Alyson Watson, Founder and CEO of Modern Health
Alyson Watson had an important message for her team. It was May 1, six weeks after the coronavirus pandemic forced employees to isolate themselves. Your Modern Health company was busier than ever.
30-year-old Watson started Modern Health three years earlier to expand the availability of mental health services through virtual and web-based programs that companies can offer their employees. While demand rose steadily before 2020, there was a rush in March and April as companies saw the early strains of the Covid-19 crisis on their workers.
Initially, Watson tried to rally her staff, suggesting that this was her time to shine and that “we have to go 110%,” she told CNBC in a recent interview. Given the fear she was personally beginning to experience with the new distant reality and the fact that times were even more difficult for people with children, Watson realized that she needed to convey to employees that their own mental health was paramount .
In a company-wide Slack message in early May, she admitted that the Zoom calls “wore me out” and said she is finding ways to take care of her mental and physical health.
“Whether it’s eating healthy, exercising, turning off the technology for some time during the day, meditating, spending time with your children, significant other, or family – now is the time,” she wrote. “Make a commitment. The team needs you to make a commitment. For themselves and for each other.”
Watson said it was like flight attendants reminding passengers that in an emergency, they must put on their own oxygen mask before they can help their children. For Modern Health, the emergency had only just begun.
As weeks turned into months, Modern Health employees as well as the growing number of customers were faced with an extensive list of health, money, family, and school-related issues. Watson went so far as to tell them that she was seeing a trainer, therapist, and couples therapist on a regular basis.
“For the first time, it became a central issue for us that we need our own mental health in order to have a successful mental health experience,” she said in an interview.
Modern Health, based in San Francisco, combines virtual personal access to therapists and trainers with digital content such as guided meditations. In mid-December, the start-up raised $ 51 million in a round valued at over $ 500 million. The number of employees tripled in 2020 to more than 140 employees, sales have multiplied 25 times in 18 months and the customer base has doubled since March.
Customers like Electronic Arts, Pixar and Lyft pay a monthly fee per employee.
Throughout 2020, the pandemic was the top source of employee anxiety, Watson said. But it was far from the only thing. Racial injustice issues took center stage in June after the killing of George Floyd by a police officer sparked protests across the country. And the November presidential election caused a lot of stress and anxiety.
“One of the things we’ve seen over the past year is that mental health is a top priority for every employer in all industries,” said Watson. She added that the average user spends 50% more time on the app than before the pandemic.
Even before Covid-19, Modern Health and other digital mental health companies such as Lyra Health, Talkspace, and Ginger were gaining traction as traditional counseling is expensive and there is a nationwide shortage of trained therapists.
While Telehealth has soared during the lockdown for obvious reasons, there are greater numbers of people who have benefited from mental health trainers on issues such as loneliness, relationship issues, and work-related stress. They don’t all require hours of sessions. Sometimes a quick text chat is enough.
“There aren’t enough therapists on planet earth to meet the demand we’re seeing,” said Watson.
Between talking to new clients like Clif Bar, Zendesk and TripActions, recruiting talent and working on new products and partnerships, Watson said her focus was on exercise and good food. She told staff that she would carve at least 15 to 30 minutes for the workout five days a week, along with her therapy and coaching sessions.
“While I’m nervous to share all of this, I feel compelled to feel vulnerable knowing my team has my back,” she wrote.
It’s a piece of news that she has returned to repeatedly over the months that have followed.
“Being a mental health company doesn’t mean it isn’t really hard,” she told CNBC. “You’re still a start-up. There’s a lot of stress and burnout that comes with the territory.”
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