America Back to Work Ep 9: Sarah Adler, WAVE

Mental health has become one of the biggest parts of the hiring conversation, especially for Gen Z candidates. And… spoiler alert: by 2030, Gen Z will be the majority of the workforce! For that reason, among many, it’s imperative that you understand who your employees are, what they need, and what they think they need.

There are ways HR can establish a culture that supports the mental health of everyone involved, but it doesn’t stop there. It needs to be infiltrated throughout your entire company, and everyone needs to know their role.

Tune in this week as Sarah Adler, PsyD, Founder and CEO of Wave—an app aiming to make emotional health care available to everyone—joins Arnette Heintze to discuss the role employers play in mental health. It may be our most eye-opening and important episode of America Back to Work yet!

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About America Back to Work

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S2Verify is one of the leading, privately held, pre-employment background screening companies in the United States. 

Arnette Heintze is co-founder and chief strategy officer at S2Verify. Before establishing S2Verify, Arnette spent more than three decades working at the highest levels of federal, state, and local law enforcement. 

He served more than 20 years in the United States Secret Service as a special agent and senior executive where he planned, designed, and implemented security strategies to protect U.S. Presidents, world leaders, events of national significance, and our nation’s most sensitive assets, including financial infrastructure.  

After retiring from the Secret Service, Arnette focused on building the growth and performance of innovative start-ups and SMBs. In 2004, he established Hillard Heintze, a globally recognized strategic security risk management and investigations firm.

In 2009, along with Bill Whitford and Jim Zimbardi, Arnette established S2 Verify with an approach and methodology that delivers fast, accurate, compliant, and affordable background screening insights crucial to better managing insider risks, threats, and vulnerabilities.  

America Back to Work Podcast Transcript

Arnette Heintze

Welcome to America Back To Work, brought to you by S2Verify. I’m your host, Arnette Heintze.

Today, our guest is Sarah Adler, founder and CEO of Wave — a Silicon Valley technology startup that is changing the way mental health services are delivered. She is a clinical psychologist and former behavioral health executive with a background in finance and health care delivery design. Sarah is also a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University Medical School.

Before we dive into the topic at hand…and one which seems to be on every employer’s mind these days…can you tell the audience a little bit about the genesis of Wave? What motivated you to tackle affordable, digital mental health care services?

Sarah Adler

Yeah, so I think, uh, as a, as a clinical psychologist, um, over the past I guess 15 years, and I’m aging myself now, um, the thing that really does actually keep me up at night is that we are in an access to care crisis. And I think we’re in an access to care crisis across the healthcare, um, spectrum, but especially in mental health. I mean, you cannot pick up the news media today without actually seeing the fact that there are just not enough providers and there are not enough, um, care delivery models to serve the increasing mental health needs, uh, of our nation and globally as well. Um, and ultimately, um, when I was a post-doctoral fellow, um, this was, my eyes were open to this mental health crisis. And so I, I chose to pivot my career and really try to understand how we can leverage technology.

We can leverage data, predictive analytics, and we can really leverage, um, evidence-based practice disseminated in a different way, uh, in a more efficient way to really bend the cost curve and kind of attack head on the supply and demand and balance with the only 550,000 providers that are out there. Cuz if you think about it, this crisis is really fueled by, we only have 550,000 licensed therapists in the country, and yet we have a, um, massive, massive, massive and exponentially growing number of folks who need it. And so that really inspired, um, inspired wave. Uh, my background, my training is in redesigning care delivery models to be better, faster, and cheaper. And so I took that training, um, across the chronic disease spectrum and I applied it to my area of expertise, which is clinical psychology, um, and, and, and really therapy. So at Wave, we are ultimately using all those things. We’re using predictive analytics and data. We’re using, um, evidence-based, uh, interventions that we know work that are backed by science. Um, and we’re using, um, uh, lower cost, um, healthcare deliverers and health and wellness coaches to provide better, faster, cheaper care to really bend the cost curve and be more efficient.

Arnette Heintze

Oh, great. So, you know, in, as you, uh, provided that background, it gave me a a sense that maybe the perception around mental health has changed in the last several years. Can you help us appreciate that and how it’s changed?

Sarah Adler

Yeah, and that’s also what’s what’s sort of interesting. We are actually tackling, although we wanna be a high quality mental healthcare for all, we’re starting with the younger generations. We’re starting with Generation Z, with Gen Z, um, and young millennials. Um, and the reason for that is that really has been a massive shift, um, with Gen Z, with the advent of social, with social media, with more people communicating in very different ways. There’s been an, an uptick in reduction of stigma and talking about mental health. And so when we sort of used to be thinking in our generations thinking about mental health as something to be afraid of, that has a deep stigma attached to it, the newer generation, the younger generation is coming up and looking at it more as a lifestyle demand. They’re looking at it more on the continuum and saying, mental health is something like physical health is part of my wellbeing and we wanna buy it like that.

Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And so there’s been this huge shift reduction of stigma, um, which is amazing and fantastic has sort of driven up, um, the demand for mental health and also has sort of shined a spotlight on how prevalent mental health issues and mental health concerns are. Yeah. So I think there’s some question about whether or not we’re really seeing this massive spike in mental health, or really are we appropriately starting to look at it as, um, as part of a continuum. It’s something that we should be thinking about and investing in every single day to prevent us from getting to the more acute phase care down the line where we really need higher, higher intensity services.

Arnette Heintze

Yep. So how does that, uh, you know, as we, uh, where we are today and what we think will happen in the years to come, whether it’s five years, 10 years, how do you see that change happening? What, what other changes do you see might be in store here?

Sarah Adler

Yeah, so I think that, um, one of the fascinating things about Gen Z is that they are just now entering the workforce, right? They’re coming in and they’re with this new kind of set of values as mental health, as, as something that they deserve. They demand, um, and we’re actually seeing, um, a heavier investment on the commercial side. So we’re seeing the advent of, of tools like meditation all over the place. And, um, and, and what’s that’s doing is it’s cultivating a shift in what people expect their lives to look like. So we’re seeing as Gen Z enters the workspace, we’re seeing a real shift in terms of what they’re demanding from their employers, what they’re demanding in their lifestyle, and what they expect in terms of people paying attention to their mental health and talking about it.

Arnette Heintze

Yeah. So with companies today, do you think most companies are missing the importance of the mental health of their employees? And, uh, do you know of folks that are really doing it well? And what’s your thoughts on that space?

Sarah Adler

So I think I, you know, I, I I’m not, I think that this is a, it’s, it’s a really new field. And I sort of described this as, um, you know, back when millennials started entering the workforce, um, we had all of the boomers and Gen Xers saying, we don’t know how to talk to millennials. This is ridiculous. We don’t know how to, how to, there’s a communication gap and a communication barrier. And we’re now seeing that even greater with Gen Z entering the workforce. And Gen Z is going to triple in the workforce by 2030. So just thinking about it’s gonna be the majority of the workforce. Um, and so I think employers are struggling and they’re struggling to know what to do with these demands, what to do with this culture shift around the employer’s responsibility to show up and be there for their employees.

And so I think in what I’ve seen, at least as employers really wanna do the right thing, they wanna sort of include, they wanna follow the trends financially, it, it makes a, a ton of sense for them to be, um, really looking at, um, a healthy, happy workforce. And these days a healthy, happy workforce includes mental health. Yeah. So for years and years and years, I think employers have been looking at the R O I on things like absenteeism and presenteeism and, um, and these sort of, uh, social determinants of, um, how people show up and do their jobs. And ultimately now it’s just encompassing and broadening the scope to include mental health.

Arnette Heintze

Yeah. So I think in all companies today, I think the HR team is probably the best suited group to help, you know, navigate and maneuver through this challenge for employees. And what do you think the most important principle for HR teams, uh, to recognize today? What should they be focusing on?

Sarah Adler

I really, I think it’s, it’s fundamentally important. Um, I would say, and this is a lesson I need to take on in my own company as a C E O as well as it is, it is imperative to understand your employee base. Who is my employee base, what do they need, more importantly, what do they think they need in order to be happy? And then how do we really curate and cultivate offerings and benefits to really support that. I also think that it doesn’t just stop with hr. It really does go all the way to the top to the, the culture and what is the culture of the company going to look like? What are the expectations set? What are the job descriptions are there in line? This goes back to really good management. Are the expectations that you are setting for your employees and their job descriptions, their job roles, their performance reviews, are they clear?

Uh, do employees know what they’re getting when they’re coming into a job these days? And so can they actually make good decisions about what’s going to be good for them or not good for them? We at Wave try to be unbelievably candid with all of our challenges and all of our strengths so that we sort of, we kinda look at employment as, as like we would look at dating as a psychologist. I would tell you to look at like, your search for a partner is really to be doing a bidirectional evaluation. Is this job a good fit for me and is this the culture that I can thrive in? Now, not everyone has the privilege to be able to make those decisions, but it’s something to think about within the job search.

Arnette Heintze

Yeah, yeah. Great. So, you know, I understand you’re, you’re focusing on technology in this area and obviously technology for all of us has greatly changed the way we work in the last 20 years. How is that impacting mental health services?

Sarah Adler

So we have seen just an, an explosion of digital health, um, apps and digital health, lots of different versions and utilization of technology in the space, especially in mental health over the past 15 years. In fact, when I started this company, my father who I try not to talk about in business settings a lot, but he said to me, Sarah, what are you doing? There are 20,000 digital apps in the app store targeting this. And I was like, but let me tell you how we’re different. And I do think that that, that that’s absolutely true. There’s been this explosion of digital health, but no one has really figured out how to get it right yet. And ultimately, although technology is a fantastic lever to keep people engaged in their own behavioral health, the same way that Fitbit or an Apple Watch or some of the, um, some of the hardware pieces like allow us and create mindfulness for us to understand what we’re doing and track each day. I think the same can be said with digital health. It’s an adjunct to in-person care or telehealth. Um, and so we really need to be thinking about how we can leverage technology to support existing care delivery models to make them more efficient and actually more effective.

Arnette Heintze

Yeah. You know, there’s been a concept that’s been developing over the last couple of years around, uh, the phenomenon of quiet quitting. How does that relate to an employee’s mental health and what’s the impact there, you think? Do you think that is a factor there?

Sarah Adler

I do. I think ultimately, um, when you have churn in an organization, it’s gonna cost the organization a lot of, a lot, a lot. It’s gonna cost the, the organization in terms of money, it’s gonna cost the organization in terms of culture. And so really employers wanna prevent churn of their folks who are good workers. Um, but ultimately I think the economic, the macroeconomic, um, status has basically created a world where, um, especially in the younger generation, gen Z ultimately wants to feel that when they show up to work each day, they’re doing something that’s in line with their core values. And as, um, sort of the existing systems are asking them to work, work, work without actually connecting with them and connecting to something that’s important to them or their values. We’re seeing this trend where they’re kind of not, they’re kind of phoning it in and not really showing up, um, the way that millennials did or even Gen X did. Um, where work is work work is no longer work. The approach here is that, or the concept here is that we spend the majority of our time at work and therefore it better feel fulfilling to us. Mm-hmm. So when it doesn’t, and when employers and when cultures are not investing in creating fulfillment through a whole variety of means, we’re gonna gonna see these things. We’re gonna see quiet, quitting, we’re gonna see this and it’s gonna cost employers money.

Arnette Heintze

Yeah. So in the, in that area of employee burnout and uh, talent retention, you know, we’ve got a really competitive labor market right now. Where, where does mental health fit in with that? And what can you, what can you help in that area with?

Sarah Adler

Yeah, so it’s been interesting. One of the things that we are hearing from our customers is that when they actually, um, offer wave, which is a little bit of a different kind, different flavor of a mental health benefit to their potential employees, they feel unbelievably seen and heard and taken care of by the employer. So the, the benefit of of, of our, our benefit is actually, um, is al actually helping the hiring process? It’s actually helping people say, we are paying attention to mental health in a way that looks really different than anyone else’s. And so come work for us. And I do think that there’s a massive opportunity there.

Arnette Heintze

Yeah. So, you know, and that fits in well with what I’ve heard over the last, you know, several years that employees are looking for those personalized benefits. That’s right. You know, they value the, this the elements that companies can bring to the workforce. Tell us more about Wave and what you’re doing into the, in this area and how, how it’s benefiting teams.

Sarah Adler

Yeah. So we’re, and we’re just getting started. So, um, although, so our end is little, but I can tell you about our vision and I can tell you a little bit about the, the data that we’re actually seeing. So our job is really to, um, help bridge the communication gap between, um, the employers and this new crop of younger employees to make sure that there’s a good fit. So almost think about it, it’s almost, we’re functioning as like a premarital counseling before you, you come on. We actually offer what is called a stepped care model in the healthcare industry, really where we start with social media. Cuz this generation, whether we like it or not, whether we think it’s good or bad, they’re on their phones. Yet 70% of the information that’s actually out there on social media is garbage, false, scientifically unproven or invalid.

And so we’re trying to correct that by showing up where people already are on their phones, um, with really high quality evidence-based science back, social media. If they’re gonna be there, we wanna give them good information, we then actually have, um, an app. Um, and our app is slightly different than than other apps out there because we actually are highly, um, dedicated towards getting people to be able to use the app when they need it in order to avoid or prevent unnecessary human touch and human component. So we’ve had some pretty cool proprietary, um, designs to keep people engaged, and we’re getting some really good data around, around around our app usage as well. Um, and then when needed, we have, um, the opportunity to speak one-on-one with your, your, your personal health and wellness coach. We also have a whole, um, data predictive analytic infrastructure to personalize content in the app to link that to the content content that you’re working with your health and wellness coach on so that you’re getting a personalized, individualized service once you sort of enter our ecosystem.

Arnette Heintze

You know, I think some employers might say, well, tell us why this is our responsibility, you know, to to to work with an employee’s mental health wellbeing. What do you ha what’s your perspective on that?

Sarah Adler

Yeah, I mean, I think it’s, it’s, um, it’s just good business. I mean, ultimately if churn is really expensive and you wanna keep your employees engaged and working happily, um, it is worth your while from an r o I perspective to invest in keeping your employees skilled, to keep them, um, to keep them happy, to keep them stable, to keep them productive. And so e it’s not only just the right thing to do, it’s to take care of your employees. You don’t want a miserable employee base, but it’s actually, it’s necessary in order to, to, as you said, it’s, it’s a crazy labor market out there to prevent them from leaving. Yeah. And so ultimately I think it’s, it’s not only is it the right thing to do, but it is good business. And, and as a, as a, as a c e O and a psychologist, that’s my favorite path to follow, is when the right thing to do is, is coupled with, with really good business.

Arnette Heintze

Yeah. You know, I I, we were talking earlier about the mis uh, conception that many people have around mental health and that they, when they, when we see these tragic cases of workplace violence, people automatically go to the concept, oh, that’s the subject mentally ill. And, um, I know for a fact in, in the work that I’ve done in this space that is typically not, there’s really a small percentage of mentally ill individuals that actually carry out an act of targeted violence. What’s your, do you, are you finding yourself being engaged with companies into this area?

Sarah Adler

Yeah. You know, companies are mostly, mostly not talking about the acute cases, right? The cases where people get, um, are are committing workplace violence, as you said, um, the overlap between severe mental health or what we call s M I and violence is actually a lot, um, less frequent than sort of the news media portrays, right? It’s really easy to pick up these hot button topics and say, oh, mental health is the issue, mental health is the issue. And on the other hand, and I I think what is really, really important is that there are systemic issues that cause people to be really distraught. And I think we can talk about this, um, when we kind of think about, we think about burnout, um, is ultimately what we wanna do is look at mental health, again, on a spectrum or a continuum as there is acute phase, serious mental health issues, but what can we be doing to prevent it? What can be we to do to look upstream, to make sure that people have coping skills to make sure that people are paid well, to make sure that people feel like they have good communication skills so they can assert and advocate for themselves in, within a workplace system. So there’s so much we can do around mental health and preventing to even get that to those acute phase incidents by investing in, um, in general wellbeing.

Arnette Heintze

Yeah. And the, the concept with Wave and you’re, you’re leveraging your technology, um, help us understand how that actually you can bring that to someone’s benefit to help them through some challenging times that they might have.

Sarah Adler

Absolutely. So I can, one of our, our biggest use cases right now is, um, one of the domains that we look at that we assess for and that we really help with is the domain of balance, of how do we, you know, people talk about work-life balance, work-life balance all the time, and how do we actually achieve balance? And so one of the things that we actually, um, that wave helps you do is learn and understand general skills associated with making decisions that allow you to feel most productive or to, to behave in a way that’s most in line with your values. And so when we can help people l learn tactical, actual skills, time management skills, executive functioning skills, um, how to use Post-its effectively <laugh>, these are some of the things that we can do within the domain of balance. Some of us naturally do this, but some of us don’t have this. We can kind of assess where you are in your life, what isn’t working for you, and then what we do is we help you take the strengths that you have and apply them to those places where you have challenge to actually impact and get outcome.

Arnette Heintze

Oh, that’s great. Well, Sarah, thank you so much for joining today. You know, one of the things that I’ve done in our series here is ask every guest, if S two verify were to run a background check on you today, what would be our most surprising discovery, if any, uh, and one that gets your response on that.

Sarah Adler

Yeah, so I’m gonna answer this like quite, um, quite candidly and hopefully a little bit vulnerably just again, to really de destigmatize mental health. Um, you know, I, as a teenager, I’m a Stanford professor. I’m a c e O of my own Silicon Valley company. Like on paper, I look like a raging success story. And I will just say that like, it is, it was a struggle for me to get there, get to get here. I was, um, in my adolescence, I was kindly, I will call it a wild child <laugh>. I did not come from the most, um, stable or, um, uh, or, um, the best sort of childhood. And I went through a lot of my own kind of mental health efforts and mental health work in order to get myself here. So hopefully by, by sort of sh I think if you dug around in my past, you could probably get some people to tell you some stories. I’ll tell you that. Um, I feel very lucky to be alive and I feel, um, even luckier that I was able to sort of take my experiences and leverage them to help, to help others.

Arnette Heintze

Well, thank you for sharing that, Sarah. You know, I, I do believe, you know, if every person in America, um, looks at their family, there is mental health challenges at some point for everybody, and that’s what’s often not talked about. So thank you for being vulnerable and, and sharing that little insight with us. And, you know, why don’t you tell our audience where they can learn more about you and what Wave is doing and, and, uh, uh, some points of contact there.

Sarah Adler

Absolutely. So, um, folks can feel free to check out our website at, um, at www wave life.io. Um, you can also find me and contact me through my profile on LinkedIn. We’re on Instagram, we’re on Twitter. Our handle is at Live Wave Life kind of everywhere. Um, and, uh, embarrassingly we are also, I am also on TikTok. You can find me there, although I wouldn’t necessarily encourage anyone to look at my TikTok, they’re not designed for this audience, but feel free if you, if you feel

Arnette Heintze

That’s great. Sarah, thank you for joining us today. You know, the mental health topic is not an easy one to navigate, and I’m sure our audience, uh, appreciates the insights you’ve provided us today. You know, next week we have a great follow on discussion here as we explore the topic of working as an expression of purpose with health and well-being and entrepreneur, Candace Bruter, the founder and CEO of Pure Suite Studio will join us. And it goes without saying, let’s get America back to work because dreams only work if we do.

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