HeadClear: Harnessing the power of AI for better workplace well-being
In conversation by Marco Ricci
A shift in our appreciation of workplace well-being poses a problem for companies: how can they best provide mental health support for their employees? In conversation with Matt Jenkins, founder of HeadClear, Marco Ricci delves into the technology behind the company's flagship app, and how its unique approach could help improve workplace wellbeing for good.
General scientific consensus is that blood flow to the facial muscles increases when we feel stressed. It is one of the many biological consequences of our nervous system priming our bodies to deal with situations that could be potentially life-threatening. In particular, making sure enough blood is flowing through our muscles to ready us to either fight the supposed threat, or run away from it.
Although this biological process has been fundamental in our survival as a species for millions of years, its relevance has dwindled in the face of rapid technological evolution. Consequently, situations which our brains quite simply haven't evolved for – such as delivering a presentation to a group of people, or flying in an airplane tens-of-thousands of feet above the earth – are enough to trigger this age-old biological mechanism, underpinning a great number of mental health issues.
The problem is that we aren't always in tune with just how much stress our body is experiencing, especially if we've been experiencing it for a while. This is particularly true in the workplace where continuous stress triggers like deadlines, meetings, or regular social interactions all add up over time, eventually manifesting as a struggle to function both physically and mentally, also known as burnout.
Understanding employee wellbeing has been of increasing interest for companies around the world, growing exponentially in response to the new ways and expectations of working that have resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic. But as millions of us have seen a shift in our working environment, employers have seen a downturn in employee visibility, presenting them with a new problem: how can they best care for the wellbeing of their staff without face-to-face interaction?
Keeping a clear head
HeadClear is one company that aims to provide an answer to the ongoing conundrum. The startup, which was founded 7 months ago, consists of just a handful of individuals who have built a solution that resides on a platform that the vast majority of UK employees will have access to: a smartphone.
This isn't your run-of-the-mill wellness app though. In fact, as HeadClear founder Matt Jenkins states, this app may well be the only one of its kind: "there's no-one else on the market with this type of technology."
The technology Matt is talking about is Insight Optical Imaging, or IOI for short. IOI makes use of a smartphone camera to estimate a person's heart rate and breathing rhythm. The technology kicks in when users 'check in' with the app – a process which begins with a short sequence of questions asking the user to think about their current life and happiness. During this 20ish-second questionnaire, the smartphone camera activates, giving IOI its time to shine. Within the space of around 5 seconds, IOI analyses the level of light being emitted from the user's face, which gives an indication of blood flow in the facial muscles.
Combining a short questionnaire around life satisfaction with its science-backed IOI technology, HeadClear helps to identify how a person is feeling and why
The result of this technology comes in the form of two scores: a wellbeing score and a stress level score. The former is a measurement of how well a person is doing generally, including factors such as life enjoyment, life balance, flexibility, resilience, and self-worth. The latter indicates how well a person is dealing with stress in their life. Together, these results provide an overview of how a person is feeling and why.
At this point, the user can keep this information entirely for themselves and simply use it as guidance for their own lifestyle habits. Or they can share it with their employer. In the latter scenario, the data is fed into an employer-end solution called Landscape which, with the help of various algorithms, produces a graph showing an individual's scores over time. It uses this data to predict what might happen in future – 30, 90 and 180 days into the future to be exact. If an employee's scores seem to be on a downward trajectory and are predicted to keep doing so, the software identifies this to the employer so that they can step in and offer support.
HeadClear Landscape provides an overview of team and employee stress, highlighting those who may need mental health support as 'In-Focus'
From reactive treatment to proactive prevention
The ability for HeadClear to be a predictive tool relies on a form of artificial intelligence called machine learning.
Put simply, machine learning allows software applications to more accurately predict a given outcome over time. For HeadClear, it is machine learning that gives the software the ability to flag to employers those who may need support in future.
This technology is what distinguishes HeadClear from a typical wellness app. Rather than letting users estimate their wellbeing and then offer up 'solutions' to deal with any potential crisis, HeadClear attempts to stop them happening in the first place.
"Most products on the market will focus on treatment," Matt explains. "It's a 'you are in crisis, therefore use this' kind of approach. But we don't believe that approach is right.
"It was so important for us to build an algorithm that could do more than this status quo approach, and it was a long and painful process to do so. But we're so happy that we got there in the end. Because people deserve the ability to care for their mental health before a crisis happens."
A change in workplace attitude
Matt's drive for this approach is built on his own extensive career in people-related business. For him, workforce wellbeing has always played second fiddle to financial success.
"Many organisations will not know how their employees are doing," says Matt. "But they will be acutely aware of the fallout of poor workforce wellbeing: low productivity, high staff turnover and high staff absences. All of which of course comes with high financial costs."
This attitude toward employee mental health didn't seem to be shifting in Matt's eyes either, and the technology that was being created to solve the issue didn't seem to be getting any better at actually addressing it.
"It was obvious to me that the relationship between businesses and employees was not healthy. If you think about the 'good' relationships in our lives, they're based on open communication, trust, working through disagreements, and listening and feeling heard. But businesses just weren't, and many still aren't, trying to create such an environment. At the same time, the technology simply hasn’t kept pace with the changing workplace."
"Businesses needs to start looking at how they can improve staff engagement, retention or reduce absenteeism. After all, around 70 million work days are lost every year to issues related to mental health.
"In my opinion, wellbeing should be a key target for organisations, reflected through a wellbeing strategy that everyone in an organisation, from directors to line managers, should fully commit to."
Even with a shift in attitude from employers on how they approach employee wellbeing, a major obstacle for any business to have a more engaged discussion with their workers is trust.
After all, our mental health is a very personal thing, and to share it with someone who we may only be a colleague of is asking a lot. The data reflects this too: 1 in 3 employees feel like they can't talk about their mental health with their manager, even though 3 in 4 managers believe employee wellbeing to be their responsibility.
Companies have of course tried to build a trusting relationship with their employees. But, compounded by a new attitude among workers toward work-life balance, efforts have too often ventured into the 'Big Brother' realm of surveillance, ironically achieving the opposite effect.
The problem then has never been to simply replace face-to-face interaction, but to make the management of workforce wellbeing an unintrusive and respectful process, all while providing accurate and actionable insights into how workers are actually feeling.
HeadClear attempts to be this solution firstly by giving users full control of their data. As Matt puts it, "you own your mental health."
Specifically, the data the app gathers is only ever associated with the user's account, rather than the organisation. This not only comes in handy if an employee leaves a company – because their data is not lost, but rather their membership of the organisation is – but it also lets the employee decide how their data is shared.
Broadly, workers can share their data with their organisation in a fully anonymised (none of the data can be tracked back to the individual), limited (the user chooses what data about themselves is shared), or completely open (all data is linked to the individual) form, so if they don't want to be linked to their scores, they don't have to be. Videos taken during a check-in, as well as all questionnaire answers, also never leave the user's phone, so only they will ever see them.
Starting the conversation
Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, HeadClear helps to build the conversation about mental health between employer and employee. For those employees that want to share their data, managers are given suggestions for how to approach the situation.
"Rather than a corridor conversation of 'are you ok?', the manager now has a tangible measurement to start and drive a deeper discussion," explains Matt.
"Even in the case where perhaps a conversation would not be suitable, it indicates to the manager that something needs to be done, whether that's joining a call to show their support or nipping out for a coffee."
Eventually, HeadClear wants to make the tools it provides for managers even more extensive to ensure they can provide the help to employees that they most value.
"We feel that managers need additional support," says Matt. "We know that most mental health is addressed by the return to work interview (often, that's the only time mental health is addressed) and that these interviews are conducted by managers.
"Unfortunately, managers often aren't trained for these conversations, so despite good intentions, they may use clumsy language, they may have low confidence in their ability to discuss mental health, or they may avoid it altogether."
The final ingredient
In a world overflowing with wellbeing apps, it's easy to write the latest one off as just another iteration of what's already been done. But having the chance to talk to Matt extensively about his company and its solution, there's something about HeadClear that makes it stand out.
I could point toward the unique technology it uses, which by definition makes it different to anything we've seen before. I could point toward the company's preventative approach which I truly believe is something the mental health world is so desperately lacking. I could even point toward its heavy focus on developing trust between the manager and the employee, as well as the desire to spark a conversation about mental health in the workplace.
All of this is, of course, hitting the right notes for a company and a solution that could truly make a difference. But the final ingredient for me will always be the passion of the people involved. And Matt's passion to reimagine our understanding of workplace wellbeing is there for all to see.
"Providing a wellbeing app that allows employees to understand and improve their mental health and wellbeing is always going to be a good thing," he says. "But we don't just want to help and support businesses and individuals to develop a trusting and healthy working relationship – we want people to be mentally healthy.
"We want to contribute and positively impact how mental health is perceived, understood, controlled, and improved in the workplace. That's what really matters to us."
Visit the HeadClear website here. The HeadClear app is available now on iOS and Android app stores.