank to enable voices to be heard and actually more importantly in doing so to enable the resourcefulness of people to be released within the system.”
She went on to discuss how when we talk about a lack of resources it’s often in terms of financial resources and other more obvious resources when we should be tapping into the resourcefulness of citizens.
“I think the resource that we don’t utilise enough is the resourcefulness of citizens and that’s the powerful bit that I’m really interested in harnessing in this project funded by the Wellcome delivered by Brink.”
Start with communication
As a final thought, as the CEO of a workplace experience platform my advice for companies is to start with communication. If you want to improve your wellbeing programs, take a step back initially and start by improving your levels of communication. Remember, wellbeing is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Provide better tools, increase the levels of two-way communication between employees and employers and provide a culture where it’s ok to say you’re not ok.
Lee Butz, CEO of District Technologies