Headspace CPO: Mental health’s move ‘from the backroom to the boardroom’

Of the many transformations the pandemic inspired in the world of work, one of the most welcomed and overdue is the increasing spotlight on employee mental health, says Karan Singh, chief operating officer and chief people officer at Headspace.

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“People are willing to have the conversations, among executives and leaders, about how critical a foundation mental health is for business continuity,” says Singh. It’s a topic that has been central to Singh’s career: In 2011, he co-founded the mental health tool Ginger, which, in 2021, merged with Headspace, a meditation and mindfulness platform. The marriage of the two companies created a comprehensive mental health and wellbeing solution provider valued at $3 billion and employs about 1,000 people.

The growing demand for mental health services in recent years—the number of Headspace’s registered users doubled in the first year of the pandemic—represents a step in the right direction, but there is still “a ways to go,” Singh says, to alleviate the stigma around seeking mental healthcare. And employers have a critical role to play, he says.

That’s an idea that is key to Headspace’s own people strategy—fueled by a culture that values flexibility and recognizes the power of self-care, he says. In keeping with that culture, all employees get lifelong access to the Headspace tools, including the new Finding Your Best Sleep Program, a three-week course that aims to instill better sleep habits—a focus that Singh says is a cornerstone of his own mental healthcare regimen.

Singh recently shared how else he tends to his mental health and what he hopes other HR leaders can do to continue to deepen the discussion about employee mental health.

HRE: Your titles encompass both chief people officer and COO. What are the challenges in merging those roles?

Karan Singh, HeadSpace
Karan Singh

Singh: I think they are very complimentary—which is to say, in order to deliver on our mission and vision, we need both: to hire and retain incredible talent and to make sure we’re delivering against our core set of goals. In many ways, the people leader role and the operator role work hand in hand; I don’t see them as being in two distinct fields, although people often come into them from different disciplines and backgrounds.

HRE: Given the space you’re in, what are you focused on when it comes to supporting employee mental health?

Singh: We believe culture and mental health are inextricably linked, and that’s a focus for our clients but also internally, where we’re making sure we set a culture that is supportive of mental health, focused on resilience—on doing less but better. We as leaders can model good mental hygiene, which can be preventative, proactive—catching things early, addressing stigma, letting know people when they have challenges, what they can do to seek support.

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For instance, we have mindfulness days every other week where people can take time out to spend time on their own mental health. [We offer] flexible work arrangements, no-meeting Fridays, meditations to kick off meetings—that’s all valuable and it goes back to culture. There needs to be a context to ensure people have the time they need for their mental health. And then it’s about making sure we have great benefits, access to mental healthcare and support.

HRE: How are you helping employees cope with ongoing uncertainty and change?

Singh: The only constant is change, and there is certainly a whole lot of change right now and, for lack of a better word, a crisis. People leaders are managing week to week, and it starts with really focusing on building the environment, laying the groundwork so that, when a crisis happens, people can engage in authentic conversation.

So often, as I’m connecting with other people leaders in this space, I hear them say that change is so hard to manage and work through when you’re in it. But you have to start well before it. It goes back to setting up the right culture, the right level of psychological safety so people feel like they can show up as their whole selves.

And then it’s recognizing what boundaries you as a people leader have, meaning that we don’t know all the answers. There are a lot of complexities in the global challenges right now and certainly the political challenges. Employees are looking to their leaders for answers and, in reality, we may not necessarily have them. But what we can do is create space to have dialogues, lean into things like our ERPs or affinity groups, which can be powerful, supportive communities. And we also have to be encouraging people to find resources outside of the workplace.

HRE: How would you rate employers’ recent progress on addressing the stigma about mental health?

Singh: We’ve made progress—certainly in the last decade and even more in the last few years, coming out of COVID-19. We’ve moved mental health from the backroom to the boardroom. But we’re not all the way there yet. We still have a ways to go to continue to invest in resources for employees and to break down stigma. Hopefully, the pace of change in the last few years continues but there needs to be ongoing investment and support—not a pullback now that we’re out of the pandemic.

Most people have realized just how much life, health and mental health are fundamentally intertwined, and what the pandemic exposed was an underinvestment—frankly, for decades—in this. We’re starting to see the stigma reduce as executive leaders at companies, athletes, people in pop culture are being more open about their struggles. My hope is that the next phase is a significantly increased level of investment in actual support. That goes beyond therapy—meditation and mindfulness, access to services and content, licensed clinical support. That’s the next phase.

See also: EEOC commissioner on what’s driving the ‘explosion’ of mental health discrimination claims

HRE: Headspace has seen a lot of growth in the last few years. What is your advice for other HR professionals about helping a workforce during times of rapid growth?

Singh: First is naming it. Change is hard and constant. And certainly, any high-growth organization that’s on a big mission needs to continue to build resilience in the organization and to be clear about your vision and values—what you’re looking to achieve, how you can achieve it, the goalposts to achieve it. And then, you have to think about how you can do less but better.

More often than not, change can lead to burnout when you’re adding more and subtracting less. Organizations are really good at asking for more and not less. But [doing less but better] has become a big mantra for us at Headspace internally. Anyone going through rapid growth can easily just add to the stack—but then it becomes unwieldy and unmanageable, so part of the process for HR is understanding what not to do to keep evolving.

HRE: As a busy C-suite leader, how do you personally tend to your own mental health?

Singh: Having been a founder and worn many hats over the years—including as a people leader—I made a lot of mistakes, and I learned what not to do, which is how I came to adopt the “doing less but better” mantra.

When my daughter was born—she’s 8 years old—she was an important forcing function for me to say, “There needs to be a bright line between ‘things I do at work’ and ‘things I do at home'” so I could be fully present with her. One of my No. 1 strategies has become mindfulness practices; I meditate daily and, for me, it happens in nature, which I find to be one of the best antidotes to the all-day/everyday Zoom sessions. I live in California, so to be meditating out among the Redwoods … it’s a great moment for me to realize how small I am, and I find that to be incredibly helpful.

I also have a group of other entrepreneurs I’ve been getting together with once a month for years now. It’s like a forum where we come together and talk about work, family, personal life and give each other our unbiased perspectives, kind of like a coach who can listen and play back what they’re hearing. That’s been a powerful resource to help me pause, reflect and not just immediately react.

The last leg of my own mental health playbook is getting good sleep consistently. That’s not something I did in my early days when I launched my company, but I’ve come to appreciate just how foundational good sleep is to good health. We are incredibly excited about the work we’re doing with our recently launched specialized sleep program. It’s a three-week program based on a series of evidence-based mental health approaches, with specific coaching and training. We’ve seen incredible results and it’s something we’re going to continue to invest in as a core pillar of our overall mental health program.

At the end of the day, one of the things I’ve heard more frequently from other people leaders is how unsustainable the role can be. You’re playing a really critical role for people and are a resource, and you can become an emotional sponge from the rest of the organization. Holding that in can be taxing. So, investing in your mental health is critically important.

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].