Meru Health’s CEO on flexibility, burnout, and compassion as we deal with a new hybrid reality
Presented by Slack
This is the eighth article in a series of conversations with Slack Fund portfolio companies, which explores their growth stories and the roles they play in creating the future of work. In this piece, Jason Spinell, head of Slack fund, sits down with Kristian Ranta, Co-Founder and CEO of Meru Health, to talk about his journey and explore what the future holds for how we treat mental health in the workplace.
See the first seven in this series featuring Hopin CEO Johnny Boufarhat, Daily Co-Founder Nina Kuruvilla, MURAL Co-Founder & CEO Mariano Suarez-Battan, Notion COO Akshay Kothari, Paige McPheely, CEO and Co-Founder of Base, The Browser Company’s CEO, Josh Miller, and Compt’s CEO Amy Spurling.
For years, Kristian Ranta had been on a journey to better understand mental health. Now, as Co-Founder and CEO of fast-growing mental health provider Meru Health, he’s playing a huge role in reshaping the way the medical community thinks about and treats mental health conditions.
Meru Health is an online mental health provider committed to redefining the accessibility and standard of care of mental health services around the world. The company’s services provide clinically proven treatments to reduce anxiety, depression, and burnout.
With the pandemic shining a brighter light than ever before on the importance of mental health, the past eighteen months has seen rapid growth for Meru Health’s telehealth-focused solution.
I recently caught up with Kristian to talk about his journey and learn more about how Meru Health is building the future of mental health care.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Jason Spinell: Let’s do a quick introduction — can you tell us a little about yourself, and your journey to becoming the CEO and founder of Meru Health?
Kristian Ranta: Meru Health is actually the third health care business I’ve built. My first company was a glucose monitoring business, and the second was a spin-out from that first business. Both were huge learning experiences for me, but when we sold the businesses in 2015, I was able to fully focus on mental health, an area I’d been wanting to get into for a while.
In 2016, I founded Meru Health. I was passionate about digital health and had a lot of experience in that area.
But the other reason for me, which I’ve been quite open about, is that I lost my oldest brother Peter to depression and suicide back in 2005. That took me on a journey to understanding people like him better. I went through therapy, learned to meditate, and became a biohacker. Learning about the physical and mental factors that impact our health and wellbeing has been really interesting.
Jason Spinell: I know you’ve been open about it, but I really appreciate you talking about your brother. It’s so tragic, but it really grounds the business and gives you a true purpose. So, thank you for that. Can you explain a little more about what Meru Health does?
Kristian Ranta: With Meru, we wanted to create something that would solve two major problems in the mental health space.
The first issue is accessibility. People often wait months to access mental health services, and often only end up with a prescription drug that doesn’t work for them.
The second major issue we address is the standard of care. On a population level, the current standard of care in mental health is very ineffective. Although we have this common perception that the treatments we have work, if you look at the data, it’s clear that we’re not capable of treating these conditions well at all.
We founded Meru with a strong focus on our own values. As founders, this was our third rodeo, and we’d learned a lot. We had a really deep discussion about the values we believed in, how we wanted to work together and what’s important in life. All of that is still fundamental to Meru today.
At first, we spent a lot of time on clinical research. We had ideas about what might work due to our previous experiences and research, so we built a prototype and started collecting data. The product pretty much worked from the start. We collected more and more data, and published papers with UC Davis and Stanford University.
In all, this process took us two or three years. In health care, it’s really important to have published scientific research with reputable universities to show that what you’re building is actually working and isn’t doing any harm.
Meru Health is a holistic treatment offering, focused on helping patients to learn good self-regulation skills and understand the impact sleep, diet, and meditation can have on their mental health.
Take the example of depression. People face a lot of difficulties with it, but it can be healed entirely — it’s not a life-long condition, it’s not genetic. We had a lot of insights that we felt would change how we treat mental health disorders, but because this is such a novel approach, it was important to demonstrate it would work through clinical studies.
We got into Y Combinator in 2018, after trying six times. It wasn’t easy, but we got in after showing them consistent progress. After that, things really started to heat up on the commercial side of things, and we started engaging in pilot programs and forming partnerships to go to market.
Jason Spinell: It seems like you were really early on this whole journey of mental health. It’s something we think about a lot at Slack, but what particularly interested us in Meru was the holistic nature of the treatment programs, and the strength of the clinical research that validates the treatment programs.
Let’s switch gears a little and talk about the future of work. A lot of people are talking about this concept. Stepping back from mental health for a minute, what role do you think software will play in creating the future of work?
Kristian Ranta: At Meru, we’ve been hybrid from the beginning, and personally, I believe the future of work will follow a similar model. People want the flexibility of remote work, but also want the physical connection from being present with others.
With a hybrid approach, we need new tools that support people, especially tools that bridge the gap between in-person and remote. We’ve relied on tools like Slack and Zoom for years now, and we’re always on the search for new software that enables better communication and productivity. As we explore new tooling, we always try to keep things simple and not clutter people’s desktops. We have a lot of internal discussions on this topic, and we’re passionate about giving our people the tools they need to be effective.
Jason Spinell: We’ve spent a lot of time with our portfolio companies talking about this hybrid approach. Everyone was comfortable with all in-person, and then quickly had to get comfortable with being fully remote. This hybrid world that we’re coming into now is going to be more challenging — people in the office are going to have a very different experience to those who are remote.
What other things, from a long-term perspective, do you think the pandemic will change about how we work and collaborate?
Kristian Ranta: We’ve been hybrid from the beginning, so I don’t think a huge amount will change for us. But we’ve seen trends with some of the companies we work with, particularly the large national payers. They’ve changed a lot of their policies rapidly to remove barriers to telehealth, and they’ve moved quickly to enable remote work for their people. It might sound naive, but I didn’t realize how not remote the world had been until then. A lot of these large enterprises and institutions specifically had policies that prohibited their employees from remote work.
Innately though, people are physical beings, and I think we’re wired to connect with each other on a deeper level than Zoom calls. The pendulum is going to swing back a little, but now that people have enjoyed the flexibility of working remotely, it’s not going away. It’s going to be a challenging future because it’s not easy to be hybrid, so there’s definitely a need to continue developing our thinking around that.
Jason Spinell: You mentioned Slack and Zoom. Are there other tools you use that have made you successful as a hybrid team?
Kristian Ranta: We also use Notion, and our development teams use a lot of tools — I don’t even know the latest selection! Another favorite is Signal — it’s cool to be able to share voice recordings to quickly explain something to a group of people.
Jason Spinell: That’s awesome. The use of voice, even setting aside video, has really seen this interesting resurgence.
Going back to the mental health side of the pandemic, let’s talk about the stresses and anxieties people face. Obviously spending more time with the family is great, but a lot of people have this feeling of never being able to get away from work. How are you supporting people through this, both as a company, and from a product perspective?
Kristian Ranta: We had a lot of internal discussions about the needs people had, and how we could best support them. Obviously, we were fully remote at first, but we also made it possible for people to come into the office when possible. A lot of our employees wanted to work together, and those with less concerns were happy to come back to the office two or three days a week.
It’s important to listen to people. Some people are happy doing their thing at home, and some people can’t work well at home — they need that sparring partner. We really tried to accommodate what our people wanted, while making it clear that we weren’t going to force anything on our team. It’s been really well received – people have given us great feedback about this flexibility.
From a product perspective, the pandemic brought some good things for the company. It changed payers’ attitudes towards reimbursing telehealth and removed a lot of the barriers that were hindering the expansion of remote health care.
Now, a lot more people have access to services like Meru than did a year ago. Access to mental health services is more accessible and equitable now. There’s also been a lot more investment and innovation, which will be a great thing for the industry.
Jason Spinell: I love that idea of flexibility both from a company and product perspective. Another topic I wanted to talk about is burnout. I know you and the team have had a very busy past 18 months. What strategies do you have to avoid employee burnout?
Kristian Ranta: When people join our company, we tell them that building a health care company is a marathon, not a sprint. We do a lot as a company to teach people skills and give them the tools so that they can take care of their own mental health.
In a practical sense, we encourage people to set clear boundaries, and we also have a Nordic vacation policy, which means that everyone has at least four weeks of PTO every year. And as leaders, we strongly encourage people to take that time off.
We also provide internal workshops in partnership with our providers to educate our team about how they can better manage their own mental health. It’s important that people learn how to regulate their reactions to stressful situations. Learning these self-regulation skills helps avoid burnout.
Jason Spinell: Does technology play a role in helping people to moderate these stressors?
Kristian Ranta: Absolutely. At Meru, we offer a wearable that tracks heart rate variability. The device captures data that shows you how your stress levels fluctuate, and then our program teaches you how to better manage stress with deep breathing, meditation, and other self-regulation techniques.
The success of platforms like Headspace and Calm has paved the way for a lot more people to embrace these kinds of techniques. Technology is helping standardize how people learn new techniques and it also makes the process more engaging.
Jason Spinell: You talked about flexibility, transparency, and burnout. When you think more deeply about the future of work, where do you think companies need to focus specifically in addressing the wellness needs of their employees?
Kristian Ranta: The culture that the leaders of the company set is crucial. Companies need to reduce the stigma of talking about mental health at work. Leaders need to accept people as whole human beings and create more space for people to express themselves.
At Meru, that’s always been a big part of the culture: compassion, acceptance, and kindness. It’s the responsibility of leaders to create a culture where people are excited to contribute and bring their best self to work. This shift in corporate culture is going to be massive for the future of work.
Jason Spinell: You’re in a unique position to offer Meru Health to your own employees. What else do you do as a company to promote culture, retention, and wellbeing?
Kristian Ranta: There are a lot of smaller things we do, but the overarching theme has always been our culture of compassion. Of course, performance is important — we want to be able to execute on our mission — but we want to do that in a way that is kind and respectful towards everyone.
It’s worked tremendously well so far. We’ve doubled headcount in the past year, and a major focus in our hiring is to bring in people who are both highly capable and kind towards other people. That value alignment is really important; we put a lot of emphasis on it. We think about it as a gift to our future employees: our culture is our internal product for our people.
We do all sorts of off-sites, we have weekly breakfasts, and we offer top-notch health care benefits for our people and their families. But it all starts from the philosophy and the values of the organization.
Jason Spinell: It sounds like this is much more difficult to do retroactively, but if you start out with these clear values and culture, they compound exponentially. One final question — what’s your favorite Slack emoji?
Kristian Ranta: It must be the mountain emoji — not only is it the origin of our name, the Meru mountain, but also represents courage, one of our core values. We created custom emojis that represent our core values, and we use those a lot. We also have a lot of emojis created by our team that capture memorable moments from the company.
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