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“Support your team.” with Naomi Allen

Even when we were just a few people at Brightline, we prioritized offering a mental health benefit. This is something companies can’t or won’t often do, because there’s not a clear and easy benefit design around it — but it’s so important. We have to support our own team first, and that’s true of all […]

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Even when we were just a few people at Brightline, we prioritized offering a mental health benefit. This is something companies can’t or won’t often do, because there’s not a clear and easy benefit design around it — but it’s so important. We have to support our own team first, and that’s true of all companies and in any context, not just because we’re focused on behavioral health and in the middle of a global pandemic.

As a part of my series about the “5 Ways That Businesses Can Help Promote The Mental Wellness Of Their Employees” I had the pleasure of interviewing Naomi Allen.

Naomi Allen is the co-founder and CEO at Brightline, the leader in technology-enabled pediatric behavioral health care. As the mom of three amazing kids, Naomi has seen firsthand the challenges in navigating the behavioral health system. She started Brightline in 2019 to reinvent the way behavioral health care is delivered for children and families. Today, Brightline is delivering integrated care through innovative technology, virtual behavioral health services, and a collaborative care team focused on supporting children across developmental stages and their families.

Naomi is a leading entrepreneur with over 20 years of hands-on experience developing high-growth healthcare technology companies. Prior to starting Brightline, she was the Chief Growth Officer for Livongo, overseeing key strategic growth initiatives including new markets and acquisition operations, new category launch, and IPO preparation. She has held executive roles spanning operations, sales, and product as a founding team member of Castlight Health from inception to IPO. Before that, Naomi was a leader in McKinsey’s Silicon Valley office, helping to build their West Coast healthcare technology practice. She holds an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business and received her undergraduate degree at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Even early on, my career arc was moving towards digital health. Out of college, I was working in healthcare and then by the late 90s, I was starting to build early work in healthcare technology while in the consulting space — and after business school, I started to really focus here. It was in my 20s and 30s that we started to see real movement towards the emerging field of digital health. At that time, I was a founding team member at Castlight Health and held almost all possible roles and responsibilities on the business side as we built the company from three employees to IPO at 550 employees.

I gradually moved more towards the care delivery side of digital health, learning about hybrid models in which you have a content studio and digital platform with a real-life treatment model — and how effective and scalable this is. That led me to become the Chief Growth Officer at Livongo, overseeing key strategic growth initiatives for the company and driving towards their IPO. These experiences across digital health, learning and working across all areas of digital health companies, are how I really learned how to build and scale a business sustainably and in a way that meaningfully improves real people’s lives. That all culminated in the founding of Brightline just about a year ago.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

When Castlight Health went public, I remember it being such a joy to be a new mom and take my then-toddler onto the New York Stock Exchange trading floor. My son was so excited that he actually wore himself out and fell asleep as all these traders were yelling at each other on the floor. It was such an awesome moment — all of us had our families and kids there with us, and it just reminded me how much a startup is a team sport. You have to have seriously supportive people around you when you’re building something like this. For me, having my husband and son (our twins were not yet born) there with me for that moment was a reminder that getting to follow your passion and build something from scratch is both a journey and a luxury. To have the opportunity to take an entrepreneurial journey on, so few people get to do that — and it takes a lot of support and people who have your back to get to do this.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

It’s not rocket science, but really what it comes down to is figuring out your boundaries. You have to be diligent about not working 24/7, take real breaks and time off. When you’re not working, that could mean turning off your phone and putting it in a different room if you need to. We have clear rules in my family that have helped me with this — so no phones at the table, sitting down together at dinner and having real conversations. I think, too, that having a family and young kids does mean naturally having some boundaries. While my down time is not my own, which is a tricky balance, it is a forcing function to spend time with them and take time away from the work.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

Especially given the context in which we’re operating during this crazy year — lead with a lot of empathy. I’ve found it takes a combination of directness and warmth. You have to assume positive intent. It’s really a microcosm of therapy — having hard conversations in a trusting and positive environment is the name of the game. And also, hire great people! Especially those with complimentary skills to you. Then together, embrace supportive, direct, and clear communication, celebrate the positives and get through the tough stuff together.

This has been magnified in the world we’re in today with Covid-19. While we’re building a startup from the ground up, yes, we have to push really fast and hard, but we do so towards a few things that really matter, and with radical flexibility for the team with what they have going on in their lives outside of work. So yeah, there’s going to be a kid sitting next to you on a Zoom call some days. You might have someone picking up and moving because they need to be closer to their family support system. Whatever it is, being flexible and supporting what your team has going on is crucial. And ultimately, this pandemic hasn’t changed the fundamentals of how we operate and show up for each other. It’s only magnified the importance of this and how we function as a close-knit and supportive team. And for our team at Brightline, it’s also magnified the importance of what we’re doing, building a behavioral health company in the middle of a pandemic — it’s a moment of building something better, during a time when it matters more than ever.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

One quote that always stayed with me came from my mom and dad: “to whom much is given, much is expected.” I grew up in a loving and supportive family. We were anchored in doing mission work, and my parents spent summers doing volunteer medicine in India. We spent all year fundraising, and then come summer, I would go live with a different family while they went to do that mission work. It was really the center of what we did as a family, our “hobby,” if you will. I was always around this team of nurses and doctors that would do rural medicine or go on these missions every summer.

This gave me a blueprint for my life, this practice of acting in service of others. I have taken this forward throughout my life, including in the work that I do in behavioral health. It’s such a joy when you have the opportunity to build a business and have it be financially viable, and do so in a way that is doing good. This service mentality has always defined my life and continues to be incredibly important to me. And one other that has stuck with me — “happiness is not a destination, it’s a way of travel.” I love this idea of finding ways to carry joy with you, and to find that in the ways you show up every day.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. In recent years many companies have begun offering mental health programs for their employees. For the sake of inspiring others, we would love to hear about five steps or initiatives that companies have taken to help improve or optimize their employees mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each?

  1. Even when we were just a few people at Brightline, we prioritized offering a mental health benefit. This is something companies can’t or won’t often do, because there’s not a clear and easy benefit design around it — but it’s so important. We have to support our own team first, and that’s true of all companies and in any context, not just because we’re focused on behavioral health and in the middle of a global pandemic.
  2. One thing that has helped this year, when we’re all dispersed and working from home with competing priorities and also building a fast-growing business, is taking time for physical wellness. So for us, that’s meant setting up weekly “Brightline Built” sessions the team can join for a fun group workout, taking midday “Meditation Moments” together on Wednesdays, encouraging walks and taking breaks to get outside.
  3. Here’s another thing: you can’t just say “take breaks” and think that everyone is going to. We’ve really leaned into flexible PTO policies, and actively encourage team members to take time, to put the work aside and get real time away from it.
  4. One awesome thing about building a behavioral health company is that we have therapists and other clinicians on our team who have gone out of their way to identify resources for their colleagues. We’ve all really leaned in to provide pockets of support, whether in this way or more broadly in how we’re all giving each other flexibility and support wherever we can.
  5. The last thing sounds pretty simple, but it’s so incredibly important — check in with each other. When our team joins calls, we take the time to really check in, see how each other are doing, what’s going on in our lives and with our families. What we’re building here is a journey, we’re going to be a team for years ahead, and what we’re building is truly transformative — we can’t just sprint at it all the time, and these check-ins really help us to stay grounded and supported.

These ideas are wonderful, but sadly they are not yet commonplace. What strategies would you suggest to raise awareness about the importance of supporting the mental wellness of employees?

For me, it’s about not approaching it as all-or-nothing. It’s communicating to your employees that they don’t have to go through a major hurdle of weekly therapy for the rest of their lives, that there are options that actually fit into their life. For example, there’s what we’re building at Brightline — a care platform that supports families where they are. This means providing a range of support for families — helping them build long-term skills, self-guided journeys with content and interactive exercises, coaching support, or accessing a few treatment sessions to support a child or teen who needs to build some coping skills and then will be on a good track, all the way up to clinical support from therapists, psychiatrists, and other professionals.

For us, it’s about getting ahead of things that might be common challenges in life that don’t have a diagnosis associated with them. It’s about building ways to support diverse families and communities — because everyone has a different experience, and we need to support mental health across whatever their experience is.

From your experience or research, what are different steps that each of us as individuals, as a community and as a society, can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling stressed, depressed, anxious and having other mental health issues ? Can you explain?

I’ll start with the societal approach: we have to break the common habits we have in terms of payment and reimbursement for behavioral health. We need radical payment reform in this country. Right now, it’s really only for licensed clinicians, but what we really need is coverage for a diverse set of capabilities and behavioral health supports, like those we talked about above. That way, we can match individuals and families with the right level of support, whether that’s self-guided content or coaching support all the way up to clinical care with a therapist or psychiatrist.

The other critical piece of this societally is that we have to acknowledge the way that mental health care happens (or doesn’t) for BIPOC communities. That means cross-cultural bias training for everyone, appropriate training and messaging in these communities themselves, creating pathways where we are training a diverse population of people who can speak to and work with kids and families. Moreover, we have to do this through incentives and structured programs in the behavioral health system to support this shift across the country.

At the individual level, it means leaning in on the fact that behavioral health needs exist on a gradient. So for example, just because you say my child is anxious, doesn’t mean they’ll have a diagnosis — and if they do, that’s okay. We have to start to have open conversations about behavioral and mental health, because there’s a real cultural impact of not talking about this stuff. We have to collectively take action, to have brave conversations within families, with our kids about things like what it means to feel anxiety, stress, loneliness. And to normalize all of this, to acknowledge and understand that these feelings and experiences are not a sign of weakness.

Habits can play a huge role in mental wellness. What are the best strategies you would suggest to develop good healthy habits for optimal mental wellness that can replace any poor habits?

Sleep! One of the hardest things in this age of social media and binge watching is trying to get consistent sleep. Tiny habits help here, too, so again, not having all-or-nothing or aggressive goals. I’ve found that it helps to take small but measurable, actionable changes you can attach to your existing routine. So maybe don’t try to suddenly get 8+ hours a night, every night if that’s unrealistic for you, but instead try going to bed a half hour earlier, turning off your phone instead of doom scrolling, that kind of thing.

Do you use any meditation, breathing or mind-calming practices that promote your mental wellbeing? We’d love to hear about all of them. How have they impacted your own life?

I do! But like above, for me it’s about small steps and not all-or-nothing. For example, one thing I do is while brushing my teeth, I take a few minutes to close my eyes and have a moment of calm, shutting out external, stressful thoughts. Another one — I’ve noticed while working from home that my lower back gets stiff, so while I’m drying my hair, I’ll actually make sure I’m intentional about stretching. For me, and for many of us, it’s not realistic to take on a 45-minute stretching or meditation routine, so these micro-habits are key.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

I really love Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh. In the beginning, he talks about how it’s the people who don’t feel they have time who need meditation the most. You have to embed it into your life, and he speaks to how there’s real beauty in taking a mindful moment rather than it needing to be all-or-nothing. I also find poetry transformative, in a handful of ways. I read it when I really need a break that is brief. Louise Glück is one of my favorites, it’s really beautiful poetry that allows you to be in a different time or place.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

What we’re doing at Brightline! We’re leading the movement towards high-quality, ubiquitous care for families, and towards making care accessible and affordable globally. Our hope and goal is that in that care, people can find support that resonates with their family dynamics, gender, ethnicity, culture, background, and so on — that we can create that norm rather than what we have today.

What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?

Check out our site (we just launched our blog) and follow us on social media!

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/hellobrightline

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/hellobrightline/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/hellobrightline

LinkedIn: https://linkedin.com/company/hellobrightline/

We’re also welcoming new members in California, with Massachusetts and additional states coming soon! Sign up at hellobrightline.com

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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