Photo by Giancarlo Corti on Unsplash

The startups re-evaluating wellbeing at work in a post-lockdown world

During his twenties Rob Stephenson would walk up to bouncers in nightclubs and ask them if he could take his clothes off. “Funnily enough, they would always say no,” he chuckles. “Then I would just go ahead and strip in the middle of the dance floor… I thought it was hilarious but they didn’t and I would invariably get thrown out.”

Stephenson, now 49, is the founder of FormScore, a one-year-old app which poses its users their own daily question — what score would you give your own wellbeing? Twenty years ago, Stephenson was in the throes of bipolar disorder. “From my late teens until I was about 30, I was this erratic person that was either locked away on my own in a room with depression or in a manic state and taking risks by stripping off in public.”

The free app asks users to tap icons such as stress, sleep or exercise to help them understand what is driving their ‘form’. The company has secured a £40,000 funding round from mission-driven investors and is embarking on another as it plans to grow its 1,400-strong network to 10,000 users.

Stephenson is among a band of entrepreneurs helping companies to re-evaluate their approach to mental health post-lockdown — and sparking a debate around what individuals can and should share with their bosses. By pushing data-driven methods and tailoring help to hybrid working, a growing number of workplace-focused start-ups are leading conversations around self-evaluation and a permanent working-from-home model.

“After the year we’ve had, the biggest opportunity I see is to move people up towards the thriving end of the mental health continuum,” he says. “I want to give companies and people the resilience to deal with everything the world is throwing at them. That gift of self-reflection in answering ‘how are you doing today?’ with a score out of 10 is a pretty non-threatening way of doing it.”

How to ‘hybrid well’

Point3 Wellbeing was formed by Sarah Mayo, Nicky Morgan and Siôn Stansfield in 2018. The trio, who share a love of running, have backgrounds in events marketing — “an incredibly stressful industry,” Mayo points out. Established as a face-to-face business, the pandemic upended Point3’s initial approach. Pivoting to virtual workplace training, companies are now asking how to integrate their employees back to work.

“We are getting questions from our clients about ‘how to hybrid well’,” Mayo explains.

At the start of each session participants are asked to choose one word to describe their feelings. The most popular terms over the last 12 months include ‘curious’, ‘intrigued’, ‘excited’ and ‘positive’ among more recognisable emotions like ‘tired’ and ‘busy’.

“It is a quick way to get a pulse check of the sentiment of the group and team and to find out if people might need additional support,” says Mayo. “We suggest it as a practical tool for people to use — especially managers — to build a connection with their team.

“It also helps create a safe space where people can openly admit to their feelings — whether they’re up or down… knowing that there’s no such thing as a good or bad emotion.”

Point3 also incorporates desk-based movement sessions and has developed approaches in light of this new disruption in our work circumstances. It includes managing anxiety around changes in routine, building new, good habits and teaching employees to step off the 24/7 treadmill.

“We hear that people know intellectually what they should be doing but they can’t seem to turn that into action,” Mayo says. “Getting started is often the hardest part, probably because people put so much pressure on themselves and have far too lofty expectations of themselves. We really emphasise the power of micro-moments.”

Data entry

The most forward-thinking organisations are now looking to their own data and asking staff for insights around productivity, presenteeism, sick days and the retention of talent. An employee’s health rightly should remain private, but an understanding of the cost and benefits of wellbeing is pushing this up the workplace agenda.

Paul Clarke is the founder of CONNECT Performance, a science-backed approach that syncs a person’s physical and mental health.

Users wear a heart-rate variability (HRV) device for 72 hours to track performance. It monitors the interval between heartbeats, giving a non-invasive marker of nervous system activity that measures stress, sleep and activity.

Each person’s data is anonymised and kept private and they receive a personalised 40-minute lifestyle assessment report.

“Many companies are seeing personal performance and wellbeing as a strategic issue,” says Clarke. “There is lots of research to suggest that wellbeing status has a direct causal impact on workplace performance — the outcome of that on business results is obvious.

“The insights we get allow us to identify and understand the lifestyle habits which might be hindering the individual and holding them back.”

After filling out a pre-questionnaire report on my physical and mental health, I wore the device for three days. I came back with a ‘solid’ lifestyle recovery score of 64/100 which was helped in part by my relative physical health. Among a number of action points, I was informed my sleep had been ‘adversely impacted’ by late five-a-side football games before bed.

Paul Clarke

Clarke, who has worked with leading professional sports teams at international and Olympic levels, says: “Like athletes who perform as they train, professionals cannot outperform their perception of themselves or how they feel. So having science-backed insights into what is suppressing their abilities and capabilities is of massive value to them and their companies.”

Stephenson, a mental health campaigner and TedX speaker, is also the founder of the InsideOut LeaderBoard, a social enterprise which publishes an annual list of workplace leaders who have been open about their mental health challenges.

He also has an intensely personal as well as professional interest in this subject. Aged 31 he tried to end his life. Stephenson credits sharing his story in 2017 with an uplift in his wellbeing. On the day we speak, his Zoom background shows his FormScore is an 8/10.

“We do not have enough senior role models from our workplaces who speak openly about their own experiences,” he says. “Alastair Campbell, Ruby Wax, Stephen Fry, Princes William and Harry and some sports professionals do it, but we don’t have enough leaders we can identify with who say: ‘It is ok to talk about this’.”

Is your mental health data safe?

FormScore is now developing B2C premium features such as training opportunities for companies. “The world is not ready for your employer to have your mental health data,” says Stephenson. “My app allows you to share it with only those you choose to connect with.”

But he says data can be aggregated anonymously to give companies insights into the wellbeing of employees. “If sleep is a big issue for a cohort, then a company can think about providing resources for that,” he adds.

Why should organisations care? “By doing this we can contribute to the creation of high-performance workplace cultures. And if hybrid working is the way the world is going then we are going to need more help than visual clues on how someone is doing.

“It’s not about your line manager checking in. It’s about you having a circle of people, including some in your workplace if you’re comfortable with that, who deep down have got your back.”

Journalist with over two decades of newsroom experience writing on tech, business, sustainability, newsroom management, burnout and disinformation.