Companies are offering benefits like virtual therapy and meditation apps as Covid-19 stress grows

Key Points
  • Meditation apps Headspace and Calm and virtual therapy services like Lyra Health and Modern Health have seen huge adoption by employers in recent months.
  • Saturday is World Mental Health Day, and the World Health Organization says demand for mental health services is increasing across the globe because of the pandemic.
  • "So many organizations have recognized that mental health is a must-have for employees rather than a nice to have," said Alex Will, Calm's chief strategy officer. 

In this article

Andy Puddicombe, co-founder of HEADspace.
Jarrett Bellini | CNBC

Like many modern tech companies, UiPath had been expanding its mental health benefits to employees in recent years, committing the equivalent of 1% of salaries to health and wellness programs. More than seven months into the coronavirus pandemic, that all seems quaint.

The crises of 2020 have taken stress, anxiety and depression to entirely new levels for employees, who are trying to stay productive at home, surrounded by children who can't go to school or hang out with their friends, except outside and at a distance.

Add to that the racial animus sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in late May, the raging wildfires across the West and a particularly consequential election season and it's easy to see why employers like UiPath are working overtime to help staffers find some semblance of balance. 

"The whole world changed and we had to quickly adapt," said Daniel Anastas, the head of total rewards at New York-based UiPath, whose software helps companies automate back-end tasks.

World Mental Health Day is Saturday, Oct. 10, as recognized by the World Health Organization. The WHO said this week that demand worldwide is increasing for mental health services because of Covid-related "bereavement, isolation, loss of income and fear," adding that critical services have been disrupted or halted in 93% of countries across the globe.

Prior to the pandemic, UiPath offered employee assistance through a company called Corporate Counseling Associates, which provides access to counselors, therapists and help with childcare. Anastas said that employees have been making greater use of those services and asking for more.

At the beginning of October, UiPath gave all 2,800 employees free access to meditation app Headspace, which typically costs $70 a year for individual subscriptions, as well as fitness service Aaptiv, which costs $100 for consumers. 

"Once Covid hit, we got a lot of feedback about how hard it was to disconnect from emails because people are constantly home," Anastas said. "These apps allow people to disconnect and spend some purposeful moments thinking about, where's my head at?"

Headspace told CNBC by email that it's seen a greater than 500% increase in inbound interest from companies seeking mental health help for their workforce. The number of people starting its "stressed meditation" offering is up six-fold, and the company said that a survey it conducted earlier this year found that 53% of workers feel mental health benefits are now essential.

Headspace is currently the fourth-highest grossing iOS App in the health and fitness category. Rival Calm is second.

"So many organizations have recognized that mental health is a must-have for employees rather than a nice to have," said Alex Will, Calm's chief strategy officer. 

Calm app
Source: Calm

Will said that corporate sales have become a big and possibly the fastest-growing part of the business, with more than 20 of Calm's 140 employees now focused on it. He said that when companies join as clients, 25% of staffers sign up for the app within a few weeks. 

In May, the health plan Kaiser Permanente signed a deal with Calm to make the app available to millions of members. Calm has also been working directly with employers.

While large insurers have been adding mental health to the services they cover in employer plans, they haven't been moving fast enough to keep up with employee demand. That means companies are having to patch together services, putting their human resources departments to work to figure out what employees most urgently need and negotiating deals with vendors over video chat.

Employer demand is surging

Former Facebook finance chief David Ebersman started Lyra Health six years ago after recognizing a dramatic shortage of access to mental health treatment across the country. He applied technology to the problem, enabling virtual visits and guided exercises, providing online booking tools for providers and helping members track their progress through assessments.

Ebersman said that the number of people who have access to Lyra's services through their employer has roughly doubled this year to 1.5 million. While most early customers were from the tech industry, companies across the spectrum are now calling, he said. 

"One of the things 2020 has really brought is it's accelerated and broadened in terms of industries wanting to have conversations about better mental health," Ebersman said.

Mental Health in Focus - Luana Marques at CNBC @Work Summit
Mental Health in Focus - Luana Marques at CNBC @Work Summit

Videoconference software provider Zoom has been one of the most successful businesses during the pandemic because of surging usage from remote workers. But inside the company, employees suffer from the same stresses as everyone else. 

Lynne Oldham, Zoom's chief people officer, said she signed the company up with Lyra at the beginning of the year, not because she's a fortune teller but because mental health was clearly becoming a more important issue among employees.

"It wasn't as utilized as it is today," Oldham said. "It's been a lifesaver."

In addition to one-on-one treatment, which Lyra provides within 24 hours of request, Zoom employees have access to seminars and "real life hacks" from mental health pros, she said. The company has recorded a number of sessions and made them available internally.

In June, Zoom partnered with the American Heart Association, to conduct monthly virtual happy hours for companies in the Bay area to learn about "mental wellbeing strategies and tactics as they navigate a changing work environment," according to a blog post announcing the program.

Cloud security vendor Okta will pay for the first 12 months of access to Headspace for its employees. It also offers offers services from Modern Health, a Lyra competitor. After the coronavirus sent staffers home, the company increased its spending with Modern Health to lift the number of sessions available to each member. 

Kristina Johnson, Okta's chief people officer, said the number of company employees using Modern Health's service about doubled in the first month after the pandemic hit. That syncs with data from Modern Health, which told CNBC that the company has doubled its customer base since March and has seen a 56% increase in user activity since lockdown started. 

"We tried to focus on things we knew would resonate with our employee base," Johnson said, adding that Okta has also had experts lead online sessions on stress management and had virtual entertainment for kids like magic shows and storytelling, in part to relieve parents. 

Kids need help, too

For employees with kids old enough to be home alone, Okta also offers virtual babysitting services through Bright Horizons

Parental stress is a familiar topic these days. Moms and dads are desperately searching for ways to keep their kids entertained and productively occupied while they try and get work done.

Pandemic having 'astronomic' effect on young people's mental health: ILO
Pandemic having 'astronomic' effect on young people's mental health: ILO

According to Brightline Health CEO Naomi Allen, kids need even more specialized attention because their lives have also been turned upside down. Allen launched her start-up a year ago to combine technology and in-person behavioral therapy for children with anxiety, depression or conduct problems.

Allen, who has an eight-year old and five-year-old twins, said she sped up product development because of the coronavirus. Brightline raised $20 million in August, with insurers Blue Shield of California and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts joining the round.

While Allen is working with insurance companies to get the product covered for many more people, the fastest way to market is through employers. She calls it an interim product while the company pushes to get up and running with insurers. 

"We've seen a ton of inbound interest," Allen said. "Employers realized that it's not enough to have mental health offering for adults. They also have to have it for kids."

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Lyra's CEO

WATCH: Headspace CEO on the growth of its corporate mental health business

Headspace CEO on the growth of its corporate mental health business
Headspace CEO on the growth of its corporate mental health business