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Leadership Q&A Series_ Nick Tong, CTO, Unmind

Why is now the time to invest in employee mental wellbeing? 

With the likes of British Airways, Sky and Slaughter and May actively promoting their investment in employee wellbeing, more and more employers are waking up to the importance of mental wellbeing in the workplace. 

If good conscience and caring for your employees aren’t reason enough, according to mentalhealth.org, addressing wellbeing at work increases productivity by as much as 12%, too.

In general, people are becoming more aware of their own mental health and employers are finally starting to recognise the importance of mental health alongside physical wellbeing in the workplace. 

Startups have the opportunity to distinguish themselves by promoting cultures of wellness. Duvet days, mental health check-ins and subscriptions to wellbeing apps and platforms are just some of the strategies that employers can implement.

That’s where companies, such as Unmind, a workplace mental health platform, (who counts John Lewis and BA as customers) are enabling businesses and employees to measurably improve their wellbeing.

We were delighted to have the opportunity to sit down with Nick Tong, the Co-Founder and CTO responsible for the development of this award-winning platform, to talk about the importance of mental wellbeing.

In our chat, we cover a breadth of issues, from how Unmind are helping people everyday, why they’re working with thought-leaders and medical professionals to prevent depression, anxiety and even suicide, and why working in this space as a Tech Leader is one of the most rewarding things you can do.

Hi Nick! If we can start by talking about Unmind and how are you using technology to support mental wellbeing in the workplace?

Unmind launched in 2017, with the mission to improve the mental wellbeing of ten million people in organisations around the world. Since then, we've rocketed our reach to over 200,000 people globally, and built a community of organisations passionate about mental wellbeing.

Unmind is a platform to support training for organisations and their employees to tackle any mental health challenges that they may have. Internally, we work with top psychologists, and wellbeing experts to support these companies, to enable employees to feel much better about their everyday life. 

Part of what Unmind is doing is changing the narrative around mental health - our big vision is to create a world where mental health is universally understood, nurtured, and celebrated.

Mental health is a kaleidoscope of colours, universally human and yet unique to every one of us. A healthy mind is powerful (the human mind has helped put people on the moon) and yet it is often eclipsed by misunderstanding and stigma.

Whether or not someone is going through a tough time or thriving, Unmind is always there to support them.

Often, we think about mental health when we're in a negative state, but actually we have mental health all the time, on a spectrum. 

It’s so easy to move up and down the spectrum, for example, on my way home from a stressful day, I might stub my toe, get frustrated and as a result shout at someone that’s knocked into me on the train. I might then go home and say, why did I do that? It’s times like that I can use the tool for calming down, mindfulness and coping strategies.

We have tools that can help you if you’re feeling anxious or depressed. But equally, we have tools that can help you focus more by being a more positive parent, or how to thrive, how to find your state of flow. 

We also have an L&D aspect of the platform, to teach people about mental health, what it is and the conditions associated with it. 

We want to make a world where you can talk about your mental health just as easily as you can your physical. We believe everyone has the right to a healthy mind.

You wouldn’t be embarrassed to say I went to the gym today, yet people feel slightly awkward saying I worked on my mental health today. We're just trying to remove some of that stigma.

It sounds like a really great mission. What was your background before moving to Unmind? What attracted you to the Tech for Good / mental wellbeing space?

Mental health has been prevalent for me for most of my life, as I'm sure it is with most people - I don't think that anybody can say they haven’t been affected by mental health, either directly or indirectly. I had it in my life personally, and indirectly, as well. 

Most of my career there’s always been that desire to work with something that does good. Whether or not I was working in the sharing economy, trying to reduce the amount of assets that people are using, so there’s less dependency on the earth, or building a tech solution like Hiyacar.com, to enable car sharing and reduce consumption. 

It’s a combination of working in this space, being able to combine technical expertise alongside helping people with their mental health, it’s just a win-win. 

Another attractive aspect is that at Unmind, we do see a tangible difference. We get solid feedback from people saying this has made a difference to my life. To think you've had that impact on somebody makes it so much more positive when you’re working those late nights!

It sounds like you’re intrinsically motivated – what do you think the main motivators for people looking to, or currently working in this space need to be?

Often in this space, the ‘good’ companies find it more difficult to get going. They're often cash poor.
In a CTO position like mine, you can command high salaries – based on what you’d expect it to be elsewhere – but people in this space may accept a lower salary because they believe in the purpose of the company, and purpose is a big thing. 

People really buy into purpose. 

Particularly with the younger generation, who are coming through now, they definitely want to work in a place where they can make the difference as well.  

Tech for Good is such a broad church of things - from internet of things, to wearables. Combining these technology stacks together and combining the signals from those different technology stacks can be a compelling work environment to be in. 

Yes, there’s a huge opportunity to diversify tech in this space. What do you think the next big trend will be? 

Yes. What we’ll start to see is signal blending - we currently tend to look at direct signals from the tools people are using i.e. heart rate on your watch, cadence rates when cycling, facial expressions, voice tones, but if we start to blend, we get a much better understanding. 

This is where some of the work in Transformational Technology (transtech) will be pushing over the next few years.

For example, if you're playing a game on your phone, there’ll be a sub-process behind that detecting your interactions. Based on that, it can start to detect your state of mental wellbeing as well. It’s not like someone is sitting there thinking, I want to measure my mental health today, but it’s passively doing that for you. Our industry really has the potential to help people.

The main issues that will arise with this is the use of data. It’s going to have to be policed, but then you can start to monetize your data. 

Personally, I think the majority won’t mind because by sharing their data, they get something back. When you go on the internet, you accept the cookies. You don't mind the retargeting, because it’s given you access to something you needed, something of value. 

The trouble will be if you start to monetize privacy, it may cause an upset because only the wealthy will be able to afford to protect their data.

It'll be interesting to see how that evolves. So, we acknowledge Tech can be used for Good, but also it can have a negative impact on mental wellbeing. What do you think is the biggest contributing factor in the workplace to poor mental wellbeing?

I think a variety of things, I think people don't want to speak about their mental health. The stigma around mental health is causing people a lot of issues. 

If you don't feel supported or you’re unable to admit vulnerability for fear that you might not get that promotion.

For example, if you admitted to a manager that you get quite stressed around a certain person, but then the opportunity arises for you to manage them. You might fear you’re not going to get that promotion because you’ve expressed your feelings. It's a tricky balance.

I think it’s being able to support people in a way where they can express, but also so that if someone calls up and says I’m not feeling mentally great today, like they would with a cold, it’s ok for them to stay home. 

By its nature physical health is much more tangible - if someone has a broken leg it’s easy to justify the need to rest and recover, but mental health doesn’t work like that. 

We need to start to give mental wellbeing the same weight as physical l health.

It’s crazy that your mental health isn’t considered as important as your physical health.

Unmind work with top psychologists and people from the NHS. How do you typically engage with them? 

unmind blog.PNG

Steve heads up our content team and has a huge range of expertise in this space.

We also work with a lot of other thought-leaders, for example, we worked with campaigner Jonny Benjamin MBE to develop a programme about suicide which is the biggest killer of men under 40.

Typically this is how we work. We’ll work with an expert in a certain area and develop a programme around that topic with them, there’s loads of examples on our website.

What do you think employers can do to best support positive mental well-being? 

The more that an employer can support the better. That’s what we’re trying to enable. 

Senior leaders showing signs of vulnerability is also a key thing.

That will enable the dialogue to go both ways. It’s changing the perception to show that actually, showing weakness is a strength. 

There was a report recently in the US with the students in a survey group, 60% of them said they saw showing vulnerability as a strength not a weakness. 

This isn't the case currently within the workplace, because of the slightly older demographic, but that is changing as the younger generation come through.

What do you think would better prepare younger people for the workplace?

We don't really teach life skills at school; our education system is really old.

There’s clear evidence to show that when schools start to bring mindfulness into the classrooms that it helps massively. 

So, you can see this in neglected schools, with lots of children with behavioural problems - when you actually bring mindfulness into the classroom, the bad behaviour dramatically drops.

It’s got to start there. But that's not to say, we've got to leave it all to the school. I think parents have got a big part to play.
We’re stuck in a weird loop in our generation, because as parents we haven’t been given those skills. 

To take it to an extreme, people say if a person hasn't been loved, they don't know how to love their children. And although I don't necessarily agree with that, the sentiment stands - if we haven’t been given the skills to understand our own mental health, how do we tell our children what they should do?

I think there needs to be a big effort to develop that skill set and pass it down to future generations.

Are there any initiatives or programmes that you would recommend that would positively impact your mental health?

Being in nature is definitely a big thing. As well as exercise.

I think the key thing is mind body spirit – looking after all these other elements.

Looking after our mind with apps like Unmind, but also other apps like Calm, Headspace, or Insight timer. 

Often in such a commoditised world, where everything is vying for our attention, it’s important to give ourselves space and connect with ourselves. Whether that’s building a habit or routine. 

Also, looking after your body, eating well, being active. I personally get up half hour earlier than I need to, I do some yoga, some meditation and set myself up for the day.

We all love sleep, but I now go to bed earlier and don’t prioritise Netflix, or I’ll read less. Sleep is also an important part of mental health.

We all have 24 hours in a day, it’s how we prioritise what to do with that. I think looking after mind body and spirit should be a key part of everyday activities.

What does the phrase mental wellbeing mean to you?

Mental wellbeing to me is made up of lots of elements:

Connection – connect with the people around you: your family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. Spend time developing these relationships.

Be active – you don't have to go to the gym. Take a walk, go cycling or play a game of football. Find an activity that you enjoy and make it a part of your life. 

Keep learning – learning new skills can give you a sense of achievement and a new confidence. So why not sign up for that cooking course, start learning to play a musical instrument, or figure out how to fix your bike? 

Give to others – even the smallest act can count, whether it's a smile, a thank you or a kind word. Larger acts, such as volunteering at your local community centre, can improve your mental wellbeing and help you build new social networks. 

Be mindful – be more aware of the present moment, including your thoughts and feelings, your body and the world around you. Some people call this awareness "mindfulness". It can positively change the way you feel about life and how you approach challenges. 

Thanks so much for your time Nick, it’s been great speaking with you.

If you’re looking to differentiate your employer brand from the rest, mental wellbeing and creating a culture of wellness is a great place to start.

We help our clients refine their employer and talent brands to attract the best talent – book an initial call with us today to run through the challenges you’re facing and we’ll see if we can help.
 


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