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Why startups need to put mental health on the front burner

Written by Poppy Jaman on Tuesday, 07 February 2017. Posted in Wellbeing, People

Poppy Jaman, Mental Health First Aid England CEO, asks: are startups, with their high-octane pace, doing enough to support their staff's mental wellbeing?

Why startups need to put mental health on the front burner

Around ten million adults in the UK will experience mental ill health each year according to a report from the Department of Health. It’s a growing issue but fortunately, we’re talking about it more. That being said, there’s still a lot we need to do to tackle the stigma because mental ill health is a problem for our society and our businesses too. In fact, the Department of Health’s findings reveal that mental health issues like stress, depression or anxiety account for almost 70 million sick days per year – more than any other health condition. And this costs the UK economy between £70bn and £100bn annually. And startups with a company culture that fails to address mental health issues could find that not only does their productivity suffer but their ability to attract and retain talent can be hampered too.

But are companies that are growing rapidly actually creating a culture that might be exacerbating  mental health issues, like anxiety? When startups are under a lot of pressure to achieve their targets, wellbeing support can often fall down the agenda and employees end up feeling under-valued rather than supported. Long hours, high pressure and the uncertainty associated with startup culture can all contribute to mental ill health. And while some employees thrive when presented with the challenges that come with working for a startup, there’s a fine line between enjoying the dynamic buzz it offers and feeling overwhelmed by tight deadlines and tough targets.

Businesses that rely on a small but hard-working team may also want to pay attention to research from MetLife, the insurance company, which found that almost a third of UK employees said they’d consider leaving their current role within the next 12 months if stress levels didn’t improve. Startups often rely on the talents of a core group of team members, so retaining these people is essential to ensure continuity for clients and further growth.

To prevent stress or other mental health issues affecting your team, it's important to recognise that a positive workplace culture that supports people experiencing mental health problems starts at the top. This is why line managers have such an important part to play in better supporting the mental wellbeing of employees in startups. Do employees take a full lunch break and only reply to emails during business hours? Would they know what to say if a colleague spoke to them about their feelings of anxiety or depression? Asking these probing questions is a good start.

Removing the stigma attached to mental health issues and educating employees is the other part of the battle. Even though we’re more aware of mental health issues, managers can struggle to address a conversation about mental health and can wrongly interpret behaviour. Some may even discipline an employee for performance issues or increased absences that might in fact be indicators of mental ill health. Enlightened employers, on the other hand, are taking a different approach and are training staff to support the mental and emotional wellbeing of their teams by becoming mental health first aiders. This means that there are members of staff trained in how to recognise the symptoms of common mental health issues and can effectively guide people towards the right support. It also creates a more open culture that encourages employees to communicate openly without fear of being judged or being told to ‘man up’.

Investing in the mental wellbeing of your employees can help retain excellent employees, allowing startups to grow while creating a more supportive, open culture. It just makes sense, for your staff and your bottom line.

About the Author

Poppy Jaman

Poppy Jaman

Poppy Jaman is CEO of Mental Health First Aid England, a community interest company established in 2009. For the past 18 years, Jaman has been challenging the public’s perception of mental ill health. Jaman is also a co-founder of the City Mental Health Alliance and sits on the board of Public Health England as a non-executive director.

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