Headspace’s CEO on what business is overlooking when it comes to mental health

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On this week’s episode of Fortune‘s Leadership Next podcast, co-host Michal Lev-Ram talks with Headspace Health CEO Russ Glass about what business is currently getting wrong about mental health, how leaders can best support their employees while taking care of themselves, and how meditation changed his life. Co-host Alan Murray, who was not part of the interview this week, joins Lev-Ram for the pre-interview chat.

Listen to the episode or read the full transcript below.

Transcript:

Alan Murray: Leadership Next is powered by the folks at Deloitte, who, like me, are exploring the changing rules of business leadership and how CEOs are navigating this change.

Welcome to Leadership Next, the podcast about the changing rules of business leadership. I’m Alan Murray.

Michal Lev-Ram: And I’m Michal Lev-Ram. Alan, ever since the pandemic, I feel like there are a handful of topics that CEOs—and business journalists—keep returning to again and again and again. In fact, it was the topic of our most recent episode with Howard Lerman of Roam—tech innovation spurred by lockdowns and work from the home, the return-to-work debate, and the importance of employee mental health.  

Murray: Yeah, and I think one of the reasons we keep talking about that last one, about employee mental health, is that companies aren’t quite sure if they’re doing a good job. We know that there are a lot of problems out there, and it’s really exploded as a workplace issue. Everyone now seems to agree it’s important, but they don’t know the best way to support their workers. 

Lev-Ram: Well, our guest today wants to help with that! He’s Russ Glass, the CEO of Headspace Health—which is a brand that probably a lot of people are familiar with. It’s a meditation app, or really that’s what it was known as for years. But they may not realize that a couple of years ago, Headspace merged with a company called Ginger, which ran an enterprise business, offering employees coaching, therapy, and psychiatry services. The combined company is called Headspace Health, and the goal was to bring all of these resources under one platform.  

Murray: Yeah, and a very smart move to serve enterprise businesses, as there is a lot of demand for it. The company says it now serves 4,000 employers across 200 countries, and that several million people actively use the Headspace app each month.  

Lev-Ram: Yea, Alan, I’ll tell you one thing I learned in the interview that really surprised me—according to a Headspace Health survey, 49 percent of employees say they feel a sense of dread at work at least once a week—and that number rises to 59 percent for CEOs! I hope you’re not feeling any dread right now, Alan! But what do you think about that?

Murray: Never any dread about joining you for a Leadership Next podcast. But unfortunately, I did dread the fact I wasn’t able to join you for this one, because this is one of my favorite topics.

Lev-Ram: We missed you. I know this is a topic that is near and dear to your heart. By the way, we also had a long conversation, Russ and I, about raising daughters—something we are all living through and have lived through and we can relate to—the three of us. Russ is actually one of the few leaders we’ve spoken to on this podcast who stepped back from his career to raise his kids. Before joining Headspace, he was a full time dad for 18 months, and he talked about it and what an amazing, amazing opportunity it was for him.  

Murray: Wow, but let’s not talk about him, let’s talk with him. Let’s get right to today’s interview. Here’s Michal’s interview with Headspace Health CEO, Russ Glass. 

[Music]

Lev-Ram: Okay. So, Russ, before we dive into the actual business here, just a little bit of context here, about you. So prior to joining Ginger as CEO, you’d started a series of companies. This is not your first gig here. A lot of tech-focused companies, obviously. This seems like a little bit of a jump coming into an established company in the mental health space. How did this come about? 

Russ Glass: Yeah, it is a jump. This actually is my first health care company. All of my prior entrepreneurial endeavors and startups and whatnot, were in different forms of tech, whether media or data or enterprise software. And when I left LinkedIn, I actually didn’t have any kind of current ideas or desire, and I just wanted to be a dad. So, I’ve got three daughters, and I spent the last nine years focused on the company, and I really wanted to spend time with them. So I left. And after about 18 months, I decided that, okay, I wasn’t ready to be retired forever. And I wanted to go back and do something. But if I was going to leave them every day, it needed to be for something that was impactful, something that the world really needed. And I came across Ginger, I recognized just how important the mental health crisis was, and the supply-demand imbalance that existed. I felt like I could spend the rest of my career focused on it. 

Lev-Ram: Okay, so, I’m gonna back up for a second. We’ve interviewed a lot of leaders on this podcast, male and female, I don’t think we’ve ever had somebody talk to us about, you know, stepping aside to raise their daughters. So I’m curious to hear just a little bit more about that. I mean, was that a hard decision to make? What reactions did you get when you told people?

Glass: You know, I mean, look, my first daughter was born about three months after I started this company, Bizo, that I eventually sold to LinkedIn. My third daughter was born about a week before I sold the company. And so that entire six years of building a company was at the same time that I was raising these little humans, you know, and then I went to LinkedIn. And that was an intense three years. So that was nine years of me not putting them first. And I sort of recognized that you can never get this time back. And I felt like I was, you know, really privileged enough to have the resources to take time away. And my wife also has a very successful career. And so I took a step back, and you know, literally to this day, I have relationships with them that I wouldn’t have had otherwise, you know, and so it was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my career. 

Lev-Ram: Well, one thing the three of us here have in common, the two of us and Alan, is we all have gotten to raise girls and still get to do it. So I commend you for that. 

Glass: We’re lucky, we’re all lucky. 

Lev-Ram: Absolutely, absolutely. So I want to go back to Ginger and Headspace. And I think, you know, maybe not everybody’s familiar with the merger that happened. And so give us a little bit of a sense of just what was Ginger, what was Headspace? And what are they combined?

Glass: Ginger was really a category creator in digital mental health. So Ginger recognized this huge supply-demand imbalance that exists in the world. The World Health Organization estimates about a billion people that have a diagnosed mental health condition, and 60% of them are not getting support. And a huge part of that is because there aren’t enough providers out there, there aren’t solutions out there to scale access. So Ginger was focused on that problem. On the other side, Headspace, again, is kind of a category creator. It was founded by literally a Buddhist monk, Andy Puddicombe, and he went to study meditation and mindfulness in Tibet, and recognize the immense power of mindfulness to solve some of the mental health needs in modern humanity. And, you know, a lot of the world has recognized this for thousands of years and has never lost it in Eastern cultures. But in most of the Western society, we’ve sort of lost the understanding of the power of mindfulness and meditation. So Headspace brought that to the world, and created a scalable way to teach people how to build mindfulness and how to use that to solve some of these mental health needs we have. Bringing both companies together, the concept is to create the most comprehensive, most scalable approach to solve this mental health need of the world. And the combination of these incredible experiences and the user interfaces, that Headspace is built to teach and help people stay on this meditation path. And then Ginger, the on-demand mental health system. When you bring both of those things together, you end up with something quite powerful, which is being able to understand where people are in their mental journey, guide them to the right solutions for the needs and be their lifelong guide to mental health support .

Lev-Ram: So can you talk a little bit more about just what the breakdown is revenue wise, at this point, of what’s coming from the consumer space, Headspace, and what proportion is coming from the enterprise, business side, at this point.

Glass: At this point, the revenue is coming, for the most part, from the enterprise side of the business. We’ve seen pretty significant growth, I think, somewhat driven by the pandemic and the recognition of just how important this is, kind of accelerated awareness of focus on mental health. And now we see that enterprise’s top three focus areas pretty consistently, is mental health and making sure that employees have access, and employees are given the tools they need to be successful. And increasingly we’re seeing health plans also understand that investment in mental health is an important part of whole person health, and making sure that you maintain a healthy population and reduce health care costs downstream. And so that’s been a real growth driver of the organization really, since the merger. 

Lev-Ram: Are you concerned at all that some of that pandemic era growth is slowing down? Or that this isn’t going to be sticky enough? Like if the recession does hit if, you know, there are more layoffs? Like we’ve seen? Are these programs that anybody’s cutting? Or are they sticking? 

Glass: You know, it’s funny, we weren’t sure, you know, coming out of the pandemic, what we would see. We weren’t sure at a recessionary period if we’d see pullback. And I would say, for the most part, at this point, we’re pretty convinced that we’re not seeing a post pandemic pullback as a starting point. I think the pandemic certainly accelerated the awareness in the need. But post-pandemic, we haven’t seen any sort of retrenchment in need. The elevated mental health concerns have remained. We see stats, like 90% of employees are feeling either somewhat or very stressed on a weekly basis, we’re seeing 49% of employees feeling dread at work on a weekly basis. So these are the kind of stats that companies are having to deal with right now. And so they’ve maintained a focus on it.

Lev-Ram: I want to interrupt you just on the dread piece, like, did you get any clarity in that study on what that means to people? Dread is not associated with anything good, for sure. But what does that really mean that people are feeling dread at work? 

Glass: Yeah, this came from our Workforce Attitudes report. We’ve done this now for five years running, this is from our 2023 study. And as we dug into it, there were three main areas. One was economic instability, so worrying about having a job and maintaining that. Two was productivity pressures, so you know, how someone is showing up at work feeling like they have to get a number of things done. And if they don’t, are they gonna lose their job, right? And then three is just extra rising expectations, the level of quality that the opportunity for others to kind of come in and take those roles. I think there’s also a remote factor in all of this as well. I think there is a loneliness factor. I think there is not really getting to know your colleagues as well when you’re not working as closely with them. So, there’s a lot of things tied up in this. And I think we’re in the very early days of understanding it. But within that is, people are people who are still suffering. And companies are recognizing that, and they’ve maintained a focus that mental health is an area they have to invest in. I would say the only area we’re seeing some recessionary shift is in sort of small to medium business. We’re seeing that some of those investment decisions are taking longer. We’re seeing that they’re more focused on return on investment, so the decisions are going into the CFO’s office more than they were before. So, a little bit of a shift there. But for the most part, we’ve seen a continuation of the pandemic trends of this being critical to the enterprise. 

[Music starts]

Murray: Jason Girzadas, the CEO of Deloitte US, is the sponsor of this podcast and joins me today. Welcome, Jason.

Jason Girzadas: Thank you, Alan. It’s great to be here.

Murray: Jason, we live in an era of disruption, technology disruption, geopolitical disruption, workplace disruption. And it makes accurate predictions about what’s going to happen in the future more difficult than it has ever been. Yet the polls that we do together, with you, show that most business leaders largely remain optimistic. Why do you think that is?

Girzadas: I think optimism is a result of the fact that we’ve been through an incredibly tumultuous three years. And so I think business leaders realize that they’ve built resiliency into their organizations. The prospect of even more disruption isn’t as foreign of a concept. And I think there’s more confidence in their ability to adapt and to be agile. Secondarily, there’s been tremendous investment in technology and new capabilities that client organizations, and executives broadly are optimistic about those creating more value and more opportunity. So, it’s a function of what we’ve been through, as well as the investments that have been made, that give a sense of optimism despite some of the headwinds.

Murray: And what’s your advice to companies that are struggling with the potential disruption in the future? 

Girzadas: Well, disruption is the new normal. I don’t think there’s any placid water on the horizon or calmness that we can predict. So, it’s a function of getting accustomed to the discontinuities that are ahead of us. Whether it’s around technology or geopolitical change, or workplace changes associated with the future of work or the demands of the talent workforce, change is the new normal. As a result, it is requiring executive teams to actually look holistically at those challenges, be facile with doing scenario planning, and being on the lookout for where and how to capitalize on disruption, versus being concerned by it, or seen as a barrier to their success.

Murray: Jason, thanks for your perspective, and thanks for sponsoring Leadership Next. Thank you.

[Music ends]

Lev-Ram: What do you feel like companies are getting right, and what are they getting wrong, about mental health? I mean, there’s definitely, you know, we’ve covered so many different initiatives and awareness and services and coverage for increasing coverage for mental health. But the companies that are getting it right, what are they doing? 

Glass: It’s a great question. I’d say there are two things that the companies who are doing really well are doing, that not all companies are doing. One is, they’re focusing on culture change. And they’re focusing on normalizing mental health conversations. And usually, that means they have executives at the organization, or people in positions of leadership, that are openly talking about mental health. And that normalization is super important, because it allows everybody in the company to feel like they can raise their hand and share that they might need some support, or they might need some help. And that’s one. Two, then, is a focus on prevention. I think a lot of companies are thinking about how they put resources in place to help improve access. They’re finding that their health plans, you know, the networks are inadequate, so people aren’t able to find therapists or, or psychiatrists that take insurance that, you know, don’t require these huge out-of-pocket costs. But unless you focus on prevention, you’re missing a huge percentage of the population that’s quietly suffering, that you know, are either facing dread, on a pretty consistent basis, or are seeing elevated stress levels that ultimately will lead to burnout unless those people are getting the tools that they need to reduce stress. 

Lev-Ram: And it’s interesting, because you brought up the remote aspect, and that, at least in some cases, and for some people, it’s contributing to problems, right, and loneliness, feeling disconnected. Then at the same time, you know, we’re seeing a lot of pushback on the return-to-office mandates. As a CEO, yourself, also, how do you navigate that? What advice do you give for leaders in sort of, you know, balancing that? Because it might actually, we’ve seen data that shows it’s good for productivity to get people back, at least in some capacity, it might even be good for their mental health. And yet a lot of employees also care deeply about maintaining some level of flexibility. 

Glass: You know, I think you’re naming one of the most interesting and complex challenges of our time as leaders right now, right, the time that we’re all finding ourselves. And the first thing I’d say is, there’s no one-size-fits-all, you know. Every company, every industry has very different needs in terms of remote versus in-person. On one side of the equation, there are some operations that absolutely require in-person workforces. Surgery, really important that somebody that is in-person, right? If you’re running a manufacturing line, you need to have people in-person. I think it’s important to recognize that it’s not one-size-fits-all. I think the second thing that’s important to recognize is, there are very real needs on both sides of this. So I don’t think there’s any doubt that there’s loneliness that’s being created, particularly for the younger populations that are at home all the time, in a remote context. You know, for thousands of years, literally since the invention of agriculture, humanity has been making their best friends at work. And we are a social creature, we are a creature that needs those interactions. And so when that’s pulled away from us, there’s, of course, there’s going to be loneliness, right, of course, you’re going to have people that are suffering. So that’s one. And two, there’s clearly a longitudinal cost to not having in-person interactions at work. We’ve seen some data, both internally and externally, that shows that people that are not showing up at offices are less likely to be promoted. We’ve seen data that shows (but it’s very early days and all of this) there’s a lot of study that still needs to be done. But there’s some data that shows that people who are not getting those in person interactions are not going to progress in their careers as fast as those who are. And so that’s one of the spectrums that it’s clear that there’s value to in-person interaction, both to the individual as well as to the productivity in certain cases, right. But on the other side of that, you absolutely have a workforce that loves the flexibility, and in some cases needs the flexibility. If you are a single parent, right, and you want to be able to earn while raising a family. So it’s important as leaders to recognize both sides of this, and work towards developing opportunities. And helping people recognize that going to the office is actually going to be valuable for you and the organization.

Lev-Ram: Okay, I want to ask you, real quick, just on the competitive landscape, and obviously, as demand grew, during the pandemic, for services, like Headspace, and Ginger, and what you guys offer, so did the number of apps and services that offer mental health, whether it’s purely digital or not. In light of this proliferation, how do you look at what you’re offering, as you’re early on, obviously, and you established your brand, both of the brands, but how do you make sure that you stay differentiated, that you keep innovating, as the market has evolved quite a bit? 

Glass: Well, you know, first, I think, one of the reasons that we did the merger in the first place, is because we recognized that there’s a huge spectrum of mental health need and if you measure, and you do a good job of understanding where somebody is, what you recognize is that often the place they need to go, whether it be just self-care, kind of mindfulness, meditation, breathing, different, better sleep habits, or behavioral health coaching, subclinical resources that help people build a plan and do a better job of lifestyle change or do a better job of managing your mental condition, all the way to therapy and psychiatry. Most people have no idea what they need, most people just know they’re not feeling great. And what we recognized was if we can help destigmatize, which is a lot of what the Headspace brand does, it just makes it easy to get started, and we can measure and help guide people to the right place, we solve a lot of the mental health needs. Because we get people in earlier, we get them understanding what those needs are, and we cost effectively bringing them to access. So we’re solving a lot of the need by bringing these things together. And what we saw was a lot of point solutions out there. We saw a lot of different apps and different experiences that were picking off very small parts of the problem. But at the end of the day, the trick with that, one, is that companies they’re tired of all the vendor fatigue, right from all the different vendors, particularly in the pandemic. Everybody bought a lot of stuff and realized that actually wasn’t getting used and that there was real fatigue there. But secondly, if someone doesn’t know what they need, it’s very difficult to sort through the thousands of different apps and experiences and things that are being built. And we really wanted to take that on, we wanted to help people understand and then provide the lion’s share of support that they might need. And that’s why we say, you know, we really think Headspace is the most comprehensive mental health platform out there right now because we brought these things together in a way that is just less friction filled for somebody to access. 

Lev-Ram: Okay, and one more question more on the personal side for you, I know you are not the Buddhist monk at the company that was the founder. But you seem pretty grounded, and, you know, balanced and a bit Zen. So I’m wondering, what advice do you have for busy leaders who need to carve out that time? And what do you do personally, to make sure that you’re taking care of yourself? And you can’t just say Headspace!

Glass: No, I promise, I won’t! But I will say that, you know, when I sold my last company, that was a company that I sold to LinkedIn, and I had just had my third child, and I got into the new company, and I was, I was struggling. I wasn’t sleeping well, I had an infant at home, I was struggling with some imposter syndrome. I went from a couple 100-person company to a 6,000-person company. I had never worked at any place that big. And I really didn’t know if I was cut out for it. I mean, I started to doubt myself. And Jeff Weiner, the then CEO, brought Andy Puddicombe, the CEO of Headspace, in to talk to LinkedIn, as an organization. And I downloaded the app during the talk. And I started doing meditation practice. And it’s funny, like it didn’t do anything in the first week, it didn’t do anything for two weeks, but I was committed to it cause I’d heard great things about it, and I’d heard Andy talk and all that good stuff. In the third week, I was in a meeting. And all of a sudden it clicked, this comment that was made that would have triggered my anxiety, would have triggered my stress response. I noted it. And I just kind of let it go. It hit me what mindfulness is all about. It’s not about changing anything about, you know, the world. Emotions still happen, anxiety still happens, but it’s about your response to it, it’s about being able to recognize it, let it go, and have a different response to those triggers and have a different response to those anxieties. And that has been a game changer for me, not only from a leadership standpoint, but from a martial standpoint, from being a father standpoint. So that is important. I would say a few other things, though. One is sleep. I get a minimum of seven hours of sleep. And if I don’t, I feel it. I don’t have the patience, I don’t have the ability to manage the ups and downs that happen In an environment like this, without good sleep. I do a really good job of taking breaks. One of the things I’ve done for years is block Friday afternoons, where I don’t take any meetings. And I use that time to catch up. And I know throughout the week, it helps my mental health because even on Wednesday, if I’m just slammed, I know I have that block coming up, so I don’t get as stressed in the moment, I have that Friday afternoon. If I get to Friday afternoon, and I’m feeling pretty good about the weekend, and I’m going to be present with my family because I don’t have much catching up to do, I might do something for myself that afternoon. I might go play golf, I might  go on a hike, or something like that. I try to do that throughout the week. I have very mindful schedules, so that I can stretch, half my one on ones I do outside so I can walk. So these things that allow me to incorporate, you know, physical and mental health throughout the week to allow me to stay sustainable and not burn myself out in what is, as I’m sure you’ve heard, a very complicated time to be a leader.

Lev-Ram: And Headspace, right?

Glass: And Headspace, that’s right.

Lev-Ram: Well, I love ending on just some tactical takeaways. So thank you so much for joining us, Russ,  and sharing with us about Headspace and leadership in this really still quite crazy time. Appreciate it.

Glass: Appreciate you, Michal, taking the time.

[Music starts]

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