InteraXon Co-Founder: Mental Health in the Workplace Still a Challenge

Mental health is another pandemic in the making, and employers need to address it

Amid employment uncertainties, the pressures of work-from-home, burnouts, and Zoom fatigue, COVID-19 has transformed the way employees and gig workers experience their day-to-day job.

Almost half of London’s professional workers have struggled with sleep since the COVID-19 outbreak, and in India, the number of people battling mental illness spiked 20% in the first week of lockdown. As economies and offices open up, stress due to the pandemic is likely to result in an increase in work disputes or even violence.

“The workplace has obviously shifted to the ‘home place’. So, you have employees that are incredibly fearful and stressed about their own safety, and they are having a sense of isolation, sense of disconnection, and the frustration if you have small children,” Ariel Garten explains.

Garten has a background in psychotherapy, and is the Co-Founder and Chief Evangelist Officer of InterAxon, which developed the brain-sensing headband Muse.

Work and work-related stress has shifted to the home

Garten points out that remote working has made people feel exposed in a different way, with their work and personal lives mixing not only in terms of how they categorize their time, but spatially as well.

This, she says, has led to the emergence of a new sense of self, in addition to the sustained stress of keeping themselves and their families safe while wondering about the next paycheck, and if it will come at all.

In fact, one of the top three meditations on the Muse app that users have been picking during the pandemic is called From Frazzled to Focused, a guided meditation for users to shift from a chaotic state of mind to a calmer one.

Garten is also a mother, and has felt the pressures of managing the demands of her work as well as the needs of her children, both at home at the same time.

“That puts an undue pressure on both parents in the household, but often disproportionately on the female of the household,” she says, as evidenced by the experience of several women documented in a Harvard Business Review podcast.

Technology can make first steps easier

More people are recognizing the complexities and sensitivity of emotional and cognitive behavior. In this background, perhaps such a crucial time can help employers and employees alike recognize the value of integrating wellness as a facility at the workplace, in the same way as a gym membership or incentivized healthcare. It can start with meditation, Garten believes.

“You’d never be able to run a [cognitive behavioral therapy] group inside of a company. You’d never have a group of employees [agreeing to] group therapy with one another. But employees are very readily coming in to learn meditation together,” Garten explains, referencing the stigma surrounding mental health.

The process of learning how to meditate, which “tends to be, from a psychotherapeutic perspective, a frontline approach,” can then help employees address issues such as anxiety, depression, personal challenges or emotional distress, or even issues with their sleeping patterns, she adds.

Driving forces

The transition to adopting mental wellness tools is not as straightforward as one may think. These tools, meditation included, are not a one-stop solution for the greater mental health crisis at work or otherwise, and need to be practiced regularly for results to show. Even with advances in technology rooted in neuroscience, this can still be a challenge.

“The hardest part of this is not the technology. It’s getting humans to do something regularly,” Garten says.

And it’s not just habit formation that can act as a roadblock. Access to mental health help is notoriously poor across the board–a quarter of those trying to access the U.K.’s National Health Service were unable to do so, marginalized groups such as the LGBTQ+ community do not have the support they need, and mental health workers in Asia Pacific are in deficient numbers.

Further, the global business community is recognizing the business implications of mental health issues. Depression and anxiety, both common mental health problems, cost the global economy US$1 trillion a year due to their impact on productivity, and every $1 invested in treatment can result in $4 worth of improved productivity.

Garten believes that mental wellness technologies can expect to receive capital inflows despite the contracting venture capital landscape. With Covid-19 resulting in a worldwide health crisis, the FDA has relaxed its regulations for remote health technologies providing mental health support, and investors are keenly interested in this space.

“You’re going to see a huge injection of capital, bigger budgets for creating these things and deploying them, and more people using them and becoming comfortable using them,” she predicts.

Even with the investor support, the ultimate success of this entire operation depends on a culture shift regarding mental health. By stripping mental health issues from stigma, promoting healthy healing behaviors, and most importantly, providing access at points of need, the tables can be turned in the mental health conversation.

As Garten puts it, “85% of the world has low self-esteem, 85% of the world feels a little bit uncomfortable about being themselves – that’s an epidemic that we can shift.”

Header image by @kmeron for LeWeb12 Conference, Paris on Flickr

This article is part of our coverage of Collision 2020

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