An innovative new platform brings research to the commercial sector to ensure that Australians get the appropriate mental healthcare at the right time.
A collaboration between the University of Sydney and PwC blends world-class research and clinical validation with commercial skills. The result is two products under the umbrella of Innowell — a clinical platform and a self-managed wellness platform. Both have been validated by the Brain and Mind Centre at the University of Sydney and aim to provide people with access to the right care in a more timely way through digital tech-enabled assessments.
Kristin Stubbins is a partner at PwC Australia and a member of its executive board. When the idea for Innowell was pitched to her a couple of years ago, she was immediately receptive. The person making the pitch was Professor Ian Hickie AM, who is a psychiatrist and co-chair of the Brain and Mind Centre at the University of Sydney.
“We do continuous research and development,” says Hickie. “We’re actively marketing our product to businesses that are seeking to provide what I call ‘mental health scaffolding’ to their employees, students or members. We have a number of large clients, which is exciting.”
“A lot of research over the past 15–20 years has found that technology is the way forward with respect to better mental health,” says Stubbins. “The university needed some support with the commercialisation and the technology build.”
Other research backs up the need for better initiatives in the workplace and educational institutions. For example, the Productivity Commission has found that mental health and substance abuse are the biggest contributors to lost productivity in Australia among working age people. Suicide remains the leading cause of death for those under 45. For many, COVID-19 only exacerbated existing mental health issues. The World Health Organisation found that the pandemic triggered a 25 per cent increase in anxiety and depression rates globally.
“There are a lot of issues that companies are now facing as they try to resume their normal business and practices,” says Hickie. “If they are not attending to the mental health and wellbeing of their workforce — and in a preventative rather than a reactionary way — they will pay a large economic cost.”
The collaboration is an unusual one and governance structures have played a key role in its success. Transparency during the clinical trials has been critical — this is where similar partnerships overseas have fallen down.
“It’s really hard to start something from nothing and build it into something,” says Stubbins. “It is a big collaboration between the federal government, a professional services firm and a university. Our board has a diversity of both government and commercial experience, and we have a genuine research and development partner in the University of Sydney. The university has committed itself to transparency. R&D doesn’t always go well — there are often difficulties along the way. None of the partners is hiding behind some kind of veil of commerciality in confidence. This has allowed us to engage with the federal government through primary healthcare providers — and to develop trust.”
Direct economic costs of mental ill-health
Direct expenditure on healthcare and other support services
Lower economic participation and lost productivity
Informal care provided by family and friends
Source: Mental Health Productivity Commission Inquiry Report, June 2020
How it works
The clinical platform augments the care provided by clinicians and can effectively triage people who need immediate help in a much more efficient way than is currently the case. It uses data analytics to measure outcomes, which is then helpful for healthcare providers to review. The wellness component is a B2B platform, licensed to organisations such as PwC, which are keen to prevent their employees from experiencing low levels of wellbeing.
“Those of us involved in mental health know there is a huge demand for mental health services,” says Hickie. “But we cannot meet the 21st-century demand with 20th-century methods. We are grateful that all our hard work and research will not remain behind the university’s sandstone walls.”
The centre has applied a rigorous approach to validate the platform, which was co-designed in consultation with end users of the apps and a wide variety of other stakeholders.
The clinical platform has been rolled out in the Canadian province of Alberta and is in the process of becoming available with some primary health networks in Australia.
“The uniqueness of Innowell is that the wellness platform is derived from the clinical platform,” explains Hickie. “This is not a light- touch platform that involves a nudge to go and do some yoga or something.”
He adds that the mental health platform has been derived from 13 clinical trials that were undertaken as part of the development of the clinical platform. The aspects that relate to the prevention of the emergence of mental health issues has been developed by the Brain and Mind Centre. The Innowell platform has the ability to direct individuals into specific programs before issues become more concerning.
“This is about having direct and highly- personalised activity to improve your mental fitness and social connection, and to prevent you getting mentally ill,” says Hickie.
The platform can also be integrated with initiatives run by the organisation, explains Stubbins. “For example, if I wanted to run a particular program around social connectedness for teams at PwC’s Sydney office, I can use the platform to promote it and nudge people towards it, which is quite a unique feature.”
Social connectedness is often skimmed over or neglected by wellness apps on the market, says Stubbins, adding that another benefit of Innowell is its holistic approach to all the components that affect wellbeing and mental health. “Some wellness programs will promote physical activity, while others talk about sleep, or drugs and alcohol,” she says. “Very few of them show you how those things come together and are relevant to you as an individual — and which have the biggest effect.”
A benefit for the organisation providing the app to its staff, students or members is the fact that Innowell provides aggregated data. For example, a university could track aggregated group data in real time to identify pockets of stress or conflict in particular departments. It could also pinpoint the actual impact of organisational restructuring or better evaluate the true impact of new health and welfare programs.
“We’re now beyond simply recognising mental health and wellbeing as a problem for organisations,” says Hickie. “Company directors should take a proactive approach to dealing with issues to creating the optimal workplace, and to use data to inform their decisions and endeavours. While the primary benefit is to the employees or participants, the secondary benefit is to the directors of those organisations to make smart choices to be informed about what is happening in their own organisation.”
Coalition of the willing
In 2022, PwC partner Kristin Stubbins and other business leaders helped to create the Corporate Mental Health Alliance Australia (CMHAA) with Professor Ian Hickie AM, now on the advisory board, and PwC as one of the founding participants.
The CMHAA is chaired by Microsoft managing director Steven Worrall. It began with 15 organisations collaborating to provide a business-led, expert- guided member organisation. The aim is to transform workplaces into mentally healthy environments. CMHAA membership includes major law firms, professional services firms, major retailers, one of Australia’s largest banks and two insurance organisations.
“These are business leaders who’ve come together to really try to do something about this problem – it’s a sort of coalition of the willing,” says Stubbins. “The next stage in corporate Australia is to lift awareness of not only what your obligations are, but what is possible in terms of better practice. And by the way, it’s not just about doing the right thing — there will be productivity benefits for businesses as well.”
The Productivity Commission found the Australian mental health system should be person-centred, supporting prevention by reducing the risk of an individual developing mental illness and enabling early intervention if it does. “Consumers and carers should be able to access the services they need when they need them, regardless of administrative or funding structures underpinning them,” the report said, recommending services be delivered by a skilled workforce, supported by technology and comprehensive governance.
Recent data from global coaching platform the Leadership Circle links a holistic approach to wellbeing and connectedness to senior leadership styles. In earlier research, it found the “creative” competencies most highly correlated with business performance are: relating, self-awareness, authenticity, systems awareness and achieving.
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