When an employee calls in sick, nobody bats an eyelash. Often times, employers won’t even require a doctor’s note or any details — a sick day is a totally acceptable, understandable excuse for taking the day off from work.
But when was the last time you heard about one of your colleagues taking a mental health day? Well, when you do, it’s because it made the news.
This exposes a massive problem.
The lingering mental health stigma is no secret. Many still view those who are proactive about their mental health as a sign of weakness. And no, we’re not just talking about the Sopranos — this negative perspective of therapy is very real, extending far beyond the imaginary world of Italian gangsters in a hit TV series and into our workplaces.
So, how do we solve this problem?
First, understanding that prioritizing mental health at work is crucial to a company’s overall success is paramount. Think about it: If employees are burnt out, crippled by anxiety, or dissatisfied with life, how can they be expected to perform? If founders are overwhelmed by startup stress and feeling uninspired, how can they be expected to lead?
The short answer is: They can’t. Just as athletes who don’t treat their bodies properly won’t win any medals, employees who don’t strengthen and protect their minds won’t be able to work effectively, collaborate with team members, or enjoy work (or life, for that matter). A mentally healthy workplace is the key to a successful business.
Here are a few ways to cultivate a mentally healthy workplace:
1. Prioritize office culture
“Good office culture” doesn’t necessarily require a myriad of snacks or a keg in the break room—it should describe a workspace where people get along with each other and feel safe, respected, appreciated, incentivized, and rewarded. In a mentally healthy workplace, intimidation, bullying, harassment, and fear are 100% unacceptable.
2. Take care of your own
According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, human beings must feel physiologically supported and financially secure before they can focus on work. To ensure these basic needs are met, provide a livable salary, health insurance plan, and reasonable accommodation in the workplace for physical, as well as mental disabilities. Consider adding a mental health benefit, such as a meditation subscription or a therapy benefit. Support these benefits with a more flexible WFH/PTO policy, so that employees can actually use their mental health benefits and also won’t stress over the random teeth cleaning or sick nanny.
3. Foster good communication
Facilitate consistent communication through weekly 1:1 meetings with managers. These meetings should be spent setting expectations, gaining clarity around priorities, and exchanging feedback or praise. At Kip, our managers ask us questions like, “What type of management style do you prefer?” or “How can we best support you?” or even, “What can we do to keep your morale high during times of stress?”
4. Talk about feelings
We start every internal Kip meeting with an “emo check.” Disclaimer: This has nothing to do with My Chemical Romance. This is a regular practice meant to create an open, safe place for employees to share their feelings and let go of distractions before the meeting begins. We set clear boundaries around these “emo checks” so that they don’t take over our entire meeting and are HR-appropriate. This brief, but impactful routine frees up more space for creativity and problem-solving.
5. Lead by example
Even CEOs need an occasional day or two (or three) to rest their brains. So, the next time you need to take a mental health day (especially if you’re a manager or higher-level executive), if you’re comfortable, share it with your team. Initially, this act of vulnerability may require courage, but over time it will reinforce a more open and respectful office culture, free of judgement and stigma.
6. Have fun!
Think of a few rituals you can incorporate into your workdays. Organize monthly team lunches or take your meetings to the park every now and then. Finding ways to lighten the mood and bond with colleagues in a casual way helps to combat burnout and decrease stress levels. At Kip, we understand the importance of working hard, but also take intermittent breaks, so every afternoon at 3:30pm sharp, we take a “fika break” — this usually means a cup of coffee from our favorite coffee shop down the street or a mini yoga/stretching session.
7. Do things outside of work
Have lives outside of the office — engage in other activities such as skiing, reading, backpacking, cooking, ultimate frisbee, movie-watching, knitting, going to happy hours with friends — you get the picture. Just like with any close relationship, it’s crucial to do your own thing every once in a while. At Kip, unless it’s launch week or we’re in the middle of fundraising, we don’t slave away at the office till the crack of dawn. Generally, we arrive at work between 9 and 10am and we leave around 5 or 6pm. We also make sure to get enough sleep each night (except for Beau — he’s a new dad, so he doesn’t get as much sleep with a baby around).
8. Be clear and passionate about your mission, vision, and values
Be transparent and definitive about what you stand for. At Kip, this means we’re united on our mission to revolutionize mental health care. This clarity and passion for our work boosts inspiration, motivation, and morale across the board.
Company-branded socks or meditation rooms aren’t the key ingredients to a better workplace. Trendy office perks and swag are fun, but a mentally healthy workplace is one where employees are provided with an open, accepting, positive environment. It’s a place where people feel valued, supported, and have time and energy left over for friends, family, hobbies, and down-time.
By making just one small change at a time — for example, implementing pre-meeting “emo checks” or a mental health benefit —companies can cut productivity losses, boost retention, and keep employees feeling satisfied and safe.
After all, if you want happy and loyal customers, you’ll want happy and loyal employees, too.