Spotlight Series: Insight from Koa Health on tackling the GBC Pledge

Oliver Harrison of KOA Health

The Global Business Collaboration for Better Workplace Mental Health aims to help organisations all over the world to prioritise employee mental health. As a business-led initiative, the insights and best practice that we share will be heavily informed by the visionary leaders and companies who sign our six-point Pledge.

In the article that follows, Dr. Oliver Harrison, Founder and Chief Executive of Koa Health – a digital-first mental health company aiming to solve the challenge of global mental health supply and demand – shares his organisation’s approach to tackling the areas outlined in the GBC Pledge.

The Background

Oliver first trained in neuroscience, and as a medical doctor at Cambridge. When working in the mental health clinic, he was struck by two overriding problems: patients were being seen months, or even years too late, when small problems had escalated into major challenges; there was also a serious issue around access, with long wait times meaning they were routinely losing patients to suicide.

This was in the early 2000s, when digital was fast becoming a bigger component in all of our lives. Oliver immediately saw the potential of this new channel for extending access to mental health services, and decided to learn the tech side with the same rigour he had used in medical school. This led to Oliver joining McKinsey, where he spent five years in the health tech practice.

After putting his learnings into action as Director of Public Health in Abu Dhabi, where Oliver built a health service with data at its heart, he moved back to the UK in 2013 and was approached by Telefónica to build a new healthcare business within their corporate incubator. And that’s where Koa Health was born.

Aside from a professional interest, Oliver was also motivated by the loss of two friends to suicide: he believes we need to take action early on, before our mental health becomes problematic – and at no time has that been more important than in a post-Covid world.


Developing an action plan for better workplace mental health

Koa Health sets a great example for small businesses: Oliver reminds us that you simply cannot pour from an empty cup, and that employers must encourage their people to prioritise wellbeing.

Koa Health is built on a culture of inclusion; people are smart, humble, and kind. Working in the evenings and at weekends is discouraged, and effort is made to ensure everyone takes their holidays. It’s a great balance of hard work and fun (being Barcelona-based, employees get together and enjoy everything from beach bars to tennis classes).

Wellbeing days are also part of company policy, with workers given an extra day each quarter to invest in themselves; while managers have been educated to create a ‘permission space’, with time built into their diaries to encourage openness and sharing.

Oliver himself runs weekly ‘ask me anything’ team meetings. In his early days as a people leader, Oliver put pressure on himself to always have the answer, and to lead with the utmost confidence. During one of these sessions, he opened up about sleep problems under the pressures of lockdown, and the response was staggering. A show of humanity and vulnerability from Koa’s CEO allowed others to open up and share their own struggles.

Oliver warns that when a business grows (as Koa Health has), these efforts can become diffused; Koa’s approach has been to recruit into their culture – building a team of employees with the best possible cultural fit. This also applies to geographical expansion: it’s essential that each new microcosm of a business is given the tools and training to create a culture in line with the rest of the organisation.

Creating an open culture

Oliver speaks passionately about creating a permission culture for his employees, regardless of whether a colleague is introverted or extroverted. Koa has a number of team members living with mental disorders who openly talk about their experience, and this transparent sharing leads the way for others.

Koa recently carried out research across a range of organisations, and found that 43% are failing to prioritise a culture of wellness. Breaking the idea of culture down in a recent webinar, Oliver talks about how culture is:

  • What people say, or don’t say (do we make dismissive comments that could be seen as labelist?)
  • What people do and how they work (internal surveys make sure that people are happy at work and believe in the mission);
  • The artifacts that appear around the office (Koa has designed a humanistic logo and website, and their employee merchandise includes hoodies, reusable water bottles, and journals).

All of these elements are well thought-out to maximise employee engagement, and colleagues are actively encouraged to provide feedback to one another in support of an open culture.

Empowering employees to care for their own mental health

Oliver spoke of the need for employers to walk the talk. Having plans and policies in place is one thing, but your people need to see you taking decisive action.

As a wellbeing-focused business, Koa Health recognises that if they’re encouraging other companies to invest in their employees, they have to do the same. In addition to wellbeing days and an open culture around mental health, Oliver explained that all employees are well paid to ensure financial wellbeing, whilst also receiving comprehensive health insurance that covers mental health. Every employee is also given access to Koa’s science-based wellbeing app, Foundations, and 80% of people have installed it on their devices.

As well as an attractive remuneration package, employees are provided with food in the office, and have received a food allowance since working from home. Koa also invests in social experiences such as book clubs to create a more human experience of being at work. Oliver estimates that since the start of the year, they’re spending an extra £1,000 per employee on supporting mental health and wellbeing.

As a result, Koa Health has a less than 3% unwanted turnover rate, with 98% of employees believing in their vision. Oliver believes that human energy is an asset, and any employer investing in employee wellbeing will undoubtedly feel the benefit of that investment.

 Measuring impact and monitoring improvement

Every Monday, the whole company takes part in a mini pulse check that covers confidence in the executive team, whether they’re on track to meet their mission and vision, and how supported people are feeling. Oliver also explained that on a monthly basis, Koa is launching the WHO-5 index to measure the impact of policy changes and benefits packages on employee wellbeing.

On a quarterly basis, a business-wide pulse check goes into more detail with 23 questions including those on wellbeing (and staff engagement), while Oliver’s ‘ask me anything’ sessions provide useful qualitative data.

Oliver believes these sessions are invaluable for creating transparency, as employees have the chance to voice anything they may be concerned or excited about. As well as being an important communication channel, the ‘ask me anything’ sessions are also emblematic of the open-mindedness that Koa Health is based on.

The most important thing, Oliver stresses, is that people see these surveys making a difference. Showing your employees that you act on their feedback helps to avoid survey fatigue, encourages people to fill them out honestly, and makes the effort feel worthwhile.

Signposting to support

It’s absolutely crucial that you intervene before small problems become much larger, Oliver warns. Early detection and fast-track signposting means that people are given the best possible chance of receiving whatever support they need.

Oliver advises employers to identify the ‘front door’ to mental health services, and to make that abundantly clear within the organisation. It’s also important to think about who within the company can provide an open door for anyone needing help and non-judgemental support.

In terms of the future, Oliver’s advice for employers would be to recognise that returning to the office is going to be challenging for some. People have found their own paths to wellbeing – such as daily walks or more time-consuming cooking – and many will be resistant to getting back to normal. Flexibility, patience and understanding then (along with strong communication channels) will be vital as we move forward in a post-pandemic world.

Find out more about signing the Leadership Pledge