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'Working from home is contributing to Britain's mental health crisis'

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 03/07/2022 James Titcomb
Russell Glass turned to meditation during a stressful time at LinkedIn Headspace Health - Geoff Pugh for the Telegraph © Geoff Pugh for the Telegraph Russell Glass turned to meditation during a stressful time at LinkedIn Headspace Health - Geoff Pugh for the Telegraph

A lot of people are reflexively sceptical when meditation is brought up. “I was one of those people,” admits Russell Glass, the American chief executive of Headspace Health on a trip to London.

“I’d heard the term mindfulness before and - do you have the term ‘woo woo’ over here? - It all felt kind of woo woo to me.”

Today, Glass, a serial entrepreneur from New Jersey, meditates daily and has been the boss of one of the world’s biggest mental health apps since October 2021. 

Headspace, which has offices in California and London, experienced an influx of users during the pandemic as rates of depression and loneliness soared.

Glass’s Damascene conversion was years earlier. In 2014, he had just sold his marketing start-up Bizo to LinkedIn for $175m (£144m), becoming one of the social networking giant’s top executives and netting a fortune. He should have been on top of the world, but says he found it difficult to feel at home.

“I was really struggling when I joined LinkedIn from a mental health standpoint. I had had my third daughter about a week before I sold the company and I wasn't sleeping very well. I got to LinkedIn and had a bit of imposter syndrome and had a bit of anxiety,” Glass says.

LinkedIn chief executive Jeff Weiner had brought in the founders of the meditation app Headspace - an unlikely British duo of Andy Puddicombe, a former Buddhist monk, and Richard Pierson, a marketing executive - to speak to the company’s employees. Glass thought he had nothing to lose and tried it out.

Three weeks later, a colleague said something in a meeting that might have otherwise set Glass off. “I was able to note the feeling and realise that it was just my stress response. And I was able to let it go.”

He has since dedicated his career to mindfulness. In 2018 Glass took charge of Ginger, a remote therapy app that lets users text or video call with professional psychiatrists. And last year, he merged the company with Headspace, the app he attributes to his own rejuvenated state of mind.

Today, the combined company - Headspace Health - is valued at $3bn and is at the forefront of a booming digital mental health movement. Its apps have been used by more than 100m people, although the number who stick with it on a daily basis are more modest.

Use of meditation apps surged during the pandemic, which triggered a mental health crisis as students were barred from classrooms, employees were cooped up and family members cut off from one another. 

The World Health Organisation said in March that Covid-19 had seen global prevalence of anxiety and depression increase by 25pc. The organisation estimates that 70pc of the 1bn people worldwide with a mental health need are not getting access to care, and that just 2pc of healthcare spending is dedicated to it.

With budgets at breaking point, Glass argues that digital solutions are the only realistic option. 


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“Here in the UK, 40pc of GP visits right now are for mental health. It's just a huge amount of need. You have to be able to access it virtually if we're going to actually deliver on the scale of what the needs are now,” he explains.

Headspace offers its users guided meditations, sleep aids, and focus music. The company points to a ream of academic studies suggesting its apps reduce stress, anxiety and burnout, and increase focus. Next year the company intends to integrate the app with Ginger, which has an army of professionally-trained therapists on call.

In a sign of how much more mainstream the issue of mental health has become, the Duke of Sussex has joined a rival app, BetterUp, as chief impact officer, while Headspace has a partnership with English footballer Raheem Sterling.

Many tech businesses, such as Peloton and Netflix, boomed during the pandemic only to see a drop off in demand, but Glass says the mental health crisis is here to stay.

“Unfortunately, I think that there's going to be a long tail to the pandemic when it comes to mental health. The amount of need right now, it's not sustainable, and it's not going to lead to good outcomes from a healthcare standpoint,” he says.

“The social isolation, particularly for the youth, has become a really big deal. At the moment in life when you need social interaction more than any other moment in life, it got ripped away from our adolescents and teens.”

Glass also describes ongoing working from home as a major factor. “If you ask the average employee, they want remote work, they want that option. And yet [employers] also have to recognise that it's not always going to be a beneficial thing from a mental standpoint.”

While Headspace charges individuals a monthly subscription fee, a large part of its revenue comes from businesses who offer the app as a perk to staff. Around 3,500 companies subscribe, with 600 of those in the UK. Glass says around one in five staff within those companies end up using the app and chief executives tend to use it at a higher rate than rank and file employees. Glass says there are, however, some worrying signs that companies might be stepping back from mental health support they provided at the start of the pandemic.

Headspace's workplace subscriptions are popular with CEOs, says Russell Glass - Geoff Pugh for the Telegraph © Provided by The Telegraph Headspace's workplace subscriptions are popular with CEOs, says Russell Glass - Geoff Pugh for the Telegraph

Part of the challenge is convincing people that apps can offer the same benefits as in-person professionals. Glass at least has an ally in Sajid Javid, Health Secretary, who is pushing to modernise the NHS with digital services.

“80pc of people who come into a GP office with a mental health need can be handled sub-clinically, either with self care where our Headspace app might be appropriate, or with coaching. We know that we can help in the vast majority of cases,” says Glass.

“If there's any silver lining [to the pandemic], it's that it caused a giant increase in people's willingness to adopt digital, virtual mental health solutions. So you have far more people getting access than they did.”

Could it be a full replacement, putting an end to visits to a musty psychiatrists’ offices and leather recliners? Glass argues that many people prefer virtual visits, which might remove the stigma of being spotted leaving a therapist’s office.

A future step could be robot psychiatrists. Glass says the company’s Ginger app is already using artificial intelligence (AI) to monitor conversations for signs of stress or anxiety and recommend particular language to professional psychiatrists.

“One day, maybe we’ll get to the point where we have an AI-based bot that augments the care. It’s way out into the future.”

For now, Glass says his goal is to have meditation regarded as on a par with brushing teeth: something people do to prevent problems emerging further down the line. “We need to help educate the world so that as many people as possible are thinking about [that]. It’s the early innings.”

A lot of people may still think the idea sounds a little “woo woo”. But Glass is determined to win them over.

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