According to Safe Work Australia, on average six percent of all serious workers compensation claims made each year between 2010-11 to 2014-15 were for work-related mental disorders, with 7,020 Australians compensated for work-related mental disorders.
Ninety-two percent of serious work-related mental disorder claims were attributed to mental stress.
With an academic background in psychology and organisational communications and two decades in the corporate world spent assisting organisations with large scale transformation, Whitford said she saw first hand the impact of stress on people, their employers, and companies at large.
“I left corporate Australia in 2016 when it became clear the solution needed to come from outside. I set up my own consultancy to provide companies with guidance on how to address these issues and quickly realised the solution didn’t scale,” she explained.
Whitford then began exploring how to use technology to solve the problem, talking to individuals and organisations to look at the problem from both angles, and came up with Pioneera.
Pioneera is based around ‘Indie’ which, at its simplest, is a chatbot – or ‘whingebot’, as Whitford calls it – that looks to help people get things off their chest. As they do so, their language is used to assess their moods and feelings and in turn provide them with tips and tools to address issues.
As Whitford explained it, Pioneera looks to fill the gap between wellness training events and everyday life at the office, when individuals are usually too busy to notice signs of stress in themselves or others.
“We look for words the medical profession use to indicate stress and we help the individual reduce their stress at the time they’re actually feeling it. The longer the individual engages with our platform, the more we get to know them, the more the stress reduction options will be tailored to what the individual responds to,” she explained.
“There is so much ‘one size fits all’ out there; Pioneera gets personal. The individual’s data remains private and is only ever provided to the individual. We provide regular updates to the individual celebrating their wins in reducing their stress, so they can see how their action is contributing to their own wellbeing.”
The focus on language came from Whitford’s experience in corporate, where she had noticed a shift in someone’s language when they were stressed or burned out.
“I started getting emails from people, and I noticed in that email chain the same things like, ‘Here we go again’, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’, ‘Haven’t we done this already?’ I just started seeing the same patterns,” she said.
As employees chat with the bot, organisations, receive an aggregate view showing them the wellbeing of their workforce. Individuals can’t be identified, Whitford said, but rather an employer can see themes and trends that may need action.
“We help organisations identify areas they need to support more strongly, or areas they can celebrate great performance and wellness, take those learnings and use them across the organisation,” she said.
Here Whitford’s experience with organisational transformation comes in, with Pioneera also working with leaders to help them take action on feedback.
“Insights are only as good as what you do with them. I have led teams for a long time, I know how difficult and demanding leadership can be and Pioneera is designed to help leaders, not burden them even more,” she said.
Whitford has worked to develop the startup through the SheStarts accelerator program at BlueChilli, where it evolved from a “spell checker for stress”, she said, to its current iteration.
“SheStarts creator, Nicola Hazell is the most incredible person; she’s the reason I applied in the first place and she has been non-stop supportive and incredible. She told me SheStarts would be a game changer for Pioneera and she was right,” Whitford said.
The support within the accelerator has been important; while 20 years of corporate experience helped develop her resilience and grit, Whitford said nothing quite prepared her for “the rollercoaster ride” of starting a startup.
“There are moments when I wonder how I will take the next step. But I overcome these challenges because I always find a way to take that step, whatever it is. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be progress,” she said.
According to Whitford, Pioneera’s addressable market is huge: stress costs the Australian economy alone $15 billion each year, and the US economy over $200 billion.
Locally, the startup has already run a pilot of the bot within ANZ’s technology team which returned important results across both tech design and how to operationalise, Whitford said. She is now in discussions with the bank to look at extending the pilot more broadly across the bank.
Whitford also recently travelled to the US with the SheStarts cohort to explore international opportunities and scout for machine learning talent.
There are a wealth of competitors in the space, from wellness programs to startups like Culture Amp that measure employee engagement, and thousands of apps focused on mental health, however Whitford believes Pioneera has a unique offering.
“Many of these are getting high ratings on the App Store, so we know the market is ready for tech to help them in this space. Yet most of these rely on the individual inputting into a system or answering questions,” she said.
“Pioneera is building the world’s first non-invasive, system for the early identification and real-time reduction of stress in the workplace. You don’t have to answer any questions, we’ll help you based on what you’re already saying everyday.”
As it looks to tackle the market, Whitford said the startup is talking to psychologists, universities, and machine learning experts about potential partnership opportunities. Her goal is to have Pioneera in a handful of medium to large organisations within 12 months.
Image: Danielle Owen Whitford. Source: Supplied.