Guest: Heather Waibel, CEO & Founder of Welnys
Air Date: October 10, 2018
Chad: Hi everyone, I’m excited to have Heather Wiebel joining us today. Heather is the CEO of Welnys, a platform that brings independent contractors and traditional workplaces together to promote – as the name suggests – wellness. Thanks, Heather, for joining us on the Ready. Set. Work. podcast.
Heather: Hi, thank you for having me!
Chad: Yeah. So, maybe to kick thing off, do you want to just start off by telling us a little bit about The Welnys platform and just how you came up with the idea, and what inspired you to solve that problem?
Heather: Absolutely, so Welnys is a wellness as a service platform. Essentially what we do is we match employers to vetted health and wellness vendors. And so these vendors come into the work site and provide things like yoga classes, chair massage, ergonomic assessments, even things like flu shots or mobile mammograms. And so they bring this into the office and provide these services to their employees. And so what our platform does is it matches the employer to the provider, and it also gives them digital tools for them to measure and manage their program. So for their employees it’s a booking app, and for the employers it’s analytics around utilization of the program.
Chad: Interesting, and then what inspired you to focus on that?
Heather: Well I spent half a decade working at Paypal, and when I was there I traveled pretty extensively for my job. And so I was in this unique position where I got to see how a lot of different offices operated, and one of the things that I noticed was that each office had a really different wellness program. So, in some cases, really amazing, robust programs, and in other cases, you know, could be nothing at all. And I thought it was strange that employees at the same company had different levels of access to wellness programming, so I began to kind of look into this and find out why it was like that. What I learned was that it was like this because, centrally, Paypal didn’t really have a tool that told them what was going on, and so they left all these decisions up to local site leadership. And as a result, centrally, they didn’t really know what they were offering the employees, they didn’t know who was participating, if anyone, and they had no way to measure the impact. So, I thought that was kind of crazy that they didn’t have this level of insight into their program, and I started researching it and found that a lot of companies operate their wellness program kind of blind. So I started Welnys to solve that.
Chad: That’s great, so you just decided to make the leap, kind of based on that problem you saw at Paypal?
Heather: Yeah, I think I, you know, spent a few months kind of really researching it and figuring it out before I actually made the leap, but eventually, yes, I did do it.
Chad: Yeah, that’s great. You know and I think we’re seeing a shift to kind of prioritizing, like you mentioned the health and wellness of workers, particularly in the traditional 9-5 setting where maybe the worker doesn’t have time to hit the gym during lunch, or take a walk outside, and you know as a small example of that, there’s even talk that, like, sitting is the new cancer, right, I’ve heard people say that about like sitting for long periods of time at a desk. And as I say this I’m standing at my desk, because I can adjust it up and down, and I’m curious, how do you define wellness, and I guess, what does that word mean to you?
Heather: Yes, so there is a bit of a blend from the employee’s perspective these days, where work life balance now means a little bit of work and a little bit of life all the time, so you end up really blurring the lines between what you’re doing at any given time. And so we’re seeing a huge preponderance of workplace wellness. It’s in part because of the new version of work life balance, but it’s also because of many factors on the employer’s side. Most employers are self-insured, which means that they bear the risk of all of their employees healthcare claims, they actually act as their own insurer, that’s something not a lot of people know, and so they’re really incentivized to care about employees’ health. Another reason is for recruiting reasons. There are more jobs today than there are people to fill those jobs and so the employee experience becomes really important. And so to your question, wellness is very very broad. It can mean everything from something very clinical and medical to a fitness class, or a meditation class, so we really stretch throughout that definition. Really what our version of wellness is is things that you do on site in your office, in person. So we’re not that digital version of wellness.
Chad: Yep, no that makes sense, and can you give some examples for the listeners on what some of the most popular services are on the platform today?
Heather: Yes, so massage is by far and away the most popular as you can imagine. Yes, employees love having chair massage in the office. That’s our number one seller, but number two is under the mental health umbrella, so we get more requests – increasingly more requests – for mindfulness programming, mental health programming, and this can be anything from meditation to actually having mental health counsellors come in and do workshops around PTSD or depression or anxiety. And we’re seeing a really big spike in that, I think in part because mental health is becoming more acceptable to, kind of, bring into the forefront of conversation today. Mindfulness and meditation is increasingly more mainstream, and there’s also a study that came out recently that said that 18% of employees experienced a mental health issue at work in the previous month, and so it’s a real concern in the workplace as well.
Chad: Yeah, it’s definitely, obviously, a really notable mission to get behind and solve. And then, are there any services that might surprise people? Maybe services that even surprised you, that employees have requested?
Heather: Goat yoga. We get a lot of requests for that. It’s actually not permitted in the city of New York, by the health department, so we don’t do it. But we get a lot of interesting requests and we offer a lot of unique programs, so we actually have a professional mime who does a workshop around mindful movements, so it’s a mime who studied with Marcel Marceau. We have other workshops like herbal tea blending, or create your own non-toxic sunscreen, so really it’s kind of the gamut. The great thing about what we do is we’re a marketplace, we work with independent vendors, and so we’re able to offer all kinds of services, and we can scale very rapidly through different service types and different geographies because of that business model.
Chad: Interesting, so do you think there’s a big growth curve in goat yoga classes?
Heather: Um, you know I think trend’s going to die out personally, because what people don’t realize is that the goats poop, so it’s not actually that great once you try it.
Chad: That’s funny. And you mentioned the vendors that you work with and, maybe just give a little bit of background for the listeners on how do you find them, and what is it about the Welnys platform that’s just attractive to them as independent professionals?
Heather: So this is actually part of the business that I really resonate with personally, and that is that most health and wellness providers are women, and they’re also chronically underemployed. So about 50% of them have to work a second job to make ends meet. And so, we live in a time where we’re churning out yoga teachers left and right, and massage therapists, and people are going into these healing businesses wanting it to be their new career, and then they’re finding out that there’s not enough business that they can do, and so it’s not their new career, now it’s just their new side gig on top of their job they already had. And so part of what we’re really looking to do as part of our mission is to help people make their career their full time career, and so we’re working with these vendors to give them access to really what is the most lucrative type of work that they can get, which is private, corporate gigs. These pay much more an hour, they’re very safe, and they’re recurring, so typically with a corporate client we’ll do an annual contract with them and so a vendor will have the same job for a year with one of our clients.
Chad: I see. And then, when people talk about freelancers, and independent professionals in general, I think one of the benefits that we hear a lot about is that they take time for themselves and their health during the day, whether it’s going for a run maybe in the afternoon. But then on the flip side of that, without a routine, you hear about freelancers working, let’s say, more than a typical 40 hours a week, even if it’s spread out differently throughout the day. And I’m curious, as someone who sees your independent workers on Welnys, and then the workplaces kind of intersect, do you see one as being healthier than the other?
Heather: Yeah, and I think with our vendors we get both sides of that. So, we have some vendors that really are doing this as their entire career, and so they have that flexibility to accept the jobs that they want to and decline the jobs that they don’t want, and so they’re able to manage their schedule that way. But we also have people who, I mentioned, haven’t figured out how to turn their health and wellness business into their full time career, and so they’re actually working even more because they also have like a full time corporate gig, and then they also, at nights and on weekends, are trying to cultivate this health and wellness career. So it’s definitely a mix. I think what’s right for people really depends on the individual and what it is that is right for them in terms of both balance and their goals. But I can definitely tell you that one of the most ironic things, being a health and wellness startup founder, is that it’s very hard for us to have health and wellness in our life, so we’re trying to be cognizant to make time for ourselves, to take breaks, to go work out, to make sure that we’re practicing self care as well.
Chad: Yeah definitely, from my perspective, I can relate to that, so that would be a great problem to solve, so I’m 100% behind you on that. So, then when you think about the typical, let’s say corporate workplace structure, what aspects do you find the most problematic to, kind of, the holistic wellness of their employees and workers?
Heather: What gets tricky, especially in a larger organization, is you have different kinds of employees, and so you may have corporate offices, and you may also have retail storefronts, and you may have a call center. So a good example of this would be like a bank, where they have all three kinds of workplaces. And so it gets tricky to offer a really cohesive wellness solution that works well in all of those different environments. For example, you clearly wouldn’t have, like, a bootcamp class in your retail bank because that’s not going to be a good fit. Call centers are also very tricky to bring wellness to because, especially if they’re an inbound call center, you can’t really predict when somebody’s going to be able to get off the phone. And so each of these environments requires kind of a specific solution. So we really view a holistic wellness program as a company as not necessarily meaning that you’re doing exactly the same thing in every office, for every employee, but more that you’re providing a wellness opportunity for all of your employees, and that that solution has been to tailored to work for what’s best for that particular office environment.
Chad: Yep, no that makes sense. And one of the things you mentioned, so like being a founder, right, it’s a very demanding job and you’ll hear comments about burnout. And that can happen regardless of what you’re doing, if you’re an employee at a company, or really in any role, and it feels like that’s increasing quite a bit in recent years, and I’m curious, 1. Do you agree with that, and then 2. What do you think are the main things that just cause burnout in the workplace and why it’s getting worse potentially?
Heather: Yes, burnout is one of the metrics that we’re actually planning to optimize against. So, one of the ways that you can measure wellness is, you know, its impact on your healthcare costs, but another way is through a recruiting lens. So you can kind of look at that chain as being, somebody gets very stressed out, they burn out, they quit, and then you have recruiting costs to replace them. And so we’re really interested in that particular chain of events and how that can be prevented by addressing people’s stress levels. So one of the really well studied areas of wellness in relation to that is around mindfulness and its impact on your level of stress, our ability to respond to situations instead of reacting to it, and recently there’s been a number of studies around mindfulness and leadership qualities. So, a lot of leaders have been shown to have better listening skills as a result of practicing mindfulness, so it’s definitely an area of interest for us as a way to tackle that problem.
Chad: Yep, and you mentioned recruiting costs and I’m curious, let’s say you’re pitching a new company on the Welnys platform, to roll it out for their workers. Do you have a tangible way to kind of measure the return on investment, and I would assume recruiting costs is part of that, but I’m curious to kind of dig into that and understand what that looks like a little bit more.
Heather: Yeah, frankly no, it’s very difficult to tie a hard ROI to wellness programs. And there are just endless studies out there around it, but if you read them you’ll find that they’re mostly contradictory. So, to say that somebody participated in a fitness class and then, therefore, your healthcare claims went down – it’s just very hard to tie those things together, and also it typically takes about three years to really kind of show an improvement. So the industry as a whole, and employers as a whole, are kind of moving away from ROI when we talk about wellness and moving towards something called VOI which is value on investment. And so that encompasses other things like, are my employees happier? And so we really think that that’s the right metric, and we also find that a lot of employers are not looking to bring in wellness specifically to drive down claims, they are looking to bring it in because they do want their employees to be happier and healthier, and so VOI is really, kind of, where things are moving today.
Chad: Yeah, and I would imagine that employee engagement is a key part of that?
Heather: Yeah. Especially with what we do which is on premise, you will typically get a 10% participation rate, which isn’t that high. And one of the things that we’ve really found is that when we enter a new company, we’ll survey the employees to find out what kind of wellness programming they’d like to see, and often times we’ll get responses back where the employees are requesting things that they already have. And what we’re noticing is that they just don’t know what they have access to. One of the reasons for that is that HR, who is often running the wellness program, they typically have a restriction on how many times they’re allowed to communicate with employees, and sometimes it’s as few as five times a year. And so they’re not necessarily going to be the best promoter of a regular, consistent, on site wellness program. And so part of the value that we bring is that we become this single source of truth for the employee, where they know that they can go to the Welnys app and they can see all the health and wellness programming at their company, they can see it at a different location if they’re travelling for work, and so they’re always going to know that this is where I go to see what’s happening in my office, and we think that that’s going to help drive that engagement up higher.
Chad: Yeah that’s really interesting. So I’m curious, what do you think about that? You can only contact employees five times a year for wellness, I’m just curious on your thoughts on that.
Heather: Yeah, you know, in a large company I understand why they start putting rules like that in place, because you definitely don’t want every department in your 10 or 20 thousand person company sending emails out willy nilly, so there’s a reason why these rules are in place, but at the same time then it does limit your ability to communicate about certain things. Communication around benefits as a whole is definitely an area that a lot of startups are trying to solve right now.
Chad: Yep. And then at Bunker, one of the things that we talk quite a bit about is just the shifting workforce landscape, and I’m wondering if you see this shift to independent work relating to workers valuing – or either prioritizing – their own mental health or overall wellness, maybe more so than previous generations? And I don’t know, is there a correlation between those two things, or is it just too early to say for sure?
Heather: I definitely think there’s a generational correlation in that millennials expect to have wellness at work, and they expect certain things that, I guess, we used to think were absurd to have in the workplace, like haircuts and oil changes and free lunches, and now it’s just kind of standard. And so this new generation of workers has just really come to expect it, so companies have to offer these things now to compete with other companies for talent.
Chad: Yep. So one question that we always ask our guests is, what do you see as the future of work, and I guess what does that phrase mean to you, both in terms of the independent workers on your platform, and then also maybe the more traditional workspaces that they’re helping?
Heather: Yes, so my perspective certainly would come from my area, my niche of wellness. I definitely think we’re going to see 100% of companies integrating worker wellness into their workplaces. To date we’re at about 80% of companies with more than 50 employees have adopted this, I definitely think we’re going to see 100%. I expect it to continue to grow, and I really think we’re going to see a big adoption of mental health programming and resources in the workplace, I think as a society as a whole we’re having larger conversations around mental health, and in the workplace in particular I’m seeing a huge uptick there.
Chad: Cool, and then maybe just tips for our listeners, you know maybe some of them are independent workers, or working for companies that aren’t using Welnys yet, just some ideas on what are some affordable or even free ways that they can prioritize wellness in their routines?
Heather: Yeah, I think in companies where there might not be a budget, the simplest thing to do are employee lead groups, so running clubs, or challenges, there’s always free things that you can do to bring wellness into your workplace. Typically you’ll also have people that you work with that are yoga teachers, or meditation teachers themselves and are willing to donate their time to teach a class, so that’s the simplest way that you can get started. As an independent worker, especially maybe somebody who’s working remotely or at home, there are lots of micro breaks that you can do, and you can look up micro mindful breaks, and they’re just little, like, two minute exercises where you can step away from your computer, do some breathing exercises or do some stretching, and it just helps you to really like reset your mind and reset your body so you’re not just staring at your screen all day.
Chad: Yeah definitely, no I think those are great ideas. And then for listeners interested in health and wellness, are there any kind of trends that you’re predicting for 2019? Or any current trends that you expect to remain pretty popular? Aside from the goat yoga that is.
Heather: Yes, I think next we’re going to see pot belly pig yoga. We actually did, I will say, we had a trade show in Los Vegas, and it was at the Mirage, and so we were able to do Dolphin yoga, which was pretty fun. So I imagine we’re going to continue to see a lot of little tweaks of, kind of, existing fitness classes to make them more fun and interesting. We’re going to see probably a lot of strange things.
Chad: Yeah definitely. And then, I guess, any last thoughts for our listeners? And then maybe a second part to that is if there’s an independent worker out there that’s interested in getting involved in your platform, or a company that’s interested in using it, how would they go about that?
Heather: Yes, so for our independent providers, there’s a form on our website, so it’s just welnys.com, and you can just fill out that form as long as you have appropriate licensing and insurance you will be put on to our platform and when we have a job match for you we’ll reach out with an offer. And we accept pretty much any kind of health and wellness vendor, so nutritionists, mindfulness teachers, we even have reiki masters, so if you’re in the health and wellness game, feel free to fill out that form. And for people who would like to see this in the workplace, same thing you can go to the website and fill out the form and we’ll get in touch. We actually have a referral bonus, so if you refer us to your workplace and they end up using us, we’ll pay you $100.
Chad: Cool, that’s fantastic! Alright well I think that’s a wrap, so thanks so much again heather for taking the time to share your experiences with us on the Ready. Set. Work. podcast.
Next Episode: “Talent Should be Able to Engage Talent” ft. Peter Johnston, Founder and CEO of Kalo