Using Digital Neuroscience To Address Mental Health In The Workplace


Maria Melfa: Welcome everyone to Bring Out The Talent. My name is Maria Melfa, and I am the President and CEO of The Training Associates, otherwise known as TTA.

Jocelyn Allen: Hi everyone, I’m Jocelyn Allen. I’m a Talent Recruitment Manager here at TTA. And we are so glad, as always, to have you back here with us.

Maria Melfa: And we are very excited for our guest today, and we’ll be talking about a very important subject mental health in the workplace. Today we have Matt Resteghini. Matt is the Chief Marketing Officer of Total Brain, a mental health and brain performance self-monitoring and self-care platform. Total Brain was founded in 2000 by leading neuroscientist Dr. Evian Gordon on the notion that our mental health can be measured, improved, and managed, just like our physical health. Total Brain is used by clinicians, large consumer groups and Fortune 500 companies who benefit from better health outcomes, better informed care plans, improved performance and productivity, and critical insights. Addressing mental health in the workplace has never been more important as it affects us all. A 2021 Harvard Business Review study showed that C-level and executive respondents were now actually more likely than others to report at least one mental health symptom. In fact, 68 percent of millennials and 81 percent of Gen Xers have left rolls for mental health reasons, both voluntary and involuntary. It’s time to put the stigma to rest and admit that mental health challenges affect us all. Today, we will discuss how we can address the challenges around mental health in the workplace. Welcome, Matt, we’re so excited to have you today.

Matt Resteghini: Thanks so much. I’m very happy to be here. I appreciate spending some time on this very important topic.

Jocelyn Allen: Yeah, we agree. Maria and I, TTA as a whole, very passionate about this subject. Just mental stability overall, workplace, personally, how we learn differently from each other. And I think that this is going to have a lot of useful information for people to kind of catapult that in their organizations. We briefly spoke about Total Brain in the intro, but for our listeners, can you give us a little more information on what your capabilities, services and products are at Total Brain?

Matt Resteghini: So as Maria outlined at the start, I mean, Total Brain at its heart is a digital neurotech company. We offer mental health monitoring and support platform that’s delivered through a modern digital app on mobile and web. The platform was built over the course of 20 years of extensive research and development, and it’s backed by the world’s largest standardized brain database. So, what we do sort of falls into two groups. We have on the monitoring side, the ability to monitor the 12 brain capacities that define one’s mental health. And also, to screen for the risk of mental health conditions, things like anxiety, depression, PTSD, et cetera. On the other side of the platform. We have the ability to provide customized, personalized self-care tools to users based on the results of the assessment, and those things include things like positive psychology tools, brain training exercises, cognitive behavioral therapy, breath and meditation, neuroscience-based music. Lots of variety in the types of programs, but all intended to help individuals improve their mental health and ultimately their brain performance. Today, we operate in three segments. Maria touched on these, but clinical care support, where we’re providing assessment tools and support tools for behavioral health clinicians, addiction clinics for their patients and providing the clinicians with extensive data. Population health, where we serve large consumer groups. We have a longstanding relationship with AARP. More recently with IBM and the VA providing our services to large consumer groups. And then finally, and most importantly, for this conversation, the corporate wellness segment where we’re working with employers to provide services and the benefit to their employees.

Maria Melfa: Matt, can you give us a sense of how Total Brain is helping to solve some of these challenges around the mental health crisis for employers?

Matt Resteghini: So for a number of years now, we’ve worked with large employers, like Boeing and Nationwide as a wellness benefit for their employees. Part of the challenge in the corporate segment, and more broadly across mental health, is that many folks don’t know that they’re experiencing mental health issues. You know, for years, this was a stigmatized topic, one that people didn’t really touch on. And very often people accepted some of the symptoms of these conditions is just sort of normal. And so, one of the things that Total Brain is able to do, in working with these large populations, is provide self-awareness for employees. So, you know, a corporation will roll out the services to their employees. Folks can train or folks can assess themselves through the Total Brain application and start to learn a little bit more about how their brain functions and where they might be challenged. Not everybody is going to score 100 percent on sort of every area of the brain, but you want to look for areas where there may be strengths and areas where there may be weaknesses, and then figure out how to optimize accordingly. And so, helping to understand an individual, understand where they are with their brain health, and then what steps they can take to improve it. There’s a huge care gap right now across the population. So, the gap between people who have a condition and those who are actually treated. And a big part of that is self-awareness. And so, the assessment really helps to close that gap. When we look across the population and these stats are pretty widely shared at this point, nineteen percent of the population at any given moment has a diagnosable mental condition. And when we look at folks who go through our assessment, we find that 51 percent of the working population is actually at risk of a mental condition. So, you’re looking at a majority of your working population who is compromised in some way. Some diagnosable and some at risk. And most of those folks who are diagnosable are not getting care.

Jocelyn Allen: Going back to something that you said that really resonates with me is that some of these diversities, I guess, that we could call them when it comes to brain space. And that’s what I’m that’s what I’m going to say that’s the official term. We’re kind of considered like normal behaviors or normal ways of thinking, normal ways of learning up until a certain point when we realize like, “No, this is a different way that the brain operates, whether or not it’s part of the majority.” Right? And I feel like with these self-assessments and all of the exposure that’s out there to finding out more about these things, that I’m finding things out about myself, that I’m like, I could possibly have something different about the way my brain operates and never knew it before. So, you being able to do this, create something like this for people to do that sort of self-assessment and acknowledgment of what’s actually going on with them. But then, kudos to the organizations who are using it as a benefit to their teams to have those preventative actions in place. It’s just it’s a very cool thing because it’s what our world is kind of calling for right now, like this is what people are paying attention to about themselves and their people.

Matt Resteghini: Yeah, you know, it’s super interesting. There’s actually a real term that has started to emerge in the marketplace called “neurodiversity”. And you know, one of the ways that we talk about mental health, a Total Brain is this idea of a continuum, right? So, on the far left, you’re perfectly healthy. On the far right, you have a diagnosable condition. And most of us, the majority kind of fluctuate in the middle somewhere, where at any given moment, we’re healthy or we’re at risk and how or where you present yourself can be a function of your genetic makeup, but also environmental factors. You know, a death of a family member or COVID may send somebody into a bit of a spiral where they’re suffering from anxiety, and that may sort of accelerate into depression. So, if you think about it as a spectrum like that, and just sort of trying to ensure that you’re trying to push the population more towards that, that healthy side over time, but also recognizing that as with any population in any spectrum, people are going to fall in different areas. And sometimes some of those sort of perceived weaknesses or issues can actually be strengths, right? I, myself, have suffered from anxiety. The truth is, as an employee, that actually in some ways makes me more valuable because I’m very conscientious about the work that I do. I’m constantly sort of thinking through how is this going to be perceived and making sure I put forward my best work. So, you learn to understand a little bit more about yourself and how to manage that to your advantage.

Jocelyn Allen: I love that. I love this as a resource and as a training tool. Yeah, it’s very cool.

Matt Resteghini: It is increasingly a popular topic and one, you know, particularly in the high-tech space. I think that folks are starting to embrace that idea a bit more and in how they source for talent.

Maria Melfa: I think more people than not have anxiety. I know, Matt, you and I have had conversations and I certainly have had. I’m certainly a very anxious person. I know I have anxious children; I have anxious parents. So, it’s been a long line of anxious people in my family.

Jocelyn Allen: The line is anxious.

Maria Melfa: The line is anxious.

Jocelyn Allen: That’s what we’re saying like and probably brought up like if your parents were brought up thinking that was just normal, like that’s just how my family behaves. Right? But no, it’s like a real thing that a lot of people have to manage.

Maria Melfa: I agree, and as we know, we don’t leave just our anxious brain at home. We bring it with us to work. So, it is so important to address that and offer solutions to help employers help their employees. Yes. Yes.

Jocelyn Allen: Ding. Ding, Ding.

Maria Melfa: Yes, exactly.

Jocelyn Allen: You recently started something called The Mental Health Index, A U.S. Worker Edition. Sounds like a place we could get a lot of information. Can you tell us a little bit more about this initiative?

Matt Resteghini: You know, over the years, having worked with so many corporates, we’ve amassed a ton of assessment data on the working population, and we thought it would be interesting to look at that data in aggregate. And so, the first thing we did was sort of make sure that we had a good representative sample of the U.S. working population, and we did. And so, what we’ve been doing is looking at five hundred assessments a month to track the brain capacities and the risk of mental conditions as a way to sort of extrapolate that to the broader U.S. working population. And we were very fortunate to have started that the month before COVID hit just purely by chance. But as a result, we were able to watch the changes in mental health over the course of the pandemic. And it really is fascinating, and I’d encourage you to go to our website and check it out because you can actually see visualizations of the data. But what you do see is as the cases start to ramp the anxiety and depression levels and the risk of conditions also spikes with that. And you see a certain factors, seasonality factors. For example, as the economy started to open back up during the summer months and people were starting to go out a bit more and go on vacation, things started to come down.

Matt Resteghini: Stress levels came down, anxiety came down. And then when the second wave hit, everything spiked back up again. So, it’s fascinating to see, but also really concerning because we were in a crisis situation prior to the pandemic. The pandemic threw gasoline on the fire. And as we sit here today, just looking at kind of the latest data from last month, what we’re seeing is that PTSD levels, risk of PTSD, are up fifty three percent versus where they were pre-pandemic. And that sort of aligns with what we know about PTSD. It tends to be something that happens after a period of time, after a traumatic event. Early on in the pandemic, we saw PTSD levels increase because the stress of the pandemic likely brought out previous traumas. But now what we’re seeing is PTSD levels elevated as a result of the trauma of the pandemic. You know, super important for employers to understand that, particularly as employees are coming back to work, because folks that are suffering from PTSD are going to react differently and they’re going to perform differently. And it’s important to acknowledge that.

Maria Melfa: So Matt, COVID notwithstanding, what do you see as some of the biggest challenges on the broader mental health crisis?

Matt Resteghini: So we talked a little bit about the care gap earlier. Just giving people the tools to recognize that they may not be operating at an optimal level. That’s super important and creates awareness. I think, too, there’s been a big focus when we think of the term mental health. The focus has always been on illness, and it’s kind of ironic because the term is health, but we think of mental illness and we think when we say mental health, right? So important to sort of understand that distinction between illness and health and start to chip away at that stigma. Creating more open dialogue and more conversation about it, which we’re starting to see happen is really, really important so that employees feel more empowered to ask for help when they need it and to seek it out through the resources that are available to them. You all have been working in the HR space for years. You know, AAP’s have existed for years, employee assistance providers, but the take rate on those is often very, very low. And so, the more you can do to create that awareness, create the dialogue so that folks take advantage of services that may already be in place, it’s really, really important.

Maria Melfa: Matt, when I originally reached out to you to conduct a webinar for our learning and development audience, I was so surprised back then, and I still am now, that there is not enough education around this topic. So again, being in the learning and development space. You know, we talk all about teaching our employees to have technical skills and soft skills or helping to develop programs. But again, there’s just not enough training in this area, I know that Total Brain, one of the things that you’ve been working on this year is to develop trainers, so you can help your companies learn more on how to go ahead and adopt your products and also just in the mental health area also. So can you tell us a little bit about that?

Matt Resteghini: It’s been fascinating to see you talked about sort of COVID being the ultimate accelerant, and the truth is for better or worse, right? It poured gasoline on the mental health sort of fire and crisis. But as a result, it forced many of us to stop and address this issue both personally and as corporations for our employees. So, you know, we’ve spent a lot more time over the last year and a half through the pandemic working with employers, not only to roll out the application for use, but also on some thoughtful programs and content that they can bring to their employees on how to think differently about brain health and mental health, and how to make the best use of the tools that are available to them. So, a couple of examples. You know, as folks were coming back into the workplace, most recently, we worked with a couple of large employers around stress specific programs, how to deal with the stress and anxiety of getting back in front of people and potentially dealing with health risks as the pandemic was, was increasing or decreasing at any given moment. And teaching employees simple techniques, like breathing, as a way to combat in the moment stress. Take them out of a fight or flight state where their heart rate is elevated and their breathing is, is not optimal, and just get them to relax.

Matt Resteghini: And so those have been really, really popular because they’re teaching employees tangible things that they can do in the moment to address some of these issues. The other thing that we’ve seen emerge as a new trend is dialogue. We ran a survey a couple of months ago of working Americans, and eighty six percent said they want a corporate culture that embraces open mental health dialogue. And 20 percent said they’d feel better returning to work if their employer increased access to mental health resources. So, this is absolutely a topic that’s top of mind for employees. And increasingly, we’re finding employers having open sessions where they addressed the topic like this. And sometimes it’s, you know, it’s bringing us in on a particular area like stress, but more often and more recently, its leaders leading, right? Standing up, telling their stories, talking about their experiences with mental health, with anxiety, with depression and giving permission to employees to do the same. And what we’re finding is that that rich dialogue creates more awareness and helps to close the care gap that we spoke about earlier because people are much more likely and much more comfortable to ask for help if they need it.

Jocelyn Allen: For those who are listening that are in organizations running organizations that are still not completely bought into this, can you give us some more information about why they should care about mental health in the workplace and the current crisis that’s going on?

Matt Resteghini: First of all, it’s important to remember that the brain controls almost everything that we do right. So, our ability to show up and to perform at work is directly related to our mental health. And so, folks that are suffering from anxiety or depression and that are bringing that to work are not performing at an optimal level. And there’s impact on productivity in the workplace from folks suffering from that. You have folks that are calling out sick because they can’t get out of bed because they’re dealing with depression. So, there’s a there’s a definitive impact on performance or productivity. There was a recent study by the American Heart Association, as part of their CEO roundtable, and they cited a cost of seventeen thousand per person per year in incremental expense to companies for untreated mental health conditions.

Jocelyn Allen: Because of things like time off and things like getting

Matt Resteghini: Time off, more doctors’ appointments, higher health care premiums as a result. Yeah. So, it’s a compounding effect, and it has a very real economic impact on what business on the opposite end, if you can improve the productivity and the performance of employees with some simple tweaks. You know, there’s a there’s a positive impact to be to be gained there as well.

Maria Melfa: So, Matt, we just spoke a little bit about me being surprised about the learning and development space not getting into this area enough. What do you think the use cases here for learning and development departments?

Matt Resteghini: So, we  just touched on kind of the performance and productivity impacts of not addressing mental health and I think there’s a there’s also a sort of an idea of being able to improve the brain performance of individuals, and as a result, improve productivity in the workplace. You know, it’s fascinating when you look at the 12 brain capacities that really define mental health. They fall into areas of emotion, feeling, cognition, and self-control. And if you look at some of those capacities that fall under those functions in cognition, for example, its memory, its focus, and its planning. Those sound like three topics that would be really interesting to a learning and development organization trying to optimize talent. On the self-control side, it’s social connectivity, it’s resilience, it’s conscious negativity, right? So, those are the types of things that influence how we interact with our peers, the way that we connect and collaborate with others in the workplace. So, you know, when you think about the role of learning and development in an organization and the ability to really optimize talent and to grow employees into future leaders of the company, understanding the self-awareness, or creating self-awareness in the individual, understanding their strengths and weaknesses, and then being able to optimize that over time is so, so critical to the future development of that talent. We find a lot of employers not only concerned and interested in sort of the mental health piece of Total Brain, but also in this notion of the brain capacities and looking at specific areas of their organization to see, you know, what is the social connectivity scores of this particular department because it’s indicative of how well they work together. And so that data has been very, very insightful for some of our larger corporate customers concerned about talent development.

Jocelyn Allen: What’s the difference between emotion and feeling? Like you categorize the other to the cognition and self-control, but to me, emotion and feeling could be interchangeable. What are the differences there?

Matt Resteghini: Emotion is sort of innate. When something happens, an event happens, your brain feels something has an emotional response to that, right? The feeling is sort of the output of that. So as an example, if a bear emerges in the woods right, and immediately puts you in a state of fight or flight, you’re sort of innate response to that is your emotional reaction to that, and the feeling you get, the feeling of stress, anxiety, and depression is sort of a secondary thing. So, it’s a bit of a linear path in that regard. It starts with the emotion. And then as a result, you have a feeling response. When we talk about emotion in the context of the brain capacities, it’s things like emotional awareness, non-conscious negativity, and emotional flexibility. How well you can turn those emotions on or off, whereas feeling as anxiety, stress and depression is sort of the manifestation of those emotions.

Jocelyn Allen: That absolutely makes sense. Thank you for clarifying. I took my notes because I’m like, “Those sound like the same thing. You know you’re not faking me out, man.” No, but this that makes a lot of sense. So, thank you for that.

Maria Melfa: I could relate to the bear example because I ran into one this summer. Yes, it was funny because I was actually walking down a dirt road, and we were laughing about it, saying, “I wonder if they’re here”, and we kind of made some noise, clapped our hands and within like two seconds, one went flying across the street right in front of us.

Matt Resteghini: Wow.

Maria Melfa: Yeah.

Matt Resteghini: I mean, that example out for a second, because it’s super fascinating to think about how humans respond. And you know, this is sort of the, you know, goes back to the caveman era, right? But it’s how we are wired. So, in that moment that you saw the bear, your heart rate likely spiked, right

Maria Melfa: A million miles an hour.

Matt Resteghini: So you were immediately in a state of fight or flight. And that human response is about survival. In that moment, you’re deciding, “Do I stay and fight the bear or do I turn and run?” Right? And so, you know, sure, in this example, it’s a bear, but there are all sorts of life events that happen to us on a regular basis that can put us in the state or fight or flight. And related to an experience in the workplace, one, you know, we talked about a lot. But if another coworker perhaps comes at you in a negative way, maybe calls you out in a meeting, that can immediately put you in a state of fight or flight. And so, you start to react or respond differently. And so, understanding that kind of innate behavior and brain response is really, really fascinating and important in optimizing workplace interactions.

Jocelyn Allen: I agree that the brain’s response is the most fascinating thing because we can be talking about two completely different scenarios. And as it relates to survival, right? Like what you just said, a bear in the woods or a snarky coworker in the board meeting. Your. Yeah, the feeling is exactly the same to your brain and your emotional feeling response, going back to my notes because I’m still going to get those mixed up until I learn better. But it is. It’s it is fascinating that our brains are so smart to react so quickly to protect us, but at the same time, don’t know the difference between what we’re actually being presented with to know that, “OK, this isn’t a bear attacking me. I’m not going to die here, but like my reputation is at stake,” you know, kind of thing. It’s yeah, I’m fascinated. I love this. I love this stuff.

Matt Resteghini: And there are very practical antidotes, if you will, for lack of a better word. But scientific evidence that breathing at six breaths per minute can actually take you out of that state of fight or flight. So, we have an exercise in the app called Resident Breathing that prompts you to breathe at six breaths per minute. And if you were to measure your stress level, and by the way, we just added this functionality to the app. You can do it with the finger on the camera phone of your iOS or Android device. Look at your stress level before. Try the resident breathing exercise and then measure your stress level afterwards. And what you’ll find is it’s it reduces your stress because it takes you out of that fight or flight state and induces a sense of calm. So, there are very practical ways to apply some of these exercises and to use them in a setting, where whether you’re stuck in the woods with a bear or you’re in a room full of bear like coworkers.

Jocelyn Allen: What is your bear? I like it. I like it.

Maria Melfa: How does Total Brain work as far as onboarding a new client? What are the steps needed to take to get it going?

Matt Resteghini: Every customer that comes on has a named account rep who will work very closely, typically with someone in the HR department, to understand what sort of some of the challenges are their timeline for rollout, etc. We can turn these things on pretty quickly, and we’ll typically work to create kind of a rollout, a marketing rollout, if you will, or a promotional campaign around the rollout of the application where we invite employees to take the assessment and to participate. And so, we’ll do some planning upfront as part of the onboarding process around how we want to promote the app to employees when we want to roll it out at certain times of the year. You may want to do additional promotion as we go into this holiday season, and there’s an increase in stress. You might want to plan for some events around that. So, we’ll work very closely with you to do that. You would have a sort of co-branded customized area that you can send employees to with your company’s logo right next to the total brand logo. So, it’s very clear that they have a very private, personalized experience.

Maria Melfa: What does an employee see versus the employer?

Matt Resteghini: So the employee has access to sort of a mobile app traditionally done on the phone, but they can also access on desktop. So, the assessment, the self-care exercises, everything we’ve been talking about is sort of the employee experience. The employer gets access to what we refer to as a corporate dashboard, which has aggregate level information on all the folks who have taken assessments or done training exercises. And so, they can see at any given moment what are the strengths and weaknesses and brain capacities across my employee population? What’s the risk, for example, of anxiety or depression among my employees? How long have they trained? What’s their usage look like for those that did train? Was there an improvement in those brain capacities? So, it’s a great way to sort of manage the mental health and brain performance of the organization in aggregate, and where the population is large enough, we can also support some data mining of that data so you can look by department or location, for example, but only when there’s enough data to keep it private and personally identifiable.

Jocelyn Allen: For those listening, is there anything that you’d like to leave them with, as far as how Total Brain can help them and any other information lingering?

Matt Resteghini: Sure. So, I’d encourage listeners to visit our website: Total Brain.com. There’s a wealth of information there on the topic of mental health. There’s a lot of tangible tips that they can use in addressing the topic of mental health with their employees. Even if you choose not to avail yourself of our platform or services, I think you’ll find the content there very useful, so I encourage you to check that out. And more broadly, you know, for those that are listening that do sit in in HR or in positions of leadership at companies, I would just encourage you to continue to prioritize. Mental health is so, so critical at this time, given the stress and anxiety we’ve all encountered over the last couple of years. And as we settle into this new normal, more important than ever to recognize that and to make sure that you’re supporting your employees in any way that you can.

Jocelyn Allen: Thank you!

Maria Melfa: Thank you so much, Matt!

Jocelyn Allen: So much for the relevant and useful information. We’re excited to give it to our audience.

Maria Melfa: Thank you so much, Matt! That was wonderful.

Matt Resteghini: Thanks so much.

Jocelyn Allen: For more information on today’s podcast guests and how they can help your organization, please visit www.thetrainingassociates.com.

Maria Melfa: Bring Out The Talent is a MuddHouse Media Production.