How this CEO is helping companies support the wellbeing of employees

4 May 2023

Thorbjorg Helga Vigfusdottir. Image: Kara Connect

Thorbjorg Helga Vigfusdottir of Kara Connect discusses the importance of investing in employees’ wellbeing and how her company provides employers with the resources to do so.

Thorbjorg Helga Vigfusdottir (known as Tobba) is the founder and CEO of health-tech Kara Connect. She has a master’s degree in educational psychology from the University of Washington in Seattle and a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Iceland, focusing on cognitive development. Prior to establishing Kara Connect in 2015, she started a service that provides children in rural towns with access to speech therapists, along with being an elected city councillor in Reykjavík for 12 years, a political advisor to the Icelandic Minister of Education and a project manager for a women’s entrepreneurial programme.

Her current role at Kara Connect, she says, changes with the lifecycle of the company. With Kara Connect currently in the growth phase, Tobba is focused on scaling, automation and delegating so she is “no longer needed for all decisions”, which she says gives her more time to “focus on the team, build relationships with investors and sell the product”, which she still regards as her primary role.

“The CEO is always the number one salesperson, both in house and for clients. Talking to customers is my favourite thing and because we are a social impact company, it is always a pleasure working with clients that see our partnership as a win-win.”

‘Investing in wellbeing is a good thing to do to help your employees feel better, but good wellbeing also positively impacts productivity, turnover, absenteeism and presenteeism’

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector, and how are you tackling them?

We work with companies, giving them a customised access point to various professionals to support their employees’ wellbeing. Kara Connect offers different types of professional services, so employers can provide access to an array of professionals meaning that employees can get help with matters ranging from financials, to special education to nutrition before it becomes a clinical problem. By doing that, we lower absenteeism, presenteeism, burnout and attrition in companies.

Companies are seeing a surge of mental health problems, and middle managers are struggling without training to help employees get support for their multifaceted problems.

80pc of employers in Ireland are not investing in workplace mental health. Following Covid-19, there has been a shift and now employees are talking about mental health, seeking out help, and this in turn is establishing an expectation that their employers will support them. The challenge for employers is finding preventative solutions so that managers can get ahead of issues by investing up front in the wellbeing of their team members.

A key challenge that we help them solve is finding a solution that supports multiple issues. For example, within a single team, you may have people who have a young family and need help managing work and home, or someone who has financial worries and another who is neurodiverse and needs special educational supports. The solutions that are out there today are limited or are often too clinical for the problems at hand.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

Employee wellbeing has become increasingly important for CEOs to understand and invest in. Investing in wellbeing is a good thing to do to help your employees feel better, but good wellbeing also positively impacts productivity, turnover, absenteeism and presenteeism. When investing in wellbeing, companies should look for solutions that offer various support since employees of different ages, gender, nationalities and languages all have different issues or challenges.

We focus on small and medium-sized companies where line managers are experiencing increased pressure. The pressure has increased following Covid-19, with more mental health problems, often as a result of remote working and productivity challenges. CEOs all tell us a similar tale: their managers are taking home multiple problems to solve for their employees that they are not trained to deal with. We cover the entire spectrum of resources and support types that companies should provide their employees, offering early intervention and high return on investment.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

With a background in cognitive psychology, I had been working in politics for many years to increase access to the right help by eliminating red tape. I could see missed opportunities to help people early on through preventative or early support. Addressing the problem too late is very bad for everyone, for the person that needs help, for the professional that needs to work harder and longer with each client, for the family around the individual and for the system as a whole.

I could see how technology was breaking barriers by connecting together users and suppliers – take Airbnb and Uber as an example. I started drawing out a scenario where we could connect people with needs to professionals with the skills and education to help. I first established a speech therapy company delivering online support to children in rural areas. Then Kara Connect was born to give professionals and counsellors a secure platform for all their clinical work and in turn building access points for institutions or companies to connect with them.

What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?

Going into politics was the single biggest professional risk that I’ve taken. It’s a very challenging place to be where your opinions are inevitably made public, and there is always someone who doesn’t agree. It’s very difficult when your close friends or family don’t agree and there’s always the risk that you can’t build a bridge.

That said, it was an incredibly rewarding career, and I don’t regret a moment of it. It allowed me to clearly see where the gaps are in the system and how I could help in a different way which brought me to where I am today.

How do you get the best out of your team?

I try to communicate how Kara Connect can make a difference in the lives of individuals. I also focus on getting everyone to discuss their ideas and worries. I think I am improving at listening and staying silent to get all kinds of ideas to the table. That way, everyone has a voice, and the process, products and ideas will improve. I try to hire people that are helpful and kind to their co-workers. That way, the team grows and is bigger than the sum of the individuals.

‘You can work on a project or a decision from all angles to get as much information as you can – but in the end, it is your gut decision that should lead you forward’

Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?

Most technology companies have a big challenge regarding diversity. And it’s compounding because the tech sector is expanding three times faster than other industries and women are still less likely to study STEM subjects and less likely, on top of that, to work in technology companies (19pc in the UK as opposed to 49pc in other sectors). Studies show that the two most significant barriers for women in tech are a lack of mentors and role models. So, I try my best to talk to any women that reach out and say yes when asked to speak or meet with women in tech. Companies need a broad definition of diversity, always interview women and candidates from minority backgrounds and remember that when hired, stay with them and mentor them to grow.

What’s the best piece of career advice you have ever received?

That you can work on a project or a decision from all angles to get as much information as you can – but in the end, it is your gut decision that should lead you forward.

What essential tools and resources get you through the working week?

My Kindle is my personal favourite – I bring it with me everywhere because it is my wellbeing tool. Dropping into a good story relaxes my brain.

Slack is where the team talks, and I love getting the little personal things there. It is not perfect, but it is the tool in the office that connects people on tasks and personal notes.

Notion is our workstation in Kara Connect. It has a pretty steep learning curve, but when you start understanding the tables and the connections, you will think the developers have read your mind. Now my personal diary is also there, which tells you how integrated it has become.

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