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The Smarter Startup

3 Ways Startups Can Cultivate Positive Mental Health in the Workplace

Startups should leverage mental health benefits and activities, watch for early warning signs, and understand productivity cycles.

Our careers and work are an integral part of our lives and even play a role in how we view ourselves and our identity. We spend, on average, 90,000 hours, or one-third, of our lives at work. As an inevitable byproduct of this, our health is intricately connected to our careers and our work. And one piece of our overarching health is our mental health. Depression and anxiety medication prescriptions are ubiquitous, with one in five Americans having been diagnosed with a mental health condition. Burnout is a top concern for many Americans. It is almost impossible to separate mental health from our work and our careers.

So, as an employer, what does this mean for us? And more importantly, what can we do to help?

As the Head of People at Burkland, and throughout my career, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to facilitate work opportunities for employees that cultivate positive mental health. I’ve found three core ways with the potential to have a positive impact on our employees’ mental health.

1. Leveraging Mental Health-Specific Benefits, Perks, and Activities

There are so many new companies popping up with mental health in mind. The first step as an employer is to strategize around your employees’ needs – what matters the most to your employees? Sending out a survey can help identify which mental health perks and activities are the most meaningful to your employee base.

In fact, one of Burkland’s clients, Sesh, leverages the power of virtual support groups to address employees’ mental health (and other) concerns. Sesh has group plans for companies interested in providing a virtual platform for their employees to participate in support groups.

The options are endless when it comes to “trying on” a kaleidoscope of options, methods, activities, and programs centered around mental health awareness for employees.

Employee engagement doesn’t just equate to happy hours. Employee engagement also can focus on mental health awareness. Recently, we invited Emily Leahy to host a workshop called Ditch the Burnout. In the workshop, our employees learned about boundary setting both professionally and personally, how to get into a flow state naturally and on-demand, and participated in an introductory meditation designed to help facilitate time and attention management.

The options are endless when it comes to “trying on” a kaleidoscope of options, methods, activities, and programs centered around mental health awareness for employees. And, the best part is, there is usually something for everyone. We, as employers, can get as creative and iterative as we’d like!

2. Developing Awareness of Early Warning Signs

As work becomes more personal (with COVID, we’ve literally brought work into our homes), leaders and managers must be educated about what to look for when it comes to employees who are struggling with their mental health. Being able to identify early warning signs is an important part of getting ahead of something more serious.

Being able to identify early warning signs is an important part of getting ahead of something more serious.

Clearly, this is a challenging conversation to have with employees, but cultivating an awareness of our teams’ mental and emotional health and engaging in these conversations is an essential part of being a conscious, human-centered employer.

One example of identifying ways to help struggling employees is to understand how an employee fits within the organization holistically. Often, employees will struggle at work because they don’t feel fulfilled by their work, or they are having difficulty communicating with their managers or teams. Through understanding not only our employees’ skills and abilities but also their core motivations, fears, and the things that light them up, we can get better at assigning our employees to roles and teams within the organization. And as a result, this can help improve the employee’s emotional and mental health, allowing the employee to grow into a role they may not yet have the expertise for or know how to perform, but one that has the potential to help them feel fulfilled and productive at work. In turn, the organization will also benefit from an engaged, fulfilled employee.

At Burkland, we believe that upholding our core value of Trusted Partner informs how we connect with and lead our employees. We create opportunities to infuse this value into our leadership groups, so that when challenging employee situations arise, we can lean on the trust we’ve built within our teams to help address and solve challenges as best we can. If managers are trusted partners to their employees, they are better able to keep a pulse on the internal and mental states of their teams and, as a result, will be able to better identify the early warning signs of a mental or emotional health concern.

3. Understanding Cycles of Productivity

I love the law of the conservation of energy: energy can neither be created nor destroyed – it only changes form.

I believe this applies to us as humans: our energy ebbs and flows, it takes different shapes and forms, and it changes moment by moment.

We’ve all been there: we wake up early, and we’re ready for the day. Maybe we even have an early morning workout, a shower, and breakfast, all before our first 9 am meeting. And then, all of a sudden, we’re sitting in the meeting, and the fatigue hits us. We feel our eyelids drooping and become panicked at the thought of the three meetings following the one we’re currently trying not to fall asleep in. So, we run and grab a coffee or energy drink, hoping the caffeine pulsing through our veins will revive us enough just to make it through the day. And then, some days, it’s the opposite – we can barely drag ourselves out of bed. We take our first call still in our pajamas. But then, something magical happens – by our second meeting of the day, we’re engaged, vibrant, even excited. And the day, well, just takes off from there.

So why does this happen? Well, because energy is constantly shifting, changing form. Momentum is real, and burnout and flow states are also very real. As a human-centered, conscious employer, we need to understand that our employees will not sustain the same amount of energy on a daily, or even moment by moment, basis. They will ebb and flow day to day, week to week, and month to month. This is one of many reasons why it is so important not to evaluate employees based only on short-term performance.

As a human-centered, conscious employer, we need to understand that our employees will not sustain the same amount of energy on a daily, or even moment by moment, basis.

And, when discussing energy cycles, we can’t ignore the fact that hormones play a very real role in our energetic cycles. Male hormone cycles have a 24-hour cadence, which is what our current workdays are built around. However, female hormone cycles operate on a 28-day cadence. This is an important example to note because we often overlook the very natural cycles of our bodies and our planet and are instead expected to all operate on the same timeline, with the same amount of energy, day in and day out.

Just as our environment has natural cycles of productivity and dormancy, we do too. As we begin to become more human-centered employers, I believe we will leverage these cycles instead of railroading over them. The employers that implement structures and practices that embrace and maximize their employees’ natural productivity and energy cycles will be the organizations that rise to the top, known for their success in sustaining a wildly productive workforce and for being conscious leaders in their industries.

Employee mental health is something all startups should have on their radar. Burkland’s strategic People Operations team is available to help. Contact us for more information.