While mental health in the workplace is a longstanding and undertreated issue, it has been amplified as health professionals struggle with the extraordinary physical and emotional demands of COVID-19. Emerging evidence indicates that more than two-thirds of frontline healthcare workers will experience psychiatric symptoms, including post-traumatic stress, acute anxiety, substance use, depression, and suicide.

To meet this need, a team at Penn Medicine (Penn), in collaboration with UnitedHealth Group, created COBALT—a digital platform that offers immediate access to mental health support for healthcare workers during this critical time.

COBALT connects Penn employees to curated mental health and wellness content, live groups, and individual virtual support. COBALT uses targeted assessments to streamline content and triage employees to the right level and type of support. With its embedded scheduling and telehealth capabilities, it provides HIPAA-compliant mental healthcare at a safe distance. The available resources include peers, resilience coaches, psychotherapists, and psychiatrists, as well as podcasts, articles, mindfulness sessions, and other group support.

“The impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of frontline workers will be felt for many years to come. COBALT is designed to reduce the friction and stigma in accessing mental health care, and provide timely and targeted support and treatment,” says Cecilia Livesey, MD, creator of COBALT and chief of integrated psychiatric services in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “We are in an age where people respond to tailored, on-demand recommendations and care based on their own experiences and preferences. We need to give the workforce effective tools to take care of themselves but in a way that isn’t burdensome and that seamlessly integrates into their daily lives.”

COBALT was created by Livesey in partnership with Penn’s Center for Health Care Innovation, Penn’s Workforce Wellness Committee, the department of Psychiatry, and UnitedHealth Group. Wellness initiatives have been a priority for Penn Medicine during the pandemic. Programs like COBALT are supported through the Workforce Wellness Committee, led by Lisa Bellini, MD, senior vice dean of Academic Affairs in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

“The launch of COBALT has been incredibly successful, with more than 8,000 sessions from over 5,000 individuals accessing a wide range of content and one-on-one support sessions in the first 30 days,” says Kelley Kugler, MSc, COBALT lead and innovation manager at the Center for Health Care Innovation. “Importantly, with the significant concern around suicidal thoughts and actions for those on the frontlines across the nation, COBALT has provided critical crisis intervention and resources for those most at risk and in need.”