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How startup leaders can continue to prioritise workplace mental health in a post-pandemic world

In the wake of the coronavirus crisis, most progressive employers have rapidly increased the range of mental health benefits they offer staff. Coupled with the boom in consumer wellness applications, and it’s no surprise that mental health tech startups are currently fetching record investments. In fact, according to data firm PitchBook, 146 deals brought in nearly $1.6 billion in VC investments in 2020. This represents a huge increase on 2019’s figure: $893 million from 111 deals.

Of course, the startup community is abuzz with chatter about the opportunities presented by disruptive mental health and wellness support platforms. However, startup leaders need to continually asking themselves: are they doing enough to encourage good mental health in their own companies? Or will mental health in the tech startup space be a case of ‘the cobblers children have no shoes’ – an industry which espouses the many virtues of effective mental health support in the workplace, without offering its employees the same advantages?

The tech world isn’t immune to all the consequences of Covid-19

In terms of economic impact, the world of tech has suffered less than many others over the past year, especially when compared to the hardest hit sectors of retail and hospitality, not to mention the huge strain felt by our public services.

But this doesn’t mean that tech professionals have been immune to the negative mental health consequences of the pandemic – particularly those in early-stage, high-growth companies. Indeed, increased workloads and the blurring of the lines between our personal and professional lives have conspired to create a fertile breeding ground for poor workplace mental health.

Of course, many startups have increased their benefit offerings to extend beyond the routine ‘ping-pong and beer-fridge’ perks, moving to include extensive digital healthcare, mental health and fitness support. But will this be enough going forward, or is more change necessary to uphold the duty of care they have to employees in a post-Covid world? How can startup leaders ensure that one of the biggest learnings from the pandemic – namely the prioritisation of mental health in the workplace – will be embedded in their culture from now on?

In addition to a solid mental health and wellbeing benefit offering, here’s what we believe can be done to better support the mental health of tech startup employees in a new era of work.

1. Be aware of – and look after – your own mental health

As with most things, it all starts with you.

Mental health amongst startup founders and leaders still isn’t always openly talked about – but it needs to be. In 2019, we hosted an event in London entitled ‘A Healthy Bottom Line: Re-thinking Corporate Health and Wellbeing’. Tech startup founders, CEOs, CPOs and Heads of Talent had a unique opportunity to hear from those at the forefront of reducing the number of tech professionals who experience work-related mental health problems. The response was overwhelming – we saw first-hand how committed many in our industry are to supporting the wellbeing of employees. But the avenues – and perhaps even the inclination – to openly discuss the mental health amongst startup leaders remain wanting.

To start, learn to be more attuned to your own mental health and learn good coping mechanisms. This will have three main, positive outcomes. First, you will likely become a better, more compassionate leader – more attuned to your employees’ wellbeing, how mental health issues affect them, and how to support them on an individual level. Second, it will help you navigate the hard times, boosting your resilience and ultimately empowering you to make the right decisions which lead your company from strength to strength. Finally – and perhaps most importantly – it will help set the tone from the top that prioritising mental health is actively encouraged by your business, and your employees will follow suit.

2. Hire a Head of People

You should consider appointing an inhouse people lead – before you really need one. Because by then, it’ll probably be too late.

Structured HR is unfairly maligned by some commentators as a stranglehold to small businesses, a stifler of flexibility. However, this is a worrying misconception, and one which will have serious consequences: you absolutely can have a strategic, forward-thinking HR function whilst still remaining agile and keeping the essence of what makes your company unique. In fact, the business benefits gained by creating and maintaining a supportive workplace culture are extensive, especially in high-growth companies – from better talent attraction and retention to improved employee morale, fewer stress-related absences and higher productivity to showing investors that you have measures in place to support people.

Yet all too often, startups hire HR or People Leads late in their journeys – after Series A funding rounds or even Series B. But make no mistake: if you wait until there is a problem with your culture and people strategy, you will almost certainly lose some of your top talent in the time it takes you to fix it.

3. Be sensitive to the unique challenges presented as we transition to a post-pandemic world

As vaccine rollouts continue – albeit with notable exceptions across the world, shown by the devastating 2nd waves across India and other nations – many of us are beginning to talk about the long-awaited ‘return to normal’.

But what will tomorrow’s ‘normal’ look like? It seems unlikely that we will go back to living and working exactly as we did before. Even as lockdowns are lifted, many businesses have committed to a continuation of remote working to better support work-life balance. However, it’s important to remember that this move may not be welcomed by everyone.

As reported by the Mental Health Foundation, by February 2021, 26% of adults were experiencing feelings of loneliness, a rise from 10% at the beginning of the pandemic. This was highest amongst young people, with a staggering 48% if those aged 18-24 saying they felt this way. It is therefore key that, wherever possible, you offer ‘hybrid working’ – serving both those who want the camaraderie, on-the-job learning opportunities and team support that working in an office facilitates, as well as those who have found remote working beneficial to juggling professional and personal commitments such as working parents.

4. Ensure your support extends to and is accessible by more senior employees too

Poor mental health doesn’t discriminate. Stress, burnout, anxiety and depression can impact anyone, no matter their age, experience or how ‘successful’ they are – especially after a uniquely challenging year for us all.

Catherine de la Poer, an executive leadership coach with 360Leaders, spoke about the resistance amongst some in the tech sector to address mental health concerns in the workplace: “There is the generational question. Those leaders who are nearing the close of their careers were very much brought up with the mindset of keeping quiet – the old ‘just get on with it’ attitude. Those at the other end of the age scale, Millennials, have an altogether different approach. This group of workers are now entering management and leadership roles and very much adhere to the ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ mentality.”

It can be easy to direct your support to more junior members of staff. But is important to offer practical solutions that are more accessible to senior members of staff too, such as structured courses on self-reflection, mindfulness and even cognitive behavioural therapy for work-related stress. Not only is it a morale duty, but it will help retain senior level appointments and enable your company to continue to benefit from the breadth of experience and skills they have to offer.

5. Remember to regularly communicate any initiatives – and seek feedback on them

So, you’ve done all the above. You’re looking after your own mental health, you’re offering impressive mental health benefits and – with the support of a compassionate and forward thinking Head of HR or People to cultivate a great work environment and support your hypergrowth – you are committed to embedding all the wellness learnings from the pandemic into your company culture going forward.

But all this work can fall flat if you don’t regularly and consistently communicate exactly what support you offer to your employees.

Instead, you should be shouting from the rooftops that championing good mental health in your employees is an integral part of your company’s values. Don’t forget, showing that you take the wellbeing of your staff seriously is not just a talent magnet, but it will also position your company as a vastly more attractive proposition to potential investors.

Furthermore, the support you offer and how to flag any issues should be clearly signposted as part of your onboarding process. Wellbeing and mental health related benefits should be easily accessible to all, and uptake frequently encouraged. Memos from company founders and leaders about why they take mental health in the workplace so seriously will help clarify to any remaining sceptics that related initiatives are not simply a ‘box ticking exercise’, but have the full backing of those at the top.

Then, seek their feedback: do they feel their mental health is supported enough? Are your mental health benefits relevant, and have they experienced any positive impacts from them? And, crucially, what more can be done?

Of course, a person’s mental health is not the sole responsibility of their employer. But especially as we move into a new era of work, ensuring that you are supporting your staff as well as you can and ensuring that mental health remains high on your agenda is an important part of your duty of care now. Both your bottom-line and your people will thank you for it.

360leaders is committed to helping enable better mental health in the workplace. To learn more about some of our many thriving placements into the people function of tech businesses, take a look at our case studies here.