2021-10-19
What are the ways a startup can take care of its employees’ mental health?
Bonjour Startup Montréal
by Bonjour Startup Montréal
19 October 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to many consequences for the mental health of entrepreneurs and their employees. On the occasion of Startup Wednesdays, we are focusing today on the solutions some startups are using to improve the mental health of their teams and leaders. Anthony Vendrame, founder of Poches & Fils, accompanied by the organization’s CEO, Camille Hamelin, and Hillary Lin, CEO of Curio, joined us in discussing what the concept of mental health represents in businesses and the ways they have tested to take care of it.

Defining the concept of mental health isn’t easy

What do these popular catchphrases really mean: mental health, mental fitness, mental stamina, psychological safety, work culture?

Hillary Lin, who studied medicine, now owns a startup with an innovative approach, offering services related to the improvement of professionals’ mental health. She explains that in current parlance, the concept of mental health often refers to mental illness. From her point of view, it is used as a catchall term that includes several different notions. The notions of severe mental illness, burnout and stress thus all end up in the same basket. This is a word that covers an enormous field and we are currently in the process of defining each of these terms better. It is therefore normal that not everything is clear at the present time.

How do businesses understand the concept of mental health?

The initial reflex for some companies is to make mental healthcare more accessible, by covering the costs of therapy or medication, for example, Hillary Lin explains. It is fairly recent for businesses to see mental health as a multifaceted concept including the work environment, working conditions, employee services, etc.

Why do stigmas persist regarding mental health?

An individual’s mental wellness is difficult to measure. It takes more than a blood test. Furthermore, few people realize that mental wellness addresses everyone. Some people still reflexively say: I don’t have a mental illness so this doesn’t concern me.

However, Curio approaches mental health in the same way as physical health, by suggesting that people can train themselves to develop their emotional intelligence, resilience, and adaptability in dealing with difficult or stressful situations.

What role do businesses play in supporting employees’ mental health?

Businesses must be encouraged to help employees work smarter, not harder, or rather than working a specific number of hours calculated for each week. In fact, both wellness and productivity of individual employees are difficult to improve. First, employees must feel they are in the right place and that the organization has confidence in them. They must also have space to rest from work, a little like rest periods that follow intense physical training.

What concrete means can be made available so that employees can “breathe”?

Obviously, each business context is different, but success stories are observed in organizations that offer many vacation days that must be taken during a year. This is a concrete way to give people the opportunity to take a break from work and recharge their batteries. It is also fascinating to see the positive impacts that some businesses have achieved by instituting the four-day week. Obviously, there are logistical challenges, but this really works well for some employees.

The four-day week: the pilot project of Poches & Fils

Poches & Fils, a Montréal creative workshop that transforms everyday clothing by adding a unique pocket, chose, after the difficult first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, to institute the four-day week for its employees. After requesting the employees’ opinion, looking at what was done in big businesses abroad, and seeking the support of an HR consulting firm, the organization launched a three-month pilot project that began in July 2021. Following this project’s success, it decided to make this measure permanent.

What results were observed after the pilot project on the four-day week?

People feel better and we do not deliver any fewer projects. We don’t have specific measures for our employees’ mental health, but we have a culture of proximity and listening that allows us to say this change is positive for us as leaders and for our employees. We have the impression we are optimizing our time. We do the same work but we cut out unnecessary effort. We ask ourselves these questions more often: Is my presence at this meeting really necessary? Have we fully covered this question?

Some businesses think about this approach, but hesitate to take action. Some don’t know how to deal with it. We have been asked several questions concerning the deployment of this measure. What day should be chosen? Should we leave it to the employees’ discretion? In our case, we validated our assumptions with the employees and then launched the project. We think that the fact we believe in it ourselves certainly facilitated involvement and adherence.

Do you think adding the four-day work in your business has positive impacts on your recruitment?

It’s too soon to know, but we didn’t introduce the four-day week with this vision in mind.

At Poches & Fils, we have a business culture based on openness and we care about improving our employees work-life balance. The four-day week is a tool that helps us move in this direction. This project is the result of our discussions with our team to ensure we proposed concrete solutions to help them feel well.

Do you have measures in place that favour your employees’ wellness?

A Monday morning round table to ask our employees how they really feel is another important practice at Poches & Fils. During this discussion, we forget about this person’s role in the business and his or her tasks. We concentrate on having a real discussion to learn to know people better as they are. This gives us the opportunity to learn more about their passions, their challenges and their lives in general. This creates an environment in which we accept that people are vulnerable. This approach allows us to navigate more confidently when there is an organizational issue to resolve.

Do you still have questions about mental health and leadership?

Access the complete interview of this Startup Wednesday in video format.

This will give you a little more information about Curio’s singular approach in supporting professionals and entrepreneurs to take care of their mental health.

Startup Wednesdays are offered in collaboration with Cisco Designed.