‘There wasn’t anything particularly “hard” about today. I woke up, I showered, I folded some clothes, …the normal things. But there was an overwhelming feeling of “heavy”. Everyone’s “heavy” sits differently, depending on the carrier of the weight of it all; the feeling that rests solely in the middle of your chest, pulsing and riding your nerves into infinity. You stare it into a mirror, into a corner, into a shadow. The heavy travels, too. It lurks and feeds on thoughts and breath. But, there is work to be done. There are to-do lists waiting to be completed, clients to appease, copy to write. There is no time for feelings. - Joel Leon, Anxy Magazine
How many of us feel this way from time to time? If we were to pose this query to any employee or professional today, we bet there will be a record number of ‘Me’ answers. Of course, we would only hear these answers if we become better at asking these questions and creating safe spaces for such conversations.
Mental health can be a significant challenge for startups due to the pressures of pursuing ambitious goals often in uncharted territory and the ambiguity in day-to-day activities. As per a recent survey by Hush, an HR tech startup, nearly half the employees across startups, banking and financial companies said they are struggling to find a balance between work and personal life. As many as 22% of Indian respondents felt that their productivity is low due to overwork and stress and 1 out of every 5 employees of India Inc. confessed that they were suffering from workplace depression.
Despite these growing mental health challenges, we aren’t talking about them enough. When people undergo a physical ailment such as a headache or a sprain, they feel comfortable talking to their peers about it and taking a day off, if necessary. If we want to make genuine progress in modern workplaces, people should feel equally comfortable talking about mental health challenges. The stigma around mental health needs to be removed and the first step is open conversation. A culture that acknowledges and tackles these pressures can go a long way in ensuring employee wellbeing as well as the overall success of the startup.
Startup culture is great when it comes to innovation and independence. Unfortunately, the flip side includes lack of clarity, direction or information. Employees are encouraged to work ‘smart’, and move quick. . While this is a major learning opportunity, it can lead to issues of exhaustion and burnout in the absence of protective guardrails and willingness to talk about these challenges openly. We might showoff a plaster but, we won’t tell people about how we’re burning ourselves out. I This is a problem and we need to change this paradigm.
So, if you are the leader of a startup today, what should you do?
- Make mental health conversations and communication transparent – Encourage employees to feel comfortable talking such challenges. At Elucidata for instance, we have taken active steps to encourage everyone to feel comfortable talking about the challenges they are facing, taking the time off to deal with their anxieties or see a mental health professional. The focus is on normalizing mental health so that we can actively make improvements.
- Offer mental health days – It’s necessary to offer not just sick days, but days to cope with emotional health as well. It’s important that every employee gets the opportunity to take the day to say “no”, plus, avoid the ridicule of colleagues and management for not “sticking it out.” Mental health off should not just be an option, but a mandate.
- Empower managers - Managers often face stress and anxiety as they balance competing priorities while leading teams and take responsibility for things that are beyond their control. We found it very helpful to have an open discussion on stress and anxiety for our managers, where we spoke about the role they play in the day to day life and to brainstorm methods that focuses on observing and acknowledging these emotions, and finding the best ways to deal with them
- Empower employees - Bring in mental health experts (psychologist/psychiatrist) to run company-wide workshops to educate everyone on mental health (especially in a startup context) and provide actionable tools and resources.
Sustained, long-term efforts along these areas can meaningfully impact employee well-being and the success of the organization. Startups of today will become the global leaders of tomorrow, and it is our responsibility to embrace a more well-rounded, holistic approach to mental health. This approach will go a long way in creating a vibrant, employee-friendly workplace where people can be both productive and happy.