It was a beautiful fall day when I came across a study that opened my eyes to the defining problem of the next decade – mental health in the workplace.
The issue was brought to my attention by Dr. Jonathan Haidt – a psychologist at NYU and one of the leading experts on the social problems that stem from mental health issues.
At the time, I was working to build entrepreneurial ecosystems in rural communities across the state of Nebraska. But after listening to Dr. Haidt’s podcast interview with Sam Harris, it became clear to me that anxiety issues in America are going to have a big impact and they’re only going to get worse.
This realization started me on a path to the project I’m working on now. And was the necessary first step to creating proven solutions to big problems.
When trying to come up with new ideas, most of us start with the solution. We come up with a brilliant idea, then try to find a problem and a market for that idea.
This is completely backward.
By taking this approach, you become attached to your solution before understanding if it solves a big enough problem. This leads to trying to fit square pegs into round holes.
Instead of starting with an idea, start first with curiosity.
I had no intention of coming up with an entirely new project when I first started listening to the podcast. Instead, I approached the podcast with the same open mind that I approach every day with.
With a calm, curious, and open mind, you can listen to the real problems and opportunities that are available in the marketplace.
Once I saw that anxiety in the workplace was a big problem and it was only going to get worse over the next decade, I sought to understand more about how this problem will impact both companies and individuals.
*Graph showing the increasing rates of mental disorders amongst college students.
I started reading Dr. Haidt’s book – The Coddling of the American Mind – which helped me understand that the issue is most pronounced in college students. The problem will slowly start to grow as more college students enter the workforce.
From there, I wanted to understand the impact that anxiety and other mental health issues are already having on companies. I learned that the National Institute of Health attributes approximately $2.5 trillion in lost GDP due to lower productivity and worker absenteeism from mental health issues.
Digging even deeper, I wanted to learn about the impact on individuals. How does anxiety actually affect them in the workplace?
I reached out to several thousand potential customers asking them about specific problems with anxiety and how they are currently trying to deal with the situation.
Here are some of the answers I received:
“I’m overwhelmed and sometimes feel like I’ll never catch up“
“Our goal is too ambitious and all the pressure to meet the goal is placed on me.”
“I keep on crying and not able to concentrate well because of my anxiety over my work and my performance or result from it”
Clearly, this was a big issue at the individual level as well.
Finally, I wanted to see what impact anxiety has on specific behaviors. How anxious do people feel before taking on work tasks such as making sales calls, presenting their work in a meeting, writing an important email, etc? And, more importantly, how does that anxiety impact their performance?
I received over 200 responses to the assessment and the results were clear: Anxiety impacts performance the most when individuals are facing a new or uncomfortable challenge and the stakes are high.
Only after understanding all of this information did we then try to create a solution to the problem.
Before coming up with an idea of how to solve the anxiety problem, we needed to understand that:
1. There is a problem.
2. Companies recognize this problem.
3. The problem impacts individuals at work – costing companies money.
4. There is a specific situation where the problem impacts performance the most.
From all of that information, we learned that the best solution we can create should help people confront high-stakes, uncomfortable challenges.
For example, this may be an important meeting with the need to present one’s work to a client, it may be an important sales call, or perhaps a meeting with potential investors. Anytime someone needs to communicate with other people and there is something on the line if things don’t work out well, you can bet the anxiety will be high.
We wanted to create a solution that would help people in this specific situation dealing with that specific problem.
It was finally time to experiment.
We came up with a minimum viable product that people could use 30 minutes before their high-stakes challenge that will help them take a better approach to their anxiety in order to perform at their best.
We have many iterations of this product to go, but we know that the solutions we create are grounded in a real problem. We are also not attached to our solution, we are attached to solving the problem.
The biggest mistake people and companies make when trying to come up with new solutions is to start first with a great idea.
When you start with an idea for a solution, you try to fit that solution into problems where it may not help – and certainly won’t be the best way to help.
A better path is to start first with curiosity. Listen to the problems that exist in the world, in the marketplace, and in the individuals you meet.
If it seems like a big enough problem, then seek to understand more about it.
It was in the understanding process that I was able to learn that anxiety is going to be a problem for the next decade, it’s going to have a big impact on companies, and it’s going to have a big impact on the behaviors of individuals within them.
Only after understanding this impact did we start to take action. And we felt confident that the actions we took would make an impact on a big, costly problem.
In fact, a quick minimum viable product that we created in just a couple of weeks was good enough to solve this specific problem for many of our early users.
That’s the power of curiosity and action. You don’t need to create a superstar solution if you have a big enough problem – and understand the specific behavior that problem can have on a company or individual’s bottom line.
To come up with your own solution, create your own virtuous cycle of curiosity and action.