The Boom of the Burnout Business - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Boom of the Burnout Business

The Boom of the Burnout Business

By Andrew Hirschfeld

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WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

A growing set of startups is offering solutions for the burnout burden that's rising amid the pandemic.

By Andrew Hirschfeld

  • More and more workers around the world are struggling with burnout, with working from home leading to longer hours and less leisure time.
  • Now a growing set of startups is blossoming amid that crisis. Their business model? A promise to fix burnouts.

In June, the Centers for Disease Control released a troubling report on mental health in the U.S. amid the pandemic. The CDC found that 40 percent of American adults were struggling with mental health issues or substance abuse. Study after study has emphasized that this is a global phenomenon.

And with much of the world working from home, blurring lines between work and life, this mental stress is finding expression in a parallel crisis: growing burnout. A July survey by online employment platform Monster found that 69 percent of respondents were struggling with burnout, a dramatic rise from 20 percent two months earlier. The “continuing pressure of deadlines,” work in excess of time available and “long hours without adequate time to recharge set the stage for burnout,” says Rita Numerof, founder of the health care consulting firm Numerof & Associates.

Now, a growing number of startups are making the battle against burnout their business, and are witnessing sharp spikes in demand as the COVID-19 crisis persists. Take Detroit-based Hooky Wellness. Launched in late 2019 by Erayna Sargent, a former marketing executive–turned–burnout consultant, Hooky Wellness designs tools to help workplace teams identify signs of burnout early and take steps to mitigate them. Google and Indiana University are among those that have sought partnerships with Hooky.

We help people understand why we get in our own way and how we build better tools.

Dr. Emily Anhalt, co-founder of Coa

Then there’s Coa, launched in 2019, which calls itself the world’s first gym for mental health. It has rapidly emerged as a leader among firms offering solutions against burnout. Coa offers therapist-led classes and one-on-one therapy sessions for their members in California, with plans to expand soon to New York. It has seen a 900 percent increase in demand and a 5,000-person waitlist since the start of the pandemic, says Dr. Emily Anhalt, a clinical psychologist who is the co-founder of Coa. In October, the startup announced a $3 million seed round from multiple venture capitalists.

“We are not trying to be a pop psychology or a coaching kind of business where we tell you what to do,” Anhalt adds. “We help people understand why we get in our own way and how we build better tools.”

To be sure, these firms aren’t the first to seek out business in burnout. HeartMath, started by a group of stress researchers nearly 30 years ago, focuses on the relationship between meditation and managing emotions. “We started to look at different forms of biofeedback to see if we could see any changes as people shifted states and meditated or did different things,” says HeartMath President Deborah Rozman. “What we found was that in the heart rate variability and rhythm patterns, we could see emotional states … we could see when we are frustrated, anxious, angry, worried …” HeartMath’s tools help people monitor these signs themselves and seek the guidance of experts through seminars. 

But it’s only now that such isolated initiatives are giving way to a wave of firms that have found their calling amid the pandemic. In September, a study of Turkish adults found not only increased stress levels, but a reduced ability to bounce back. In a recent Dutch study, one in every two mothers and nearly one in every three fathers reported less leisure time and increased arguments with their partners.

“It is evident in our research that stressors continue to increase as the pandemic continues,” says Dr. Mara Yerkes, associate professor of interdisciplinary social science at Utrecht University and one of the researchers on the study.

That isn’t surprising, says Dr. Ben Miller, chief strategy officer for Well Being Trust, a national foundation focused on advancing mental, social and spiritual health. “There is a lot on us. Most people manage this by being with our friends, our family, our loved ones,” he says. “We deal with this socially. We connect with other people. When we remove that from the equation, it exacerbates the problem.”

All of this makes it “hard to manage burnout,” he adds. “We are asking more from everyone, and in the last eight to nine months, we are taking away the tools most effective at managing that burnout — our social connections.” 

That’s why Anhalt and her colleagues have designed Coa’s program to offer both one-on-one therapy and group emotional fitness classes. “Our idea is that mental fitness is an individual journey, but it is a communal pursuit. It is a lot easier to work on yourself when you’re doing so alongside others,” Anhalt says.

A Silicon Valley native, Anhalt was in part drawn to preventive mental health care by what she saw among entrepreneurs. “I saw that mental health in that world is very reactive. You have to wait until things are falling apart to get help,” she says. “A lot of our mental health struggles are a lot easier to prevent than they are to fix.” 

Somebody get me out of here

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Sargent started Hooky after realizing she herself was suffering from burnout. “As a person of color, that’s not really something we discussed in our household,” she says. “I built this burnout wellness team made up of mental health professionals and wellness experts who know more than I did.”

Not everyone is convinced about the approach of these firms. Colin Clark, who works in the lending industry in Houston, Texas, tried HeartMath’s program but was disillusioned. “One key indicator was that the webinar consistently referred to its own expertise rather than cite outside sources,” he says.

Experts agree that what works for one person might not for another. “It may be OK to pay a monthly fee to be your burnout guide, but you need to ask yourself, is that a long-term sustainable solution for you?” says Miller of Well Being Trust.  

Either way, the demand for services to tackle burnout is only going to grow. This emerging industry isn’t burning out anytime soon.

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