Are Mental Health Apps Actually Helping Workforces?

05/27/2021 6 min read
Alina Dizik covers business and lifestyle. Her work appears in major publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Money, and BBC.

With nap rooms, unlimited snacks, and happy hours halted by the pandemic, companies are instead promoting well-being with a virtual perk: widening access to mental health and wellness apps.

Today’s apps offer guided meditations and calming breathing exercises to promote sleep quality and inner peace. They provide courses on managing relationships taught by mindfulness experts as well as personal assessments to help ward off loneliness, anxiety, and stress. App makers, including Headspace, Calm, BetterHelp, and Talkspace, have expanded their corporate partnerships and work directly with HR departments to grant employees access. Many are now integrating apps as part of more traditional employee assistance programs that once focused on in-person benefits, such as face-to-face counseling.

These simple-to-implement and low-cost apps, targeting a generation used to playing Candy Crush or Angry Birds, have experienced staggering popularity among employees who may be stressed by their current lives, says Kelly Greenwood, Founder and CEO of Mind Share Partners, a San Francisco-based workplace mental health nonprofit. “Almost all of our clients … expanded these offerings,” she says. “Right now, mental healthcare is hard to find and [apps] are obviously beneficial in terms of access.”

Companies have long understood the importance of supporting employees’ mental health. Those who are happier tend to stay longer in their roles, make valuable contributions, and perform better at work. Apps make it quicker, easier, and less costly to provide that support.

Still, they “have not gotten the spotlight that they have until now,” says Lisa Frydenlund, former HR Knowledge Advisor at the Society of Human Resource Management. Out of 256 employers surveyed by the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions, 53% reported providing special mental health programs for their workforce because of the pandemic.

But are these corporate investments paying off for stressed-out staffers? There isn’t much hard data yet, but anecdotal evidence points to a resounding yes.

The Rise and Success of Mental Health Apps

Companies that were once reluctant to endorse mental health apps are now building out their own company-branded wellness packages, says Brea Giffin, Director of Partnerships at Sprout Wellness. The Toronto-based company offers a white-label wellness platform that is then branded with company logos and integrated into existing offerings. And the numbers prove how much these apps are being embraced by users: The top 10 mental wellness apps were downloaded 10 million times in April 2020, up almost 25% from January of that year, according to data from Sensor Tower, a market research company specializing in the app industry.

Anonymized data enables companies to better understand how their employees are feeling by what app features they access. The Happify Health platform shows how many employees use a specific feature, which can help employers focus on targeted issues, such as work-life balance, says Patrick Burke, their Head of Healthcare. With 29 million users, the platform is now available via three of the five largest national health plans. The company says that 86% of frequent users report more positive emotions within two months.

At Hyatt Hotels Corporation, having happier employees has improved business, says Christy Sinnott, Hyatt’s Senior Vice President of Talent Management. “At hotels where front-desk colleagues expressed that their well-being is supported, we found that guests … rated their check-in experience more favorably.”

The hard-hit hospitality company started a daily pulse survey to better understand their employees’ mental health needs. They also adopted Hyatt Well-Check, a tool that gives employees additional virtual support and analysis of their well-being. Employees are then able to access newly available resources, including Headspace, a meditation app. More than 6,700 of Hyatt’s employees are enrolled in Headspace courses to promote healthy sleep and manage anxiety and stress, she says.

While Hyatt is still evaluating the offering, the company was impressed by earlier results, says Sinnott. A study from researchers at the University of California San Francisco found that Headspace, used daily for just 10 minutes, reduced stress, and the benefits lasted for two months after stopping use.

BlackRock has been similarly pleased thus far. In April 2020, the investment management firm and Mind Share client deployed the Calm app for all of its employees in response to the pandemic. More than a third of the approximately 16,500 employees signed up for the app, with a 90% engagement rate—significantly higher than expected, says Paul Mele, Global Head of Benefits.

Months later, the company finds that it’s become a go-to for many workers battling pandemic-related stress. Mele sees these as preventive, “helping with mild sources of stress and anxiety—not crisis,” he says.

Taking the Stigma Out of Mental Health Therapy

Courtney Hadden, Global Benefits Senior Manager of Criteo, an advertising technology platform, says virtual care is easing the stigma of mental health issues. The company recently worked with their employee assistance provider, CCA, to launch wayForward, a digital behavioral health platform that also allows for in-person and video-based therapy. So far, employees rated it 8 out of 10 for satisfaction, on par with other well-loved offerings, Hadden says.

A higher proportion of men are using the platform compared to previous employee assistance offerings, which she sees as a sign that more men are comfortable seeking help. Many employees say they like the option of starting virtually even if they eventually shift to in-person therapy. “It’s not intimidating, and there’s a variety that they can do from the platform,” Hadden says.

At the Florida Panthers National Hockey League team, employees now access HealthPersonas, an app that aims to improve resilience, says CHRO and Vice President of Human Resources Lane Miller. HealthPersonas also allows users to chat with mental health and wellness professionals while removing the stigma for athletes, who may be more hesitant to seek care. “They say, ‘I’m not seeing a shrink and instead talking to someone who understands me,’” she adds.

Indeed, athletes and other celebrities have played a role in bringing mental health issues out of the shadows. Actress Emma Watson tweeted her endorsement of the guided meditations offered on Headspace, touting the app as “kind of genius.” Michael Phelps, the world’s most decorated Olympian, teamed up with one of the biggest players, New York City-based Talkspace, to promote the importance of therapy and the unique benefits the app can offer.

Talkspace has added more than 40 million insured users during the pandemic, with many coming as a result of corporate employee assistance programs, says company President Mark Hirschhorn. The most popular feature is text messaging, allowing Talkspace users to engage with licensed clinicians in real time without sitting down for a formal appointment. During the pandemic, the company launched a popular couples counseling tool to help increase relationship satisfaction, he adds.

The Future of Mental Health Help at Work

Mental wellness apps do have limitations, especially when it comes to addressing serious psychological issues. Many apps focus on promoting resilience and well-being but shy away from offering medical advice or ways to access medication. Oftentimes, coaches available via apps do not have medical training and the advice provided, in some instances, may not be medically sound, says Greenwood. “That line is tricky … people need to be clear about what this is and isn’t.” People who are or suspect they are suffering from anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues should always seek assistance from a licensed medical provider.

Greenwood says many organizations remain reluctant to encourage employees to get the mental help they need, or worse, they make it difficult for workers to set aside time to seek proper support. She also believes workers are still unsure of how to access the services available to them, or even whether they should. “It’s important—if you are going to invest in mental health apps—to pair that with a culture change approach,” she says. “A lot of employees won’t take advantage of mental health benefits if that culture doesn’t exist.”

At Hootsuite, a social media management platform, company executives publicly discuss self-care, so employees understand that it’s a priority, says Tara Ataya, Chief People and Diversity Officer. The company uses the Headspace app and has started offering employees mental health days off. “We’ve made sure that we’re using that language, and our leaders are using that language, across the business,” she says.

Nabeel Alamgir, Founder of Lunchbox, a startup that allows restaurants to create their own delivery options, is showing employees that he is also taking advantage of mental health services. Recently, Alamgir enrolled the organization in JOON, a company that allows employees to self-direct their benefits and reimbursable funds with a focus on virtual offerings and mental health and wellness apps.

“I’m very open about my experience,” he says. “The best thing I can do is lead by example.”

For now, the aforementioned companies plan to renew their subscriptions; they believe digital mental health services can make employees feel taken care of in the midst of a pandemic and beyond. In the long run, companies, including Criteo, are convinced there’s a permanent shift to digital wellness and will continue to refine their mental health app offerings based on their workforces’ needs. “It’s an easier entry point for seeking out mental health for a lot of people,” says Hadden.

Alina Dizik covers business and lifestyle. Her work appears in major publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Money, and BBC.