5 Ways to Prioritize Mental Health in a Start-Up Company

The health of employees is as vital as their productivity. Learn how to make mental health a priority in your organization.

Mental health in the workplace

You probably talk about customers or users all day and try to think of ways to make them happy, satisfy their needs, and be the best partner possible for them. That’s so awesome! Now imagine you do that for your employees too - and then some. You know how the saying goes: Healthy employees = happy customers. It’s so simple, yet many organizations struggle to foster mental health initiatives beyond healthy snacks, a sponsored gym membership, or after-work beer.

Prioritizing mental health at work means taking conscious action to create a work environment and company culture that ensures a thriving environment for your team. It includes educating yourself about mental health, starting the conversation, and dragging it out of the ugly taboo corner many of us have put it in due to insecurity or lack of knowledge. Mental health in the workplace is about making educated cultural decisions, defining your values, and sticking to them. Sounds overwhelming? Don’t stress! Read on for our best tips on creating a healthy, productive work environment for your team.

Why worry about mental health in the workplace?

Being healthy is about more than simply not being sick. The same is true for mental health. According to the WHO, “Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes their abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and can make a contribution to their community.” In short, being healthy mentally allows us to unfold our full potential, enabling us to create an impact.

Work itself can be a significant contributor to a person's mental health. The workplace provides an environment for people to explore their talents and other sides of themselves, feel productive, and impact more than just their immediate surroundings. Hostile working environments can have a devastating effect on our mental health when it doesn’t allow us to live up to our full potential and make us feel less than we are.

Mental health in the start-up world

Mental health conditions like depression and anxiety have a significant impact on the economy: Estimates go as high as US$ 1 trillion per year in lost productivity. Mental health is especially vital in the start-up world, where  “knowledge work” such as creativity, planning, analysis, and collaboration are the foundation of innovative progress.

Since start-ups usually still have to prove the potential success of their idea, the pressure to produce valuable outcomes at a fast pace is high. Stress, or more precisely distress, is one of the most significant mental health risk factors at start-ups. Founders have to be vigilant when the positive, motivating, and energy-focusing excitement, also called eustress, turns into unhealthy distress. One of the warning signs is that your team's performance decreases due to the inability to cope with what’s going on at work. Ask yourself if your business strategy and objectives bring on the stress your employees face. Stretch goals are good and essential, but they have to be chosen wisely with the team's overall capacity and ability in mind.

How to priortize mental health in the workplace

But fear not: as start-ups are smaller and more agile organizations with flat hierarchies, they can have more direct conversations and address issues faster. Start-ups can therefore make employee wellbeing the backbone of their organization without having to implement long and painful change processes. Here are five action points to prioritize in your organization to promote employee wellbeing and mental health:

1. Grow through education

Whether you do it by reading up on the topic, having collaborative learning sessions, inviting guest speakers into your organization, or having professionals on staff, it’s essential to educate yourself and your entire organization on mental health. Get the conversation going and drag the topic out of the taboo zone. Talk about it in meetings, at the watercooler, or have a Slack channel where you discuss everything about mental health. Being open about mental health doesn’t mean that you need to share your struggles. It does mean exploring how to work best as a team by understanding what each individual needs to thrive.

Check in regularly with your employees on their current feelings towards their work and work environment. Ask questions, listen, encourage feedback, and provide your employees with information on the mental health care system.

2. Connect through purpose

Millennials rule the workplace and will make up 75% of the workforce by 2025. Especially in start-ups, most of your employees will be part of a generation that looks to link their work-life to a purpose that matters to them. Working in an environment where your beliefs and values are shared has an immense influence on mental health as it allows us to work with integrity. We’re also more likely to work among people that try to achieve the same things as we do and seek to create a similar impact.

While it’s practically expected for a modern start-up to rally their team behind a world-changing idea,  it might be hard not to lose sight of it in the uncertainties your company and team might face.

Having a culture that fosters mental health will help you weather these storms better. However, it might not always help your team stay resilient throughout extended rough patches. In these times, it is easy to get lost in the day-to-day business and lose connection to WHY you are doing what you’re doing. Introducing a strategy management framework, such as OKRs, can help your team stay focused, aligned, and connected.

Keeping goals visible to everyone and mapping each team member's impact on these goals will hold teams accountable and encourage them to stretch towards something amazing. Your employees will be able to self-assess their contribution to the company and continuously locate themselves in the strategy. A goal management framework can give your team the tools to apply radical focus and make better and more informed decisions on what is important right now - allowing them to defend their valuable time against too many extra tasks and an unnecessarily high workload. Helping your employees make sense of what they are doing will go a long way for their mental health care.

Make productivity healthy.

OKRs allow teams to strive for high-reaching goals with a manageable workload. Use Collato to give your goals clarity and structure on every level.

3. Care through culture

The culture of a company is the sum of all the behaviors of all its people. As a leader, you cannot influence every interaction in your organization, and you shouldn’t try to. Nevertheless, people look to you to build and define a cultural framework or code that sets the tone for working as a team within your company. Your culture will be primarily influenced by the purpose, mission, and values you set, how visibly you live them, and how strictly you uphold them. If you let things slide, others will too.

A psychologically safe and health-fostering culture should encourage people to work together humbly and honestly. No one can create a real impact if they are afraid to fail, fear social backlash, or have to endure a hostile work environment. Create a structure and framework that gives clear guidance on which outcomes you are looking for, and let people be creative within those boundaries. Your organization will not be able to learn fast if your employees are afraid to speak their minds, feel like they need to hide „mistakes“, and don’t dare to challenge executive decisions. For them to do so, you need to offer formats where they can be creative, give feedback and reflect.

Indeed it is not enough to only create a fearless organization. Create a fun and candid one where people are encouraged to bring all sides of themselves to work, not only their work self. Teams that get to experience each other as human beings with all the personal highs and lows are more likely also to bring their personal resources and skills to work. Your employees probably do a lot of epic stuff in their private lives and have incredible hidden skills that, when allowed into the workplace, are one of the greatest drivers of innovation and creativity. Creating an atmosphere of psychological safety make your team healthier, think out of the box and stand out.

4. Enable through feedback

Make giving feedback your number one habit! Lack of appreciation, recognition, or reward through feedback is one of the significant risk factors for mental health at work. Your team works hard every day - make sure they know you know. In fact, 85% of your feedback should be positive and affirming feedback. Giving praise is good - giving gratitude is better. Make sure your employees feel seen, and the big and little things, even something small like loading and unloading the dishwasher, don’t go unnoticed.

A bonus side effect of this is that your team will adopt that behavior and give each other feedback. This simple change creates a positive and appreciative culture where no one is taken for granted. But beware: please don’t go around complimenting people’s looks. Let your feedback speak to your employee's actions, knowledge, and impact on achieving your company's desired outcomes.

Not all feedback can be positive; sometimes you need to make someone aware of what they can improve. In the workplace, you will either give feedback on the quality of the outcome of specific tasks or the behaviors of individuals. Whereas it is relatively easy to comment on objective outcomes, most people find it hard to address behaviors that are inappropriate or not helpful for achieving company goals. These conversations can be challenging, but they will be one of the best conversations you will ever have as they will contribute to everyone’s growth.

Make an effort to pay extra attention to your new or junior employees. They are new to your company and need to know what’s expected of them. It will help them learn to accurately assess themselves and their performance and thus build their self-confidence. Learn about nonviolent communication (a way to create empathy in the conversation) to give feedback that ties in with specific goals, and offer developing opportunities to your employees to help them unlock their potential and set them on a path to success.

5. Empower through self-organization

The way we work has begun to change fundamentally. With the age of “knowledge work,” we can no longer apply the productivity standards of industrial manufacturing. Ideas and solutions can’t be produced like parts on a conveyer belt. They need time, the right environment, and excellent communication. Bearing this in mind, it’s not too much of a leap to think that a 40-hour workweek where your employees sit at their desks Monday to Friday from nine to five might be a bit restraining. Instead, lead your team to discover how, when, and where they get their best work done.

Micromanaging is the death of every great team. One of the main risks to mental health in the workplace is having little control over what you do or experiencing a lack of autonomy regarding how to do your work. Telling your employees how to do their job on a daily basis creates frustration. Over-controlling your team’s work can make them feel seen as incapable of doing their work and therefore not be trusted. It decreases morale and productivity as it gaslights employees into fundamentally questioning their abilities and capabilities.

Many successful companies have moved to a more self-organized approach to how teams work. The first step is to educate leaders and managers about a trustful and servant leadership style. If you provide a clear purpose and strategy, you will have a workforce that thinks and acts independently with the company's best interest in mind — giving people in your company the opportunity to take ownership and drive their work autonomously. Self-organizing teams have the ability and responsibility to figure out how to work effectively and efficiently. Individuals can significantly benefit from the self-organization approach as it allows them to not just create a better work-life balance but rather a work-life blend that incorporates time needed for family, health care, and creativity.

Talk the talk & walk the walk

While none of these ideas might be new to you, it can be overwhelming to think that you need to keep all of this in mind at the same time. You are not alone in this. While it is on you as the leader to put mental health on the agenda, it is on everyone to breathe life into it. To foster a safe and healthy work environment, everyone needs to understand its importance and how they can individually contribute. Check in with each other continuously, provide access to mental health care and do your best to destigmatize it. Because we are in this together, and no one can tackle this alone.

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