Taking mental health discussions off the bench at work

How one startup is helping employees combat stigmas around stress

signs of burnout

Jordan Menashy, co-founder and VP of marketing at Bench — a bookkeeping service based in Vancouver, BC — isn’t shy to talk about the ups and downs of startups. “It’s hard not to associate the company’s success or failures with my own feelings of self-worth,” he says, “But I feel like anyone who‘s ever cared about the work they do feels that way. It’s a shared history.”

Evidence of this shared history first appeared at Bench during a program called the “Coaching Network”: a small group of people within the company, lead by Learning and Development Manager Denea Campbell, that team members could reach out to for support. “We realized that most people were using that time to discuss personal hurdles that impeded their ability to focus on their work.” says Campbell.

Together with Director of People Operations Sarah Blackmore and an internal team of volunteers (a committee of people from across the company) formed to discuss how they would begin broaching this morass of a topic. The result is a robust, 26-page indexed Mental Health Guide for Bench employees.

 

Making the mental health guide

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“Reflecting on the triggers that cause breakdowns to happen, as a group, helped us have safe and non-stigmatized discussions about mental wellness,” says Blackmore. “Even before the guide was released, we started to introduce the topic of mental wellness at a team-by-team level. I think that approachability and openness as a company, right from the start, really set our approach apart.”

Sarah Blackmore
Sarah Blackmore

The guide covers everything from how workplace stressors can affect you (spoiler: burnout) to a list of resources for self-care (exercise, meditation apps) and treatment options (local counseling services).

 

“The point of the guide wasn’t to dictate: ‘These are the steps you must follow to avoid stress’,” says Blackmore. “It was more about sharing a range of perspectives and practices for how different people at the company have overcome whatever issues they were facing.”

 

The guide also offers tangible and practical advice for handling day-to-day stresses, things like keeping an empathy log as a way of processing challenging work relationships or acknowledging feelings around being undervalued. “Often, we don’t bother taking the time to analyze [our emotions] beyond our in-the-moment reactions,” it says in the guide. “If you get home at the end of the day feeling exhausted and worried, how do you know what caused that feeling?”

A true team venture, the guide also features personal stories about coping with stress and anxiety, including contributions from the company’s founders.

“The point of the guide wasn’t to dictate: ‘These are the steps you must follow to avoid stress’,” says Blackmore. “It was more about sharing a range of perspectives and practices for how different people at the company have overcome whatever issues they were facing.”

 

Supporting the whole person at work

As they’ve scaled, the company has seen more opportunities to do things that welcome the whole person at work. For Bench, this means implementing flexible policies and programs that support employees in making use of the information provided in the guide.

For example, a sizable “Wellness Fund” offers each employee an opportunity to invest in the physical or mental wellness program of their choice, whether they choose to spend that money on new gear for their mountain bike or investing in a yoga retreat. Employees can even use these funds towards services, like professional counseling, that may only be partially covered by their extended benefits package.

Perhaps most importantly, recognizing that every employee’s motivations and inspirations are different, team members are encouraged to work with their managers and teams to make use of personal days, even if that means approving a team member’s request for a 6 week “workcation.”

“I lost myself for a while, creatively and personally,” says Sr. Product Designer Kyle Thacker in a post on the Bench blog. “I let small moments consume and define my thoughts. My perspective narrowed. I decided to make some changes in my life. One of those was to broaden my perspective through travel. The goal wasn’t to travel for the sake of traveling. I had specific personal goals and perspectives I was searching for.”

Being able to integrate his work responsibilities while pursuing his personal goals helped Thacker find renewed vigor towards his work, something he especially needed after two years on the job.

 

A successful mental health guide informs and inspires

“Your quality of mental health affects how you move through the world — how you think and act in your daily life, and how you affect the people around you,” says one section of the guide.

“When a Benchmate faces challenges, they should always be able to expect the support of their peers.”

Aphorisms like these appear throughout the guide, and while Menashy recognizes how idealistic (even eye-roll inducing) statements like these sound, he believes they serve an essential purpose.

“People talk about the tragedy of the commons, but I like to think about the triumph of the commons, as in: How can we create an environment where people can be better together?”

 

Jordan Menashy
Jordan Menashy

 

“It speaks to our worldview as a company, which is something we see as separate from culture,” he says. “The distinction I see is that while culture defines your values, it can still be quite insular, whereas your worldview speaks to the impact that you want to have externally. It’s a set of ideals that define our attitude about behaviors that we admire and ones we don’t.”

“People talk about the tragedy of the commons, but I like to think about the triumph of the commons, as in: How can we create an environment where people can be better together?”

 

Denea Campbell
Denea Campbell

 

What’s next

Speaking to this philosophy, in June 2016 the team decided to release the guide publicly as a resource for their customers and businesses at large. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, they’re in the process of formalizing an advocate committee responsible for updating the information in the guide. Advocates will also serve as ambassadors to teams and sub-communities within the organization so the message never gets lost.

“I want people to know that mental health is a good thing to talk about at work and that sharing your struggles does not mean you’re failing,” says Learning and Development Manager Denea Campbell, “it’s actually a sign of strength.”

 

Lima Al-Azzeh de-stresses through writing, snacking, and occasionally punching heavy things at the gym.

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