A mental hygiene digital coach for healthcare workers

June 10, 2024
Digital Health

Doctors and nurses work under immense stress and time pressure. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to improve soon. Thus, self-care remains critical—ideally, it should be personalized, enjoyable, and interactive to help develop healthy habits and cultivate emotional wellness at work. We spoke with Pauline Bewerunge and Matinuch Ouyyamwongs, co-founders of HeyOtters, a mental health app for healthcare workers.

Why did you develop a mental health coach app for healthcare workers?

We – Mati and Pauline – met around two years ago and discovered our common interest in mental health and our shared desire to make a positive impact on others' lives. Mati grew up witnessing how her family members' mental health was affected by working in medical professions, while Pauline, as a psychologist working in a clinic, experienced firsthand how the work affected herself and other healthcare professionals and how burnout symptoms could sneak unnoticed into life.

When we realized that this is a worldwide problem that not only impacts the lives and happiness of healthcare workers but also affects the quality of treatment for patients, we knew we had to make a change.

In 2022, 46% of health workers reported feeling burned out often or very often. It's much more before the pandemic. One could say that we should first change the system to make work in healthcare more balanced. Is a mental health app a solution?

The term "burnout" gained popularity in the 1970s, with symptoms predominantly observed in healthcare and social professionals. These workers engage daily with individuals who are physically and/or emotionally suffering, conveying heartbreaking diagnoses and, at times, witnessing death firsthand. The inherently emotionally burdensome and potentially traumatizing nature of healthcare professionals' work existed long before the pandemic.

Additionally, one of the primary factors contributing to burnout is the "lack of compassionate support" in the workplace. Therefore, the pandemic, along with issues such as underpayment, time pressures, and understaffing, exacerbate these challenges. The digitalization and implementation of new processes also take time and can be mentally taxing. Who is guiding and supporting healthcare professionals through these changes? While systemic changes are necessary, easily accessible mental health support is urgently required. HeyOtters App can fill this gap by providing such support.

You could have created a classical mental health app but opted for a digital companion with gamification elements. Why?

Daily work life can be tough and often lacks joy and lightness, especially for healthcare workers. That is why we chose a digital companion with gamification elements to make interaction easy and playful.

This approach enhances the learning of psychoeducation and stress management techniques by making them interactive and memorable. It encourages healthy habits by setting goals and rewarding positive behaviors, ensuring that self-care and personal development don't feel like extra work. Additionally, it allows us to gain deeper insights into the challenges and issues faced by healthcare professionals, enabling us to continuously find and improve solutions. This way, we can provide a personalized companion that fits their individual needs and preferences.

What is new and different in the HeyOtters compared to standard mental health apps?

Firstly, we focus on healthcare professionals and their specific challenges. Why is this new? Currently, there is no existing and scalable solution to support health workers effectively and in the long term.

Secondly, we believe a mental health app does not need to look and feel like a medical product; we want to bring a new vibe to how mental health is perceived. Additionally, HeyOtters stands out by addressing the unique stressors and demands faced by healthcare workers, which are often overlooked by standard mental health apps.

Traditional apps provide generic advice that may not fully meet their needs. HeyOtters tailors content and tools specifically for them, offering more relevant and effective support. Moreover, we create a community for healthcare professionals, facilitating peer support and sharing best practices. This approach fosters solidarity and understanding, which are crucial for those who care for others, making HeyOtters a comprehensive and empathetic solution for their mental well-being.

So, how does it work exactly?

Imagine you get up, rush to work, and stumble into a workday where you hardly have time to be aware of your own needs, let alone take care of them. HeyOtters helps healthcare professionals gain more self-awareness, explore tools to cope with stress, and implement these tools into their daily lives, as none of this is taught in regular education. HeyOtters will support daily habits and synchronize with the work calendar to implement new habits within the schedule, provide work advice, assist with communication, and offer a community for sharing best practices and peer support.

I have to ask this: why the otter?

Otters are very loyal companions; they mate for life and hold hands while floating on the water. We want to metaphorically hold health workers' hands during their stressful workdays (or have their back if they need their hands for other tasks). We accompany them and aim to bring lightness, ease, and joy to their daily lives as they dedicate their time and energy to other people's well-being, health, or even survival. And apart from that, ‘'cause we care for one anotter!

Do healthcare workers know they are at risk of burnout, so they should take care of themselves?

There is broad awareness of the high risk of burnout but not a clear understanding of what burnout truly means, what its symptoms look and feel like, or how to recognize signs of exhaustion in oneself and associate these signs with impending burnout before it's too late. In healthcare, phenomena such as Secondary Trauma, Moral Injury, and Compassion Fatigue often occur, which can accompany or exacerbate burnout. There is little knowledge about these issues and, more importantly, how to consciously handle the situations that create them. Even though understanding these phenomena can serve as a protective factor against burnout, it is not included in the training of nurses or doctors.

How do you imagine work-life balance for health system workers? Is it possible?

Work is a significant part of life, especially considering the extensive time healthcare professionals dedicate to their jobs – so work is life, too. For a more balanced life, we need a change in the culture and structures of workplaces, especially in healthcare. We believe that this is only possible with a two-way approach: on the one hand, individuals need to be equipped with the knowledge and tools to better care for themselves – just as they do for others, by learning self-compassion and setting boundaries.

Simultaneously, leadership must take action and actively shape a supportive and appreciative work environment. Investment in employees' well-being is mandatory. Ultimately, the collective effort of individuals in the workplace determines its health and vitality. Therefore, every individual bears a responsibility but also has the chance to contribute to a healthy and uplifting workplace and work culture.

You are an early-stage startup. What are your plans for developing and scaling HeyOtters?

We are focusing on three main areas. First, we are creating and continuously improving HeyOtters based on the latest research – and in co-creation with healthcare workers – enhancing features based on their feedback. Second, we are building a community and a user base and want to get HeyOtters known through peer recommendation.

We aim to destigmatize mental health issues with large-scale campaigns, reducing taboo, shame, and unawareness around this topic. Third, we are forming strategic partnerships with healthcare institutions, professional associations, and mental health organizations and collaborating with employers to integrate HeyOtters into workplace wellness programs.

We will launch the app at the end of this year.