In 2018, serial entrepreneur Russell Glass had a realization: “The world was not going to be able to ignore mental health much longer,” he told Quartz.
That year, he took a job as the CEO of Ginger, an app companies use to provide clinical mental health help, like psychotherapy and even psychiatry, to staff. After experiencing work stress and burnout himself, he was sure there was huge need. Plus a stint out of the workplace to parent his three daughters had focused his mind on how likely they were to need support one day.
The pandemic proved him right. Demand for Ginger’s services skyrocketed, and led to a merger with Headspace, a mindfulness and meditation app that was also experiencing stellar growth.
Glass, now CEO of the combined business Headspace Health, talked to Quartz about the psychology of mergers, how men reacted to the pandemic’s strains, and how meditation changed his own work, and his life. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
How did the pandemic change your business?
Before the pandemic we started to see tremendous growth. We tripled the size of the business over multiple consecutive years. And then the pandemic hit. All hell broke loose. Just the amount of need doubled more or less overnight, both in terms of the absolute number of people dealing with mental health issues, and also the acuity of the mental health need went up dramatically.
We saw that the population, all of a sudden, was really not just willing to get care digitally, they had to get care digitally. We also realized that prevention was going to be critical, that we had to help the population build resilience and take care of their brains so that when you have situations like pandemics, they have something to to fall back on, that people actually have a way to manage.
We saw that Headspace was doing a wonderful job of reducing the friction of helping people start to think about their mental health. But they also realized that, at the moment of the most acute need, when they’re taking care of literally millions of people, they had to let them go. They didn’t have a solution for them. So we began to talk about a merger bringing these two things together: this subclinical, preventative care approach that Headspace has, which is about taking care of your mind, [and] the on-demand mental healthcare system that Ginger had built—highly personalized, technology-driven, people-driven care. If we could bring these together, we could build the world’s most comprehensive mental health system and really transform the space and transform the access-to-care problem that we see out there. And so that’s what we did.
Plenty of companies give mindfulness or meditation app subscriptions as a perk. But do you think there’s a danger that it’s not enough to help people with deeper problems?
Companies were recognizing that meditation and mindfulness was a really low-cost, low-impact way to help a workforce be more resilient.
By which I mean, it’s super easy to spend five minutes a day, 10 minutes a day building a meditation practice. It’s a very high return on time. So low-impact in terms of cost to you as an employee. And actually, relative to the time, incredibly high-impact results. Our peer reviewed studies show, in 30 days, a 31% reduction in stress. In eight weeks, we’re seeing a 40% reduction in depression. There aren’t very many things you can do in life for 10 minutes a day that have an impact like meditation. We call it “brushing your brain”.
However, I think once the pandemic hit and companies saw a skyrocketing incidence rate of depression, of anxiety, of more serious mental health need, that’s where companies were saying: Just this alone isn’t enough. We need to do more. Because employees were coming to them and saying: “I’m depressed. Whether it’s because of loneliness, social isolation, worry about getting sick, worry about the finances, worry about my children who aren’t going to school. Whatever it is, I’m depressed, I’m anxious, and I can’t find care.”
And so companies have realized, okay, we have to make sure our employees are supported. We did a workforce attitudes study a few months ago, and found that 63% of people in the UK have missed at least one day of work due to mental health issues this year.
They have to put something in place. They have to help the access problem because the system is not working. And that’s where I think this comprehensive platform, the end-to-end capability, is so valuable.
Do you think the way we’ve begun using language like “mindfulness” and “burnout” has normalized talking about mental health, especially in the workplace?
It’s helped. It’s more normalized than ever before. And I think it’s inconsistently normalized. It’s not evenly distributed.
There are many workplaces that have made it a priority for the C-suite to talk about these things. And they’ve normalized it by having leaders be willing to come to the table in an authentic and a vulnerable way and share some of the stories that they’ve had with mental health. And that has opened things up.
In the study I referred to, one of the things we see is that 94% of CEOs say that they believe they’re doing enough for the mental health of their workforce. Only 67% of employees agree. And that gap tells you, okay, it’s not quite fully distributed. Just because you put something in place and have the resource available doesn’t mean that your workforce is using it or that they feel comfortable using it.
The other interesting data point is that men have become far more willing to access these types of interventions than they ever were before. We saw far more women accessing Ginger pre-pandemic, and that was consistent with digital interventions in general for mental health. There were more women willing to raise their hands at work and say, “I need help, I need support”.
But in the pandemic that normalized. That gave us an indication that men who were less willing to raise their hands in the past were more willing to now.
Why do you think that happened?
There’s a few reasons. One is just simply the need, the fact that people were isolated, they were lonely, they were willing to talk about how isolated and lonely they were. They were not getting the kind of support that you tend to get by just being around people.
And then the fact that we start every Zoom with: “Just another day on Zoom!” People were talking more about this, the fact that companies were now starting to recognize the need and started to talk about it more broadly. Everybody just became a little more willing to say, “I need support now”.
The acceleration of digital helped as well. It’s way easier to sit in your bedroom and get on a mobile device and start to interact with a therapist, for example, than it is to get dressed, get in your car, take the car to someone’s office. Worry about someone seeing you in your car in front of someone’s office. That friction went away in the pandemic, and so I think that helped also.
I asked my husband whether, if his company offered mental health benefits, he would access them. And his first response was that he would if they were completely anonymous, if no one would know, which surprised me. He’s not someone who has trouble talking about his thoughts and feelings.
But that’s interesting. I mean, you’re tapping into something that’s quite common: It’s not that somebody is necessarily worried about admitting that they have a problem. Although that happens too. It’s the fear of what happens to my career trajectory if my company knows that I have mental health needs. This is what happens in the military: “I’m going to lose that promotion to captain if I show up at the psychologist’s office.”
Do you think all companies really do want to support employees’ mental health? They don’t always act like it…
There are certainly performative leaders out there, that are just responding to the flavor of the month. And that may explain some of the gap between the CEOs that say they’re doing something and the employees who say they’re not really doing enough. We also see a sad fact, that 71% of the employees out there have said their company focused more on mental health during the pandemic than prior to it. But only 25% have said they’ve kept that focus up.
Which is problematic because we know the need hasn’t gone down, at all. If anything, it’s slightly higher now than it was even a year ago. There is some risk to that—you’re not actually walking the talk. You’re not putting the right resources in place and you’re not normalizing it through conversation. We just launched this leadership workshop series, because we see some of those gaps.
And it’s not always intentional. Some of the gaps are because as a manager, as a leader, you’re not comfortable having the conversation. You’re not comfortable saying to somebody, “how are you really doing?” Or recognizing the signs of burnout. Because if you’re not comfortable with the response and what to do if someone says: “I’m depressed, I’m really struggling,” it’s super uncomfortable. And so we want to train managers to have these conversations, to recognize the signs of burnout, to be compassionate leaders, to help create psychological safety within a workplace. And if we can change the culture in the right way, then it becomes more than performative, it becomes part of the culture of the organization.
When I had my two children, that was the time I struggled most with mental health, and needed a lot of support from my workplace. Do you see that happen, and did you experience it?
It’s interesting question about leaving the workforce to take care of kids at a certain moment in time and how that affects mental health and willingness to access care. It feels like a great time to have digital interventions: While the kid is napping, the ability to not have to leave the house, but still get support.
As an aside, we work with a labor union in the United States called SEIU that has at home caretakers. They support the elderly. It’s an incredibly lonely job, because they have to be in these homes taking care of infirm people. They can’t leave. They don’t have social interaction. They provide our services to them and it’s been a game changing experience for those people because they have the ability to connect at the workplace, their workplace being in someone else’s home.
In terms of my understanding of my own mental health, I’ve been through a journey. The moment of most need for me was actually when I had my third child. She was like a week old when I sold my last company to LinkedIn. And so, first of all, I was not sleeping well. I was distracted in multiple different ways. But I joined the new company and, really for the first time in my life, I had what I would describe as anxiety mixed with imposter syndrome. I felt like I didn’t belong. I felt like this merger was a mistake. Like I couldn’t cope with some of the pressures.
This is 2014. [The Former CEO of LinkedIn] Jeff Wiener brought Andy [Puddicombe], the co-founder of Headspace, to LinkedIn to talk about meditation and mindfulness.
And I was in the audience that day, and it hit me. I downloaded Headspace in the session and started what became a daily meditation practice. I probably meditated for a year and a half straight every single day. I still remember the meeting where it clicked—I was three weeks in to meditating, I think. It was like four people in the room, and someone said something that I knew would have triggered by anxiety before.
And it didn’t. That day I recognized an ability to note the feelings I was having, and let them go. And I recognized for the first time that my feelings didn’t have to control me. I could control my feelings. And since then, I mean, honestly, I’ve been a better dad. I’ve been a better husband, I’ve been a better CEO.
What about your own employees? How do you make sure they’re mentally well?
As you can imagine, I spend a lot of time thinking about it. We have to figure out how to be the best at that, in order to be able to lead authentically. And it’s hard, because we are also a virtual organization right now. We’re not all back in an office working together and frankly, our employees don’t want to be back in an office working together. We’re all dealing with the same pressures as everyone else, particularly as a company that’s growing quickly.
We have what we call mind days: We have two four-day work weeks a month now—so two Fridays a month where we just shut down so people can get self care. We have meditations multiple days a week, and an entire set of resources around mental health from our own platform. We have two full-time mental health coaches that just support the needs of our employees that they can reach out and access at any time. We do leadership training. So those trainings that we’re doing externally, we’re doing internally as well. We just finished a six–week psychological safety program that has had an incredible impact.
Psychological safety is an interesting thing in a merger, particularly a merger where a CEO of one company is taking over for both companies. Psychological safety is hard because the other side doesn’t really know me. They don’t trust me yet.
We have employee resource groups. We have seven now to help those who identify with minority populations. Mental health is one of these things that is different for different populations. And I’m probably missing a bunch of others but it’s a constant theme. How do we be the best at this? How do we learn what works?
So… how happy are they?
We do pulse surveys once a quarter. Right now we have about a 75% engagement rate at the companies. That’s up from 70% right after the merger. Our goal is north of 80%, so we’re not where we want to be yet. Given it’s the middle of pandemic, given the fact that we’re going through a giant merger, it’s pretty good. But it’s a continued focus.
Correction: An earlier version of this story quoted slightly different percentage numbers for some of the survey results.