Myra Altman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and the vice president of clinical care at Modern Health. We recently sat down to discuss her research specialties, her journey to Modern Health, and the cultural shift she’s witnessed surrounding employee mental health.
Tell us about your background and your journey to Modern Health.
My psychology training was in clinical science, meaning I simultaneously completed clinical work and research under the belief that practice and science inform each other in important ways. This is why I continue to see patients on a weekly basis, even though I lead all research and clinical care full time at Modern Health; I find it helpful to apply learnings from my clinical work to my work at Modern Health. In terms of approaches, I was trained from an evidence-based framework. My base training was in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), understanding the relationship between thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. I also really love Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and mindfulness-based approaches. I weave these techniques together in my practice and they form the basis of what we do at Modern Health.
My path to Modern Health combined several of my professional interests. After completing my Ph.D., I spent one year at Stanford in a healthcare innovation fellowship looking at how to safely reduce healthcare costs while improving quality and patient experience. I learned about inefficiencies, how incentives are not aligned, the problem of mental health not having true parity with physical health, the difficulties of accessing care, and the long term impact of all of these problems. I wanted to be in a setting that was innovating around these issues and finding novel solutions. Additionally, what interested me about Modern Health in particular is the holistic view we take. It’s not mental health as we traditionally think about it, but we take a comprehensive approach to acknowledge how financial wellness, diversity and inclusion, relationships, etc. contribute to an individual’s overall well-being.
What made you decide to pursue your Ph.D. in psychology, and what research specialties did you pursue?
I’ve always had two big interests: food and psychology. I actually went to cooking school before college. My passion for the intersection of food and psychology led me to research obesity during graduate school, with the hope of applying my research to make an impact. Often in grad school, people’s research becomes more and more focused on a particular specialization. I actually found that the opposite happened for me. My interests broadened beyond individual factors in obesity to mental and physical health and well-being more holistically.
How has your obesity research translated into workplace wellness?
I was doing a behavioral weight loss study at a hospital and employee after employee kept saying, ‘I was doing really well until I got to work.’ At work, there would be trays of cookies out in the rec room, folks wouldn’t have time to stop for lunch and would instead eat out of the vending machine, or people wouldn’t have time to take a break and walk. I found it striking how this hospital was paying for a wellness program, but they didn’t implement the work structure to promote its success. That sparked my interest in workplace wellness in general. How can employers not only give employees the tools they need individually to be healthy and fulfilled, but how do you create a workplace environment that supports this?
What are solutions for prioritizing well-being in the workplace?
Having simple solutions to complex problems doesn’t work, whether we’re talking about physical health or mental and emotional health; we need to acknowledge that workplace wellness is complex and individuals have different needs based on their circumstances and the systems in which they operate (e.g., family, work, culture). That’s why at Modern Health we provide mental health support on multiple levels, including individual support through therapy and coaching plus more flexible, self-guided support through digital tools like skills classes and mindfulness meditations. It’s also critical to provide support at the organizational level, so we assist our clients through webinars, leadership toolkits, and manager trainings to help the company develop an affirming culture around prioritizing mental health.
What will create a lasting cultural shift toward prioritizing well-being in the workplace?
It’s already happening. The movement is a combination of leaders understanding the importance of mental, emotional, and physical health in the workplace and employees demanding it. What’s exciting is investing in employee well-being makes a lot of sense for the business and the bottom line. If you have employees that are healthy and happy, you’re going to do better financially because you’ll have higher retention and lower healthcare costs. The incentives align, but the culture of each individual company still needs to shift in a direction that acknowledges this. But on a macro level, the shift is definitely happening and we’re thrilled to be a part of it.
Holly Burwick is Business Operations Lead at Modern Health.