How startups are using tech to tackle mental health – and when it's better to just switch off

Mental health costs the global economy $1 trillion a year. Recently, entrepreneurs have started seeing it as a commercial opportunity rather than just a chance to do good

Hazel Sheffield@hazelsheffield
Tuesday 10 October 2017 09:08
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Elefant uses artificial intelligence data to offer advice to users
Elefant uses artificial intelligence data to offer advice to users

Ben Congleton was as surprised as anyone when a sick note one of his employees posted on Twitter in July got 30,000 likes. “Hey Team. I’m taking today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health,” Madalyn Parker wrote.

“Hey Madalyn,” Congleton, the founder of live chat software Olark, wrote back. “I just wanted to personally thank you for sending emails like this. Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health. I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organizations.”

Congleton was impressed when the message got 7,000 retweets, but dismayed by the stories in the replies. “I WISH!!!” a tweeter called Angela Grace wrote. “I had a boss who LITERALLY told me he was going to fire me for having depression because it was ‘inconvenient’.”

In 2017, bosses who encourage their employees to take care of their mental health are still the exception, not the rule. That’s why the World Health Organisation has chosen the workplace as their focus for World Mental Health Day on 10 October. In the UK, one in five people take a day off for stress and it's getting worse. The number of days lost to mental health issues has risen 24 per cent in the last six years.

Despite the huge cost to the economy and society, there is not a single company on the FTSE 100 or the FTSE 250 dedicated to mental health. But that might change. Recently, entrepreneurs have started seeing taking care of mental health as a commercial opportunity rather than just a chance to do good.

Emma Watkins is the founder of Agora, a members club for founders in London. She says startups have got better at addressing physical wellbeing, pointing to businesses like Rebel, the alternative milk startup, which offers employees flexible working, unlimited holiday, office yoga and other benefits. “I don't think we're there yet as far as mental health is concerned,” Watkins says. “Give it a year.” She sees the start of the shift in the trend for pocket coaching, advice, therapy and meditation apps.

“There is still a stigma around mental health, particularly in the startup world,” says Nick Birkett, the co-founder of one such pocket wellbeing app. Elefant uses artificial intelligence data to offer advice to users.

“As a founder, you're expected to be bulletproof - focused on growth, traction and fundraising,” Birkett says. “When asked how things are going you're expected to say “awesome, great, couldn't be better, growth is through the roof.” But fake it 'till you make it only works for so long.”

Birkett has invested his own funds in Elefant after the successful sale of two previous startups. “I know from personal experience that creating and running a company is often very isolating,” he says. “I have felt, and continually see, the mental burden of feeling like you don't have the right answer. Seeing the correct advice at the right time in action led to the creation of Elefant.

It’s not uncommon for entrepreneurs to start businesses about mental health after a personal experience of anxiety or stress. Margot Radicati di Brozolo founded YourMind.co to connect organisations with Skype therapists after she confessed her own feelings of anxiety to friends and realised how many people felt the same. James Routledge, the British founder of Sanctus, turned his efforts to creating the world’s first mental health gym after the pressure of trying to save his own startup straight out of university left him with panic attacks.

But there is also a breed of founder who senses the enormous business potential of the mental health problem. The cost of mental health to the UK economy is as much as £70bn a year, according to one study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. A recent World Health Organisation-led study put the cost to the global economy of anxiety and depression at $1 trillion each year.

Zinc is a new business builder founded by Saul Klein, the tech entrepreneur who co-founded Seedcamp; Paul Kirby, a former global head of government and services at KPMG; and Ella Goldner, a tech entrepreneur. The accelerator has been funded with £500,000 by LocalGlobe and is now raising capital for angel investors to plug into its first cohort of entrepreneurs, who will spend six months coming up with business ideas around mental health for women and girls.

At the end of the six-month programme, Zinc expects to form between five and 10 early stage companies in which it will take an 8 per cent stake.

Zinc chose mental health of women and girls because it is a largely untapped market. “We are looking for businesses that can have an impact on at least 100 million people,” Goldner says. “Our first mission - to improve the mental and emotional health of 650 million women and girls - illustrates how ambitious we are being.”

Kim van Haalen, 26, is one of the 55 founders picked to take part in the programme. Dutch by birth, van Haalen learned about Zinc at University College London and was attracted as much by the potential to build a fast growing business as the desire to have a social impact. “Mental health is not a particularly sexy focus area for the average entrepreneur looking for scalable business models,” she says. “Luckily, that is starting to change.”

Van Haalen believes that decreased stigma around depression and anxiety is making it increasingly acceptable for entrepreneurs to address mental health. New technology, such as applied artificial intelligence, is also offering new opportunities as computers get better at understanding humans.

While technology is providing new ways to approach to mental health, it can also be part of the problem. “Keeping your eye on Messenger, Slack, Workplace, Trello, email and beyond is hugely distracting and can prompt anxiety, particularly if you're expected to stay online after hours,” says Flick Hardingham, the founder of Habit, a consultancy to help organisations develop the right culture to drive innovation.

She points to Heldergroen, a design studio in Amsterdam, as an extreme example of how to tackle this conundrum. At Heldergroen, the desks are raised to the ceiling using a pulley system at 6pm, leaving employees no choice but to step away from their work.

“I advise steering away from a culture that requires you to be responsive after you clock out,” Hardingham says. “Sometimes the answer to improving mental health is less tech.”

As founders get better at applying new technology to mental health, here’s hoping they also foster a culture where it becomes more acceptable to switch off devices and step away from the screens when necessary. Maybe one day, when an employee like Madalyn is praised for looking after her mental health, it will be a wholly unremarkable occurrence.

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