August 20, 2020

Startups are sitting on a mental health powder keg

Ditch the ping pong tables and free beer; give startup employees the kind of perks they really need.

Credit: Joma Barleah, Unsplash

For years, startups have developed notoriety as kidult playgrounds. Whether it’s beer fridges, canine open door policies or in-office ball-pits, it seems that no self-respecting new kid on the block can even call itself a startup without patronising perks designed to “bring teams together” and “let their hair down”. 

Even more sinister are the Googles and Facebooks of the world that before Covid boasted of providing their staff with three square meals a day, concierge services and even sleep pods. (You might wonder whether they ever wanted their employees to leave at all.) 

Of course the Covid pandemic has brought these utopian visions of workplace bliss to their knees. Gone are the perks that proved to be PR gold for many an organisation, eschewed in favour of “the new world order”, characterised by full-time fully-remote working (which, mercifully for some, has also proven to be PR gold). 


The rise of the workplace mental health initiative

But what of that bastion of good employer branding in recent years, the workplace mental health initiative? 

These range from professional support from in-house psychotherapists to Slack channels and trite posters extolling cringe-worthy affirmations. And, of course, the armies of Mental Health First Aiders trained up to offer support to their colleagues in as little as two days. (To put this in context, accreditation with the British Association for Counselling Professionals requires a minimum of a year’s training and 450 hours of supervised practise. To volunteer as a Samaritan, an individual must complete a minimum of three months’ training with extensive drilling in effective safeguarding.) 

Even before the outbreak of Covid, startups were notoriously tough working environments, led by entrepreneurs who themselves acknowledge the stresses of startup life. (77% of entrepreneurs say running a business has affected their mental health and 68% struggle with their sleep, according to WeAre3Sixty.) 

77% of entrepreneurs say running a business has affected their mental health.

What’s more, in an environment where in-house recruiters have limited budgets and rely heavily on staff networks to refer “like-minded” people to “join us on our mission”, the challenge of poor mental health within small organisations perpetuates itself. (Not to mention the seemingly expected long working hours and financial responsibilities to boards hovering overhead.)  

Now life for many startups is only going to get more challenging — at least until a vaccine is available and people start spending again — and with that have a knock-on impact on employee mental health

The reality is this: we really don’t know what the long-term impact of Covid will be on the startup landscape, or the medium and long-term pressures that it’ll place on organisations and the people that comprise them. The BMA has called for the UK government to divert funds toward mental health provision on a national scale, but few resources are available on how to evolve mental health strategies within the workplace to support staff in this new world. 

Startups with mental health initiatives therefore need to think seriously about the following if mental health initiatives are to provide any value to their employees: 

1) Collect data now

Seek to understand what your people are actually experiencing and feeling. What is the state of their mental wellbeing in lockdown? Are they feeling more or less pressure in the current environment? Have changed working practices impacted their wellbeing positively or negatively?

CultureAmp has a thorough set of guidelines for a comprehensive wellbeing survey, covering everything from a review of existing initiatives to manager input and individual wellbeing.  

2) You cannot expect well-intentioned employees to pick up the pieces of their colleagues’ poor mental health

Everyone is going through something at the moment, and it’s unfair for the burden of mental healthcare provision to be placed on individuals who have received a sum total of two days’ training. Nobody — not even the most experienced mental health professional — could prepare for Covid, but it’s best left to those who have received extensive training to provide mental health care at a time when the world is in a state of collective trauma. 

It’s unfair for the burden of mental healthcare provision to be placed on individuals who have received a sum total of two days’ training.

Consider whether your organisation should sign up to a private healthcare provider that can offer employees the support they need. If this isn’t financially viable, provide guidance to employees on how best to seek mental health support via the NHS or privately. Note that counselling and therapy are unregulated industries in the UK, so the BACP and UKCP directories are the best and safest places to start a search.

3) Your perks mean nothing. Don’t continue to pretend that they do

Beer fridges, ping pong tables, free meals, sleep pods: none of these things really contribute meaningfully to the improvement of your employees’ mental health and wellbeing. At best they are lipstick on a pig; at worst they encourage an unhealthy work-life balance. 

Beer fridges, ping pong tables, free meals, sleep pods — at best they are lipstick on a pig.

If remote working continues to be the norm, think carefully about the benefits of superficial perks and tap into what your employees really need and value. According to data from IWFM, 75% of workers enjoy the time saved not commuting and 42% are concerned about having less free time for personal activities, with 73% welcoming more flexible working options. 

It seems that the real value added is in providing flexibility and time, not ‘stuff’.

4) Take a look at your work practices

According to the 2019 Mental Health at Work report, 52% of those who experience mental health problems related to work say that this is due to having too many priorities. 62% of managers had to put the interests of their organisation above staff wellbeing either sometimes, regularly or every day.

Unfortunately this data is not available for small organisations, but it isn’t a stretch to imagine that the situation is worse for startups. Indeed the 2017 Stevenson Farmer review highlighted that SMEs presented the greatest challenge for the improvement of UK mental health due to a lack of resources and time to dedicate to employee mental health.

Startups are sitting on a powder keg for workplace mental health. Start fostering healthier working environments. Stop fetishising presenteeism and 4am code releases. It’s not cool and it doesn’t demonstrate “dedication”. It’s just plain stupid. 

Our secret columnist has worked in the London startup scene for over five years.