Can startups teach big companies a lesson around mental health?

Earlier this month, the press and social media were awash with coverage and posts around World Mental Health Day. I was so busy with clients on the day that I didn't manage to read as much as I wanted so, up in the Highlands for our annual autumn break I’ve taken a bit of time out alongside the R&R to scratch the surface on a pervasive issue that touches most of us in some way.  

A Mental Health Foundation study this year found that almost three quarters of people in the UK have felt so stressed that they have been “overwhelmed or unable to cope.”  If you’ve been in that kind of spot, I know I have, it can be a horrible place to be.  When I reached out to a few contacts on Scotland’s startup scene, it was encouraging to hear that what many of them are doing to address mental health in an open way could help turn the historical stigma surrounding mental health a thing of the past.

One social media post had stuck with me, from MadeBrave founding director Andrew Dobbie, who said “Mental health issues don't just affect the people with them but also those around them who support them, and it’s okay to talk about it. If friends of mine are struggling and ever need to talk - just say the word.” 

Edinburgh startup Cultivate, who support tech companies like Deliveroo and Care Sourcer around software development, is ahead of the curve in terms of how it handles one of the 21st century’s gravest ills.  Andy Robinson, Cultivate’s Commercial Director, says: “We want to create an environment that supports people and allows them to do their best work.  Emotional wellbeing plays a key role in this and so we have been providing optional, confidential cognitive behavioural therapy for a few years now.  This gives our people a tool which which they can proactively develop behaviours that help them both personally and professionally.”

Francisca Morton, a cognitive behavioural psychotherapist who works with Cultivate employees on a weekly basis at CodeBase, crystallises the importance of mental health awareness for employees and employers alike: “Mental and emotional health is invaluable and, for employees, working for a company that knows that and actively participates can count for a lot. The inclusion of a corporate wellness scheme has proved an attractive proposition for prospective employees entering the company, showing that it has a commitment to staff wellbeing. It is my belief that even if one employee is assisted towards their wellbeing, there is a knock on effect within the company as a whole.”

Lisa Thomson of Purpose HR agrees and says forward thinking employers recognise that their employees are human with personal issues that “can’t be taken off like a coat” when they leave the office.  Thomson adds: “It’s really important for founders and managing teams in startups to be open, practice self-care and look after their own mental and physical health as running a business is incredibly demanding.  Leading from the front and being open and transparent can be really powerful and helpful for the team.”

Administrate CEO John Peebles underscores Thomson’s point: “Mental health affects young people and entrepreneurs more than the general population.  When you’re building a fast-growing startup, this means that up to half of your team may be struggling at any given time.  In a software company like Administrate, people are our most important asset and in order to help with mental health issues, we have a licensed therapist come in every other week to help our team with any issues they’re facing.  It’s free, completely confidential, close to our offices and safe and we’ve seen incredible results over the last few years.”

Paul Reid, who sold his first startup to a FTSE 100 company and whose latest venture Trickle is developing a software tool to track corporate culture so that organisations can engender bottom-up improvement, is well informed on the subject.  He tells me that when colleagues suffer from mental health issues such as stress or depression, they may not be fully aware until the symptoms reach breaking point.  

Reid says that while the startup sector can be an exciting space, the flip side is how much of a toll it can take on individuals.  Reid says companies need to be prepared to rapidly spot mental health issues in the team and then support people through recovery.  “The last thing you want”, says Reid, “is a situation where a person doesn’t feel they can flag that they’re having problems.”

The upshot appears to be that the startup community in Scotland is, excuse the pun, extremely mindful when it comes to mental health in the workplace, so much so that perhaps larger, more established corporates can learn lessons from its practices.