Mental health and wellness are increasingly at the forefront of people’s minds, especially as we come out of prolonged lockdowns. Andy Meikle, COO of online therapy app HelloSelf, talks us through how leadership and individuals can better cope with difficult situations.
A lot of anxiety arises when we have unanswered questions or a loss of control; so leadership can step in to create or offer as much certainty as possible, especially around questions that directly affect people’s lives. At the same time, granting people more autonomy in their day-to-day lives can give them a way out of situations that feel restrictive and constrained.
However, this doesn’t mean that traditional work structures should be gotten rid of altogether. Many people are happier with more formal structures, and creating new structures can replicate the challenges of the old ones.
- Alternatives to traditional team structures don’t always work better. Try project-focused task groups, and remember some people like the status quo.
- Provide all the certainty you can. Even bad news is better than anxiety and loss of control.
- Benefits parity doesn’t always mean you’ll offer the same benefits globally. When the culture of your company doesn’t exactly match the culture of the countries you have offices in, you need to enhance benefits rather than equate them.
- Autonomy goes a long way to improving resilience. Give people as much control over their time as possible, especially when so much else is beyond their control.
- Therapy and coaching use similar approaches. It’s about identifying the problem and seeking solutions using what you can control.
- Viewing everything as relationships can give you more insight and control.
How did you get into HR, and how did you become COO at HelloSelf?
I'd love to say that it was a well-thought-through career path, but the truth is it was nothing like that.
Around 2002 I was working for the National Criminal Intelligence Service as an intelligence analyst. After a couple of years, I realised that the environment felt a little restrictive, for example only being able to apply for a promotion every two years. I had friends who had started working at startups, and they were moving faster at work, able to pivot and make decisions quickly.
I was living with someone who ran a recruitment business, who proposed I join their business as their first HR person. I had no experience or knowledge, but he had the blind faith that I’d pick things up as I went along.
A few years later I moved to Stockholm, Sweden, to work as HR Director for Cint, an insights platform. It was my first global role where I was responsible for 13 countries, and that's when I started to get hooked on the world of HR/People. When it was time to come back to London, I found myself in an interview with Anne-Marie Huby and Zarine Kharas from JustGiving.
That was the first time I'd ever met founders that I thought were trying to build something truly progressive — not a traditional or command and control structure, and a business that cared about how people can be the best versions of themselves, encouraging individuals at all levels to be autonomous and make decisions for themselves.
We tested things in all functions of the business — for example, what if we lose “teams” as a concept, and instead, we organise ourselves around the different elements of our growth engine at work? It half worked and half didn't, but the intention was a positive one.
After some time HR consulting for London tech companies Charlie Wells, who I worked with at JustGiving, told me that he was going to be starting a new project.
That project was HelloSelf. Charlie invited me to join the founding team as COO to help launch and grow what was a very exciting idea. A couple of years later and we are a ‘proper’ company, with over 100 clinical and counselling psychologists providing coaching and therapy to companies and individuals in the UK and Europe.
How did your experiment with breaking down traditional team structures work? Would you recommend it?
We noticed that it wasn’t working well to have a management team meet once a week, deciding functional direction and “overseeing” the rest of the business - when that’s not the way things actually worked. So we tried organising people around our growth engine instead of functionally.
For instance, we get people to the website. We optimise their experience when they're there. Who's the group of people that do that? Let’s have them talk directly with each other rather than via the management team.
It created a different dynamic, and it was useful to have the sales team, the front end developers, the marketeers and the product people having regular meetings.
It seems obvious, but we didn't really foresee that when we took eight functional teams and broke them down, we turned them into five different teams. They worked well and productively, but the communication between them wasn't necessarily better than the communication between the ones we had before.
Some version of this definitely works. But maybe spinning up a cross-functional project team and getting them to work on something that has a beginning, middle, and end, and some clear deliverables, rather than reorganise the whole business would have been more effective.
In addition, while there are people who find the traditional structure restrictive, there are others who are perfectly happy with it.
If I were to do it again, it would be either more project-focused or with a smaller part of the organisation.
How do you deal with different cultures and expectations in a global workforce?
Cint was a Swedish company, and our headquarters along with about 40% of our employees were in Stockholm. Employee conditions in Sweden are very favourable, from holiday to sick pay to working hours and parental leave.
In the US, where we had employees, they had less favourable benefits. The US sales team knew they had to deliver certain numbers, or in theory, they could be asked to leave (within a long performance improvement plan process). I had only seen that in films before. Such differences create some fairly strong behaviours within an organisation, some of them hard to reconcile between offices.
When US employees ask for benefits parity, we sought to enhance rather than equalise: you're definitely not going to get nine months’ paid parental leave outside of this country, but we can certainly give you something enhanced that reflects the culture of the organisation.
In terms of unifying the culture, the main thing was, what is the business that we're trying to build? We have this quarterly mentality: we wanted to commit to all employees that every quarter you are at this business, you’re better off professionally than you were three months ago.
COVID-19 has really brought mental health and wellbeing to the forefront. What has been the impact on HelloSelf?
We have seen a significant increase in the number of inbound leads, and there has been a real increase in contact from HR teams — and CEOs, interestingly — recognising that when you can't see a group of people in front of you, it’s much harder to check in with them.
We deal with members directly, and via employers. Employers will either have one of our therapists available — on-site previously, but now remotely — for a day a week or similar, or they'll provide on-demand access to our service to all of their employees.
We're also seeing more people self-referring to our service. There's definitely a trend towards mental health being something that people discuss more comfortably than they have done previously, which is positive.
But when you couple that with huge job losses, people being in isolated situations, a loss of structured social relationships, there's a lot of people who are having a difficult time.
Our organisation is fairly small, and most people are quite comfortable working from home, but it feels like we’ve got to the point where we miss going into the office, interacting with each other, going for lunch together. We hope to get to the point very soon where employees can go to the office if they choose to.
What can people, teams and managers do to support the mental health and wellbeing of their colleagues?
One of the greatest things that London underground ever did was tell you how long you've got to wait for the next tube. Because even if it's six minutes, you don't have that feeling of anxiety and uncertainty.
Amplify that feeling, and that's where we are at the moment. If we can tell everyone that we're not going back to the office until at least this date, it might not be the news that everyone wants to hear, but that certainty gives you a little more control, at a time when so many things are out of our control.
HR teams should aim to create and provide as much certainty as they can, even if the news is not the news that everyone wants to hear. And check in regularly. It doesn’t have to be a two-hour conversation every week, but management teams should make sure they speak to every person individually at least weekly.
It's also important, at a time when people feel very contained and restricted, that you give others the opportunity to be in control. Knowing your day is truly flexible, and you're in control of it, is a really powerful way to help people.
You have a PhD in psychology. How has that helped you be a good people leader, in a company which is all about people and their wellbeing?
I probably ended up with a PhD in psychology as I’ve always been interested in what drives people and the understanding of how people can be the best versions of themselves.
At HelloSelf, we want as many people as possible to have access to therapy, to be able to open up and have conversations about things they find difficult. We know from working with companies that many people that access our services wouldn’t have got round to doing it if it wasn’t made so simple for them.
How do you see the definition and role of therapy compared to coaching?
Our therapists are clinical or counselling psychologists and CBT therapists. They all use science-informed and evidence-based approaches to support and treat people. Our approaches are skills-based; learning a new way of thinking, acting, understanding, and experiencing.
Similar to coaching, we help people define their goals into tangible milestones and then equip people with the skills to achieve them. There’s definitely an overlap. The difference is that someone can understand what they need to do, have the motivation to do it, but can’t quite apply it consistently enough to yield the changes they seek.
In psychology, part of our job is to identify and remove the obstacles that can stand in the way of true change. These obstacles are varied and personal and often require the breadth of the clinical skill set.
For example, someone who is seeking promotion and understands that they need to take more professional risks and assert themselves to realise this goal but has substantial anxiety about failing will struggle to apply the behavioural improvements suggested.
The final question I have is something that I ask all our experts. What's one key lesson, insight or experience that's been pivotal in your career?
Someone once told me that everything is a relationship. You don't just have relationships with your friends and your family and your partners.
I'm currently in a relationship with HelloSelf. I'm currently in a relationship with my room (that is my bedroom but also my office). If you treat everything as a relationship, then you'll treat it in the way that you think is right.
And I think it helps make logical and meaningful decisions about things where if something is not good for you, or if you're not attending to it enough, you can get better at spotting it.