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Stuart Ridley
Business and Technology Journalist

Stuart Ridley is the Smarter Business™ Print Editor and has covered trends in small business, tech and marketing for two decades

Stuart Ridley
Business and Technology Journalist

Stuart Ridley is the Smarter Business™ Print Editor and has covered trends in small business, tech and marketing for two decades

Stuart Ridley discusses the pressures on modern workers with psychologist and entrepreneur Dr Jay Spence, who invented new workplace counselling tools delivered via mobile technology in Telstra’s muru-D incubator.

With a Masters in Clinical Psychology and a Doctorate in Philosophy, Dr Jay Spence knows that his work sees him walk a fine line between every person’s work and life needs. 

Image of Dr Jay Spence
Dr Jay Spence is working with businesses to prioritise mental health.

Most of his clients see productivity as a way for their workers to achieve more with less – and most of the workers he’s helped are feeling overwhelmed with ‘productivity dividends’.

So, on the one hand, Jay wants to help coach workers to better deal with stress and anxiety. Yet on the other, he doesn’t want to simply repair and arm them just so they can get on with burning out faster.

With one in five Australian workers dealing with mental health challenges each year, but only one in 20 actually seeking help via their workplaces, Jay knows the challenge is real – and massive. [You can access Dr Jay Spence’s research reports online.]

That startling workplace statistic translates into millions of stressed Australians, who Jay believes could be more efficiently helped via internet-delivered cognitive behavior therapy (iCBT) for anxiety.

Health tech businesses can’t release MVPs

Startups are often encouraged to innovate and crank out their MVPs (minimum viable products) as quickly as possible, test them on live human audiences and then iterate, iterate, iterate. But that’s not wise when you’re dealing with people’s emotions and psychological histories.

Jay points out that nobody encouraged him to commercialise his ideas while he was completing his PhD:

“At university I heard things like: ‘Here’s your post Doc, now there’s your Fellowship that you should be going for… even though those guys who are a lot better researchers than you didn’t get it, don’t worry, you should apply too!’

“So even though I was interested in research, it took me a couple of years before I accepted that, yes, this has a lot of potential. The good part about academia is the insistence that you need to be careful with health technologies. Our creed as psychologists and doctors is ‘Do no harm and help as many people possible’, so health tech is challenging in that sense. You shouldn’t release something that is unpolished. You need to be careful to get it right before going public – and you need to keep on improving to help more people.”

Battling personal demons in startups

Starting anything big can be stressful, whether you’re creating a team, setting up a new premise or launching a business. Jay’s personal trifecta almost led him to quit.

“One of the most interesting things about doing a startup is that I ended up giving myself generalised anxiety disorder,” he recalls, matter-of-factly. “The diagnosis is that your mind is filled with worries and you have difficulty stopping or controlling the worries; they cycle round and round.

“I’d never experienced this before, but it got to a point where I was waking up and my head was immediately filled with problem-solving. I was problem-solving everything in the business so much, all the way through the day, that it seemed like a good thing – but I hadn’t worked out how to switch off. I was waking up at 4 o’clock thinking: ‘I’ve got to do that,’ and wondering ‘What about this?’, and trying to think three things down the line. So then I had to go back and invest into all of the skills to manage it. Most of the startup founders I’ve met have gone through this stage of anxiety.

"The big questions are: what do you need to pay attention to and what do you need to leave?”

 Scaling up to reach more people

“I loved being a therapist for people face-to-face, before I started Uprise” says Jay, smiling. “Though the potential for one psychologist was to treat 60 people a year, maybe.”

Now Uprise is adding 100 or so new people every month to its online services, many of them identified by smart systems before they’ve reached out for help themselves. It’s a kind of digital triage based on well-established techniques and processes

psychologists would otherwise manage in person. The goal is to eventually have artificial intelligences conduct most of the analysis so that when a psychologist does engage with a person, they have the history and profile to immediately talk about what’s relevant rather than needing to first figure out what’s going on.

“We know we’ve got to keep psychologists on staff to manage things because it’s got to be a high-touch, high-quality service,” says Jay. “We’re also investing into deep machine learning to do whatever the therapist doesn’t need to do.

“We want to reach out to more people, help them and resource them with mental health tools without stigmatising them,” explains Jay. 

"The good thing about tech is I can now deliver cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) without the labels."

- Dr. Jay Spence

“The good thing about tech is I can now deliver cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) without the labels."

 “You’re on an app that’s helping you feel better. So I don’t have to detail that you’ve got depression and it’s a big deal and you should do CBT until you feel better. I can just say, ‘Hey, you’ve come up on this screen and we would recommend you do this app and do your phone call next week with a coach’. That is a way easier entry point into a mental health system, and nowhere near as stigmatising as saying, ‘Go to therapy’. The language we use is so important, or we risk putting people off.”

Workplace stresses might be relieved if bosses let go

Jay’s own studies into CBT for his PhD in Psychology offered some interesting glimpses into what might be possible for modern businesses. He reviewed and participated in a lot of research that showed if you do invest in certain types of wellness, you’re going to get a better workplace culture and engagement.

“It’s interesting, the workplace is typically the trigger that pushes someone over, but that workplace incident had a history at home, too, that was trickling along for a little while,” he notes. “When people are anxious, they can’t sleep. When they get very tired, they get more anxious. Sleep is one of the good diagnostics around whether or not people are coping.”

While he acknowledges that most bosses could struggle coaching their workers, he points out that a major contributor to workplace stress is an imbalance of expectations versus the available resources, plus strong feelings of not having control. Here are some of his suggestions for managing better:

  1. Resource your people better, of course – “When people are being asked to do more and more with less, there’s a huge buildup of stress. How can you ease some of the load? Or adjust timelines to ease the pressure?”
  2. Give your people flexible hours – “Give your workers more control over how they work. They might want to come in later, work at home, work alone with less interruption.”
  3. Respect work/life boundaries – “There used to be really strict boundaries around work ‑ nine to five. Now it’s so diffused. We need more chances to slow down and not always be contactable. We need to be allowed to clock off from work.”
  4. Make it easier for workers to talk about mental health – “The workplaces that engage us, they’re the super-progressive ones that realise if we want to attract talent to our organisation, the Gen Y and millennial workers openly talk about their mental health and expect services to be offered to them. So it needs to be more than the basic lip-service counselling for a few sessions to check a box; to move to many more regular conversations and support structures that are actually helpful.”

"It’s really important you prioritise your mental health every step of the way. It’s really easy to burn out and when you do, you don’t necessarily know it’s happening."

- Dr. Jay Spence

Rising high with muru-D

Jay confesses he ‘shopped around’ for a quality incubator to help him develop his workplace mental health and performance tools, before applying to Telstra’s start up incubator muru-D.  He actually turned down an offer from an earlier incubator because it was more focused on the business-to-consumer (B2C) market, whereas muru-D offered broader reach and incredible mentors.

“Telstra has a network through muru-D that I knew would give me introductions into other businesses,” he says. “Obviously there’s plenty of technology advice, which is important for a business that wants to be mobile.”

By every definition, muru-D gave Uprise a decided network advantage:

  • muru-D is backed by Telstra – “Telstra is an enormous tech company, so it was a no-brainer. When you’re walking into a really big corporate to pitch and you can say ‘We’re in a Telstra-sponsored accelerator program’, it’s just that extra bit of trust, and it was really crucial with our first few clients.”

  • muru-D’s mentors are straight-talkers – “We had Mick Liubinskas (Pollenizer, Kazaa) and Ben Sand (Meta, an augmented-reality business) as our entrepreneurs in residence. They’ve lived and breathed what it’s actually like to not have any money and have some huge staffing catastrophe on the day before you’re about to launch. There’s a credibility that comes with knowing the person you’re talking to has probably faced worse than what you’re doing. You can just ask them outright: ‘Is this a good idea or a bad idea?’  A couple of times when I went to them, if I’d actually done what I thought was a good idea, it would have come close to wiping us out. They were able to say, ‘Terrible idea. Don’t do that, keep going that way.’ They also helped connect us to experts in areas like PR and marketing, because one of the challenges of doing the startup thing, you have to be baseline competent across several different professions.”

  • muru-D workspaces feel like startups (with better funding) – “Even though it’s paid for by a big company, it felt like our space. It didn’t feel corporate. The muru-D framework is about how fast can you go into market. We didn’t have anything bureaucratic that felt like it was about brand protection rather than ideas: it was all about doing the work that will give you the best chance of getting ahead.”

Startup tips from Dr Jay Spence, co-founder of Uprise

  1. Don’t think about startups as experiments; think about them as a career
    “Your first startup is probably going to fail… odds-on you’re going to burn it somehow. A lot of people I know who were in their startups 12 months ago when I did mine, aren’t working on them anymore. And I had one 12 months before and that one failed. But if you’re in the startup scene, you realise what kind of reach you get through the startup methodology. We’re in this crazy period where I think people know you can do something really, really big, and that’s addictive.”

  2. Keep on having new ideas and improving on old ones
    “Ben Sand’s a perfect example: he was our entrepreneur in residence and he had already built up Meta [an augmented-reality/3D glasses tech startup]. I don’t know what that company’s worth now… he probably doesn’t have to keep going, but he’s obsessed with the idea of building things.”

  3. Prioritise your mental health
    “It’s easy to say, just because we’re a mental health company, although it’s really important you prioritise your mental health every step of the way. It’s really easy to burn out and when you do, you don’t necessarily know it’s happening: you could be starting to make really bad decisions and then you’re on a slide, because those bad decisions can be reinforcing. I know there are people who say I should be working 100 hours a week in a startup, but I also know where my limits are. Everyone needs days off. I usually have a part of Sunday, at least.” 

Disclaimer: Information provided on this website is general in nature and does not constitute professional medical advice.


Learn about more recent graduates from Telstra’s muru-D incubator here.

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