Built With MongoDB: Overcoming Employee Burnout Through Pioneera

Adam Hughes


Everyone can feel burned out from time to time. Working late hours to meet that project deadline, checking your phone on the weekend for any missed Slack messages from coworkers, an endless stream of Zoom calls — workplace stress can add up quickly and does not leave much room for taking care of yourself.

With so much on your plate at any given time, it can be hard to pick up on the warning signs of burnout.

One Australian startup has made its mission to prevent employees from reaching burnout with software trained to pick up on those warning signs and alert you.

The application, Indie, from Australian startup Pioneera, sends personalized notifications in real time, when employees need them the most. Similar to a spellchecker, Indie helps individuals, teams, and companies prevent burnout.

Built With MongoDB spoke with our 2022 MongoDB Savvy Startup Innovation Award winner, Danielle Owen Whitford, who founded Pioneera in 2018. Whitford discussed how she came up with the idea, how the software works, and what the future of Pioneera holds.

Built With MongoDB: What is Pioneera all about?

Danielle Owen Whitford: Pioneera uses early warning indicators to help reduce workplace stress and prevent burnout in a confidential and safe way. And when we see those early warning signs, helping that person get the help they need in real time to reduce their stress, promote wellness, improve productivity — all that good stuff. Essentially we are trying to use technology to prevent mental health issues in the workplace, which are rising at an alarming rate.

Where did the names Pioneera and Indie come from?

Our mission is to pioneer a new era of work, and it just came out as Pioneera! As for the name Indie, it’s actually named after my daughter. Our first MVP had a different name, and we had some mixed responses to the name. I was part of SheStarts, an accelerator program in Australia, and I was talking to my fellow founders about some of the experiences I had with my daughter and how she courageously called me out on working too hard. They said, “Why don’t you call the bot Indie?” Customers and users loved it, so Indie bot was a keeper.

What are some examples of common stress signals that Indie picks up?

We assess language, linguistic markers, and behaviors as the three key areas. From a language point of view, we see that there are certain types of words that are used within a workplace context that are exhibitors of stress. For example, when we’re stressed in real life, we say that we’re stressed, but at work we’re more likely to say, “I feel stretched.” And that’s a word that we have built into our scoring system, which we developed with a psychologist.

On the positive side, we look for words like achievement and win. We also look for behavior — how we act in the workplace, particularly around our communication systems, because that’s where Indie sits.

What made you decide to start Pioneera?

I burned myself out in 2016. I spent 20 years in big companies and had a whole range of senior roles, from running retail networks and call centers to large-scale transformation. It’s not like I was hidden away in the organization — I reported into the executive team and was very visible, so we all saw the signs. I loved what I did, but I didn’t see the warning signs. I left because I felt like I had no other options. In hindsight I know that I did, but at the time, I just couldn't see past where I was at. That is a classic sign of burnout.

I took a bit of time off. I started looking at my former colleagues and my peers, and I realized this burnout phenomenon was happening everywhere. I used to see emails from my team that said, “Here we go again” and “I don’t want to do this anymore.” My first degree was in psychology and my second was a Masters in Communication, so I instinctively responded to that language. So if I saw it, I would call them up and ask what was going on. My teams didn’t burn out and they always delivered. But clearly nobody had seen that for me, and I missed all the signs myself, so I burned out.

I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could automate that for everyone?” The naivete in me thought that if Microsoft created a spell-checker, surely it can’t be that hard to create a spell-checker for stress. We know the language is there — we’ve all gotten emails from people where we know they’re having a bad day. That’s what I set out to do, to take my 20 years of experience and turn that into how I could help prevent this burnout from happening. I wanted Indie to do for the world what I had done for my colleagues.

Burnout happens at an individual level, but the impacts are pretty significant — not just for that person or their family, but also for the workplace and then for society in general. We’re seeing health care costs that are through the roof, and we’re going to see long-term impacts on the next generation in terms of the ability to educate. These serious social issues are something I knew I needed to turn my attention to.

In terms of employees, can you explain who has access to what information?

We’re obsessed with privacy and confidentiality, and it's built into every part of the product. Everything is done in a way that protects the confidentiality and privacy of the individual.

We did a lot of user testing before we started building the product, and users said that they really love this and the fact that their company would buy this for them. So it contributed to an employer value proposition. But, and it is a big but, they did not want their boss to know that they were stressed, because they thought they’d miss out on a project or HR would contact them or something like that. So that feedback has become the core of everything we do.

What does the future of Pioneera look like?

We’ve really upped our game on patterns of behaviors that indicate action is needed and the tips we provide to encourage action. We have partnered with expert psychologists to deliver content that is evidence- and research-based and proven to work. We’ve revolutionized our user experience to build connection and trust from the first moment a user hears about Indie. We’re looking to scale internationally with our vision for everyone globally to have Indie’s personalized, real-time support.

What have you enjoyed the most about building Pioneera?

It feels like there’s real meaning to what we’re doing and we’re actually making a difference in people's lives. I’ll get a call from a customer who says they were headed toward burnout and Indie stopped them. Or a call from a team manager delighted that they acted on Indie’s recommendations and their team is thriving. That sort of thing is always delightful to hear. I feel like we’re doing something positive for the world.

How has working with MongoDB enabled Pioneera to succeed?

The way the database is set up and structured has enabled us to focus on the things that we need to focus on, because we know MongoDB has our back. We’re a technology company building innovative technology, and we need to deliver our product to the market in a scalable, reliable way. You can run the risk of building a great technology, but it’s not actually a product that solves a problem for customers because the product features aren’t delivering value. MongoDB does technology really well, and that’s what we use it for — to make sure we’re delivering great product features and value to the customer today and tomorrow.

Learn more about using Pioneera to overcome employee burnout and find out more about our MongoDB for Startups program.