As a long-term sufferer of anxiety, and consequently panic attacks and depressive thoughts, I know how important it is to be open about mental health issues. Sharing your experiences, hearing those of others, and having supportive people around you are some of the most important factors in dealing with and recovering from mental health issues.
And as we spend a large chunk of our time at work, it’s important that our employers acknowledge that there are people struggling with mental health issues and offer support when needed. Here’s how we approach this at productboard.
Breaking the stigma around mental health
Issues such as anxiety and depression are surprisingly common. According to recent research from Harvard Business Review, up to 60% of respondents experienced symptoms of mental health issues in the past year. Yet despite the prevalence of such conditions, people are more likely to suffer in silence than open up about their struggles.
Why is this? Simply because of the stigma that’s attached to mental health issues. People fear being judged negatively. This is why acknowledging the issue is one of the most important things an employer can do. Acknowledgment is the first step towards breaking the stigma.
At productboard, we have a dedicated Slack channel called #talk-mental-health where people are encouraged to share their experiences with mental health issues. The channel is a safe haven where we can talk about anything related to this topic without judgment or shame. Having struggled a fair bit with mental health issues myself, I know how important it is to have a space where you can talk freely about these issues, and this channel does exactly that.
Sometimes, we send out an anonymous poll in the channel just to see how everyone’s doing. For example, we recently sent out a multiple-choice question asking “I have experience with…,” with options like anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and so on. Seeing that quite a few people also struggle with anxiety or depression really helped me feel less worried about what I was dealing with.
We also have a Slack bot called Freud. If you write Freud a direct message, it’ll be posted anonymously in our mental health channel. That way, people that struggle to talk openly about their issues can still ask others for advice, tips, or share their experiences.
A while ago, someone used Freud to ask for advice about finding a therapist, and a few people shared their experiences, which was really helpful!
Mental health as an employee benefit
These days, most companies offer benefits relating to physical health. This might be a gym membership, a budget for sports, or something similar. It’s not yet common to offer mental health as a benefit, however.
At productboard, we teamed up with Headspace, an app that offers guided meditation. Through this partnership, everyone at productboard can benefit from the positive effects of meditation and mindfulness, which are proven to alleviate stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. Anyone with a productboard email address can subscribe to Headspace for free.
We also meditate together in the office, and Lucie, our People Ops Specialist, teaches yoga in our Prague office every week. During our company offsites, Lucie, as well as our San Francisco-based Luke, lead yoga and meditation sessions to keep everyone grounded.
Many forward-thinking companies take a similar approach. Buffer, for example, offers its employees a free subscription to Joyable, an app that helps users manage anxiety and depression. And it’s not just tech startups, employers in more conservative sectors such as Ernst & Young, Barclays, and American Express all have inspiring mental health programs.
Such companies may still be the exception to the rule, but as the taboo around mental health slowly dissolves away, more and more employers will start to take the issue seriously.
Aside from being the right thing to do, there is a sound business case for addressing mental health in the workplace. While mental health is fundamentally a human issue, it clearly has a big impact on productivity and performance. Research from Soma Analytics found that FTSE 100 companies that prioritize mental health and wellbeing outperform those that don’t by 10%. Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation (WHO) calculated that for every $1 invested in scaled-up treatment for mental health disorders, there’s a return of $4 in improved health and productivity.
Living our values
Policies and benefits can only do so much, however. To truly tackle mental health issues at work, we need to focus on building an environment where trust, openness, and mutual support are standard.
At productboard, our culture and values aren’t a fancy-sounding PR exercise; they help inform our decisions, actions, and interactions every day. That means keeping judgment out of our interactions and avoiding toxic behavior, hurtful jokes, and gossip. We strive to create an environment where people genuinely listen and help each other, and where all personality types and characters are accepted and welcomed.
We’re aware that as employees of a fast-growing tech startup, work can fast-paced and ever-changing. This comes with the territory. On the other hand, we understand that to be at our best, we need to take our feet off the pedal from time-to-time. It’s all about finding the right balance between pushing productboard forward and maintaining mental clarity.
Ultimately, we can’t do the former if we don’t have the latter.
A new journey into remote work
A few months into my journey at productboard, I started to feel more and more anxious. I had relocated to Prague from Amsterdam, and while I enjoyed the city, I missed my life in Amsterdam. I had a hard time feeling grounded and at home in my new environment. I shared this through our mental health channel on Slack, and I got a lot of support from team productboard.
A few months later, I decided to move back to Amsterdam and deal with my anxiety head-on instead of spending days desperately trying to find my comfort zone in a new country. Luckily, I had been open about my anxiety from the get-go, so when I raised this with my manager, our CTO Daniel, he understood where my head was at. Moreover, his response was that this could be the perfect time to start experimenting with remote work.
The combination of me being open about my anxiety and productboard’s open and inclusive culture turned into an awesome opportunity. I’ve relocated back to Amsterdam and am in the midst of building our first fully remote team!
Taking responsibility as a company
Although we’re making great strides towards tackling mental health at productboard, this is a journey we’re on together, and there’s always room for improvement.
I think it’s important that we all take personal responsibility for improving the way we think and talk about mental health, both at work and outside of work. We need both processes in place at an organizational level as well as to look out for each other at an individual level. That means recognizing when others are struggling, offering support when needed, and understanding that we all have different tolerance levels when it comes to stress.
Because really, we are all responsible for creating a work environment that is conducive to mental wellbeing.
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