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Startups are now pitching mental wellness like a perk

Darren Whiteside/Reuters
Focusing on employee well-being is a long-term strategy.
  • Aimee Groth
By Aimee Groth

Journalist, Author, Strategist

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Startup life isn’t for the faint of heart. In venture capitalist Paul Graham’s 2009 blog post, “What startups are really like,” his 19-point checklist includes: startups take over your life, you get no respect, it’s an emotional roller coaster, among other warnings. Sequoia Capital partner Jess Lee once observed that startup founders are always unhappy, for similar reasons.

While those cautions are directed at founders, working for a startup requires its own commitment to the lifestyle—which can take a real toll on one’s well-being. To attract talent, early-stage startups are now differentiating themselves by highlighting mental-wellness as a perk.

Located on South Street in downtown Boston, fashion tech startup Ministry of Supply (aka Ministry) provides the classic offerings of a venture-funded startup: free artisan coffee, a well-stocked kitchen, ample space for commuter bicycles, and headquarters in a central part of a major city. The five-year-old startup also made ”empathy” one of its core values, which it takes seriously.

“If we want to be the brand of clothing that you want to wear to work,” co-founder Aman Advani explained, “we should also be the place that you want to work—and are able to follow your passions, work in a non-toxic environment, and balance comfort and growth.”

To do that, the company has experimented with flexible scheduling, compromising with ”work from home” Wednesday mornings, and giving an employee their blessing to work from Europe for a while.

A few months ago, it rolled out a parental-leave policy—a sign of the company’s maturity and its commitment to employee health and retention. Advani says that Ministry is the only seed-funded startup he’s aware of that has a parental leave policy (although, it’s worth noting that Ministry has raised $8.5 million, a figure that for most startups would typically involve a Series A). The policy, available to both men and women, involves a staggered 6-month format (100% pay for the first few months, 50% pay as the employee begins to work from home part-time, and 75% pay as the employee works their way back full time and works approximately 3/4 time). Ministry co-founder Kit Hickey is its first adopter.

“This is actually an advantage for us,” Advani explains, “It attracts and retains talented people, and ensures Kit’s mental health will be at its peak when she returns. Our hypothesis is that in the old-world way of doing this, people return before they are comfortable, which would affect their work, their projected tenure, and the work of those around them. So, the inspiration was to solve this through a long-term view of retention and health.”

Social media tool Buffer, which shares an investor with Ministry (VTF Capital), has gained a lot of attention for its efforts around radical transparency (in particular, for making its salaries, work processes and financials transparent). But the company learned that transparency has its limits when it laid off 11% of its 94-person staff in June. “Things weren’t adding up, and the solution was letting go of people, which is very different from killing a feature,” co-founder Leo Widrich wrote on Buffer’s blog. Now it’s focusing on ways to uplift morale while the company stays lean enough to get back on track financially.

One piece of promoting mental wellness is a minimum vacation policy, requiring employees to take at least three weeks of paid time off each year. It’s not quite the average four-to-five weeks in Europe. But Widrich and his fellow Brit and co-founder Joel Gascoigne see it as a step in the right direction, away from the “unlimited vacation” policies that most startups tend to provide (the ambiguity around “unlimited” often leads to employees taking virtually no vacation time; at Buffer it was anywhere between 5-10 days). Widrich said that it’s up to him and Gascoigne to set the example, because their employees will follow suit.

Outside of Buffer, Widrich created a meditation community in New York City called Balanced—his personal quest to find more balance between work and the rest of his life. During a meditation the Tuesday evening before Thanksgiving, he reflected on the downsides to prioritizing work above all else. ”I thought I was living this grand life,” Widrich told the group, sharing a story about a company retreat in Honolulu, “but some of my darkest days were in Hawaii.” Widrich decided on the layoffs at Buffer a few months later.

Startups aren’t sprints, but marathons that require sustained endurance from founders and their employees. Pitching mental health as a perk is an indication of just how far the industry has to go—but it’s a start.

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