Nick Freer comment: Smart start-ups are prioritising staff wellbeing

Earlier this month, the press and social media were awash with coverage and posts around World Mental Health Day. 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.

It is encouraging to hear so many Scots start-ups addressing mental health in an open way, says Freer. Picture: Stewart Attwood

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 is a horrible place to be. When I reached out to a few contacts in Scotland’s start-up scene, it was encouraging to hear that many of them are addressing mental health in an open way which could help turn the stigma surrounding mental health into a thing of the past.

Edinburgh start-up Cultivate, which supports tech companies like Deliveroo and Care Sourcer with 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 with which they can proactively develop behaviours that help them both personally and professionally.”

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Francisca Morton, a cognitive behavioural psychotherapist who works with Cultivate employees on a weekly basis at CodeBase, stresses 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 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 start-ups to be open, practise 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 helpful for the team.”

Administrate chief executive 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 start-up, 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, whose latest venture Trickle is developing software to track corporate culture so organisations can engender bottom-up improvement, tells me that when colleagues suffer from issues such as stress or depression, they may not be fully aware until the symptoms reach breaking point.

Reid says that while the start-up sector can be an exciting space, the flip side is the toll it can take on individuals. Companies need to be prepared to rapidly spot mental health issues in the team and 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.”

- Nick Freer, founding director, Freer Consultancy and Full Circle Partners