Headspace Exec Pushes Back on App Criticism, Touts 500% Spike in Employer Offering Interest

Mental health and mindfulness apps have boomed amid the pandemic, and Santa Monica, California-based Headspace is no exception.

In June, the digital mindfulness and meditation company pulled in another $47.7 million in Series C funding. That’s on top of the $53 million it touted back in February, pushing its total Series C equity funding raised up to $100.7 million and its total overall funding above $215 million.

Also this summer, the company brought on musician John Legend as its first chief music officer, created and filled a new chief international officer role and teamed up with Amazon to create content for the tech giant’s new wearable fitness band, Amazon Halo.

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On top of all that, Headspace’s business is up across the board, especially for its employer offering, Headspace at Work, according to Megan Jones Bell, chief strategy and science officer at Headspace.

Jones Bell recently connected with Behavioral Health Business to discuss how the company’s new funding will help expand Headspace at Work and various other arms of Headspace’s business, as well as its geographic reach.

Plus, she addressed critics who say the company’s popularity is outpacing its scientific evidence.

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You can find the conversation below, edited for length and clarity.

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BHB: Headspace recently closed on
another $47.7 million in funding. Can you share any specifics about how you plan to use the money?

Jones Bell: We’ll continue to grow our direct-to-consumer business and to invest in Headspace for Work, our rapidly expanding enterprise corporate offering, which has seen growth particularly in the last few months. Companies, now more than ever, are seeing the importance of the mental health and wellbeing of their employees.

We’ll also continue to invest in Headspace Health, our endeavor to integrate mindfulness into health care. We’ll look to accelerate our growth momentum, with a focus on further international expansion. Europe, for example, is one of our fastest growing markets.

We recently announced new leadership with the appointment of Jolawn Victor as our new chief international officer, a newly created role. In this role, Jolawn will lead international operations and expansion, including localized consumer products, partnerships and enterprise business development.

As it relates to Headspace at Work, how’s that holding up right now? For example, does the high unemployment we’re seeing hurt you guys at all?

On the enterprise side, we’ve seen a more than 500% increase in inbound requests from companies seeking support for their employees’ mental health since mid-March.

We’re finding that especially in light of the current climate, employers are seeing more of a need in being an active participant in their employees’ mental health. At the very least, this moment is certainly making leaders more aware of mental health needs, which is a heartening step in the right direction.

Can you share any broader utilizations metrics amid COVID-19?

On the consumer side, our download rate doubled in mid-March compared to the download rate before our COVID response. Buddies usage is actually up 110%, in terms of those sending an invite to a buddy to join.

Live group meditation starts are up 70%. We’ve seen a 10 times increase in users starting stressed meditation, a 12 times increase in users starting reframing anxiety at-home workouts and a 33% increase in sleep music usage.

What long-term impact do you think the coronavirus will have on Headspace?

In the context of this crisis, mental health issues will be the norm, not the exception. It is well documented that mental health problems are on the rise globally. Even prior to COVID-19, one in four to five people experienced a mental health disorder at some point in their life, so these are not new problems. But the crisis is undoubtedly surfacing a number of stressors and mental health issues for many people.

We’re already seeing that lots of underlying mental health issues have surfaced, and I expect to see that to continue in the aftermath of the virus. We will also see a completely different work environment. Working from home is here to stay, and having ready access to mental health content at home will be very important.

Our hope is that, as we come out of this, there will be a growing willingness to look at mindfulness not only as a reactionary tool but as a preventative tool — so when things get difficult in the future, we have the skills we need.

As Headspace’s popularity has boomed amid the pandemic, the company has been getting a lot of press. While most of it is positive, STAT News recently published a story suggesting the company’s popularity is outpacing its scientific evidence. What’s your response to that?

Our position has always been clear: Headspace is not intended to manage, treat or cure any medical condition, and Headspace is not meant to replace professional care.

A self-guided mindfulness intervention such as Headspace is best described as mental health promotion. It is designed for use by a general population as a tool to improve psychological wellbeing, reduce stress and improve outcomes, for which mindfulness has well-established evidence. Our brand and marketing efforts seek to inspire people to look after their mental health in a health promoting manner.

We believe that being fully transparent is essential to consumer trust.

If we want to advance science, we need to explore questions that are not well understood. We caution making conclusions about smaller feasibility or pilot studies that are not replicated or are not consistent with the wider literature. That usually means there is a methodological flaw or that the area is simply not well understood.

To date we have completed 26 research studies, the vast majority of which were done by independent academic researchers. This includes smaller exploratory or feasibility studies, randomized controlled trials focused on efficacy and several large-scale effectiveness trials. We sincerely hope that when research on Headspace is evaluated that our larger and better powered trials are considered, as those are the ones from which it is most appropriate to draw conclusions.

It is very important to understand the scientific process and the hierarchy of evidence. When we undertake research in a novel area it is normative to start first with smaller feasibility and acceptability studies. More well powered randomized controlled trials build on that and are then followed by systematic reviews or meta-analyses of high quality randomized controlled trials.

The published studies by Quinones & Griffiths (2019), Flett et al. (2019), Fitzhugh et al., 2019 and Bostock et al. (2018) are randomized controlled trials with sample sizes over 200 participants (and in some cases over 900) and are a different caliber of evidence.

What are your goals looking toward the future, both in the short- and long-term?

We plan to continue investing in our consumer offering by expanding the way we guide and support our members in living mindfully — such as through new offerings like the one we just announced with John Legend.

Headspace appointed [him] Chief Music Officer and has launched the new focus mode within the Headspace app to help members tune into what matters most to them. Every month, John Legend will curate a new Focus playlist with musicians renowned for different musical styles, with September’s playlist composed by critically acclaimed hip hop producer, Madlib.

We also plan to expand our enterprise and healthcare partnerships so that we can enable access through employers, health insurance carriers and health systems.

Finally, we have members in 190 countries and offer Headspace in 5 languages. We plan to continue investing in how best we can support our international members and bring Headspace to new audiences.

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