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mental health series kickoff

Updated: Mar 8, 2021

2021 is the year that mental health gets a front seat in every company's benefits package and employee happiness strategy. The past year has caused a toll on everyone's mental health. Teams need honesty & transparency to help themselves and each other through this pandemic.

Here's the recap...In today's episode, Tevi and I opened up about our own stress and anxiety the past year. We discussed how the lack of 'space or boundaries' has caused us all kinds of troubles. Losing that separation between work vs family time just makes our days a mess. We share our ideas on what we've done to help our teams and some things we believe teams should be focusing on this year. It's all about transparency from company leadership and providing access to mental health assistance.

This is Part One of our series on Mental Health. Future episodes will be linked here.

Full transcript below...


It's all about separation

The biggest cause of anxiety for both Tevi and I the past year is the loss of separation of space. Meaning prior to CoVid and the lockdowns there were was a clear definition of work time and family time. A block of hours alone in our home offices where the outside world was locked away. That block of time was all about getting stuff done. With the lockdowns our kids have been at home for large chunks of time. Blurring that separation. Loss of our space, playing tech support, or simply not having that block of time to focus on work.

Transparency wins the day

Everyone at every level of a company has had a year they'd like to forget. Stress and anxiety have become commonplace for most people, if not everyone. Yet there's still a stigma about sharing one's own troubles and honesty about their mental health. For that to change, leadership needs to stand up and be transparent. Lead from the front by being open and transparent about their own mental health challenges this year. When done it creates an open and comfortable stage for other's to share their own. This is the first step in fighting back.

Everyone's getting access to mental health tools

This year the most important benefit to offer your team is access to remote mental health professionals. There are lots of startups and apps offering 1:1 sessions via mobile app tele-health. This provides access to everyone, and allows it to be from the comfort of one's home. With or without the pandemic. This must be a benefit offered to every employee. If there are employees not covered by these tele-health tools, then a similar option must be provided across the board.

Everyone's getting stress busting apps

The next benefit all companies should be offering are more personalized apps. Whether meditation apps like Headspace or Calm. Yoga apps or something similar. A benefit that allows the employee to use as needed.

Check in with your team early and often

A week shouldn't go by without every leader doing at least one short 1:1 video call with their team. This short call is not work related. Rather than a check-in to see how their doing. It's also that forum to lead from the front, and be specific. So rather than it be a 1 way street, leaders can start off the call sharing their mental health battles or wins the past week. Reinforcing an open and comfortable forum to share. Next, ask specific questions. Asking vague questions like 'How are you doing?" will return generic answers. Ask more personal questions about your team's family. Then ask what was one thing that made them happy last week, and one thing that made them unhappy.

At minimum, use a check in tool that sends a question each week via Slack or similar. Whether emoji faces or a score 1-5, your team should be able to share how happy or stressful their week was. Bad scores, mean you need to help your team asap with some changes to help them win their battle.


Scott: [00:00:00] Thank you for tuning in to today's episode of Leading from Afar. I'm your captain Scott Markovits with my co-pilot Tevi Hirschhorn. Good morning or good afternoon, Tevi.

Tevi: [00:00:11] Good afternoon, Scott. Who knows what time it is anymore.

Scott: [00:00:15] Yeah, with all the lockdown and Covid chaos, you just lose track of reality and time. I get mixed up quite a bit. Here in Israel, we're in the midst of our third lockdown. Which seems to be going on for forever and will probably go on for forever. Your thoughts on that?

Tevi: [00:00:32] Yeah, forever more infinitely. This will never end. That's what it feels like.

Scott: [00:00:36] Indeed. At least until we get all the vaccinations done. Hopefully by the next end of next month. Which would be fantastic. Covid in general has been an extremely stressful time for everyone. For me personally, the lockdown with schools being closed has gotten my anxiety revved up. Tevi some of our kids share the same school. I don't know if you feel the same way.

Tevi: [00:00:58] Yeah, absolutely. That's not even a question. Every day is twice as long since we have to handle education and schooling on our own. It's not even like in a classroom where you have one teacher teaching two. 20 or 30 kids that all on the same page on the same books.

Obviously there's some juggling there, but at least you're doing the same thing. Here it's like bouncing around from device to device. Helping each kid. There's no consistency in anyone's schedule. Then on top of it, you gotta work a full day somehow. I've been shifting to going very late in the evening. So I'm doing 16-20 hour days now.

Scott: [00:01:28] I've been doing the same. Working later than I would normally, and spending the later nights on the computer. Which is something I definitely don't want to be doing. In these times, I guess we don't have much of an option. Especially now during the lockdown and the increase in anxiety over other periods of Covid it would be the perfect time to kick off our next series on mental health.

We're hoping that the series has a few more chapters than the last ones. With great experts and startups along the way. So today I feel maybe the best way to kick off the series is really being transparent and opening up on our personal mental health over the past year.

From a leadership perspective, that's always the best way to start. From the captain on down. From the executive team leading the charge in being transparent and being open around mental health. I don't know if you are up for that.

Tevi: [00:02:17] I think it's important for people to hear everybody's stories especially now. A lot of people have a hard time admitting when they're going through something difficult and you need help. Especially in the workplace you can't expect your employees to be performing when they're under stress and strain.

Since they got it, you gotta be a little bit understanding and figure out the best way to work with them.

Scott: [00:02:36] I completely agree. So today we're going to be honest and open and share our own experience. We're also gonna try and share some ideas and things that we've done with the teams that we've worked with over the past years. Thoughts and advice that we have on how startup leadership can be helping their team know through this extremely terrible time.

Maybe first question I'll start off throwing this into the room. Over the past year, what's really gotten your anxiety revved up? If there is one thing you can put it on, what would that number one thing be.

Tevi: [00:03:07] It's hard to even put it on one thing. I don't know if I've unpacked it enough to isolate the one thing, but there's just been a lot of insecurity in the world. A lot of instability. Fear. Financial related health related. About ourselves, about our family, dealing with our own kids, with their own issues. Just not having any time or space to now, this is probably the exact opposite of many other people.

I have a family which I love of course, but because we're all in the same house together and we can't leave, there's a lot less personal space. A lot less personal time. Whereas other people might be having the exact opposite issue where if they don't have a family, they have too much time to themselves.

That isolation can be extremely damaging as well. So I probably put it on that instability and lack of space maybe.

Scott: [00:04:00] Interesting. That's pretty in line with my biggest issue, and we hinted to it in the introduction. For me, the biggest cause of my spikes in anxiety have really been around that separation of work and home. I've been working from home for almost nine years and certainly pre Covid.

During that time, there were clear boundaries in the day. After taking my kids to school and eating breakfast the workday began. I'm blessed to have a home office with a door that I can lock; which is certainly beneficial. But that time, from the nine to five was my work time. Where I focused on doing work when nobody was here. The kids were at school. My wife attempted her best to try to limit needing my help for bringing groceries or things like that. My kids when they came home from school, whether it was three o'clock or four or five o'clock, they knew there was a boundary. Five o'clock dad would come downstairs. Until then, don't knock on the door. Don't go upstairs to bother him. At five o'clock I would try as much as I could to do 15 minutes of a Headspace meditation. Just for myself to be able to turn off work, and then get myself mentally prepared for the family time.

Really try to separate those two big core pieces in life. Now during the lockdown that separation is non-existent.

Tevi: [00:05:17] Maybe that's what I mean by like space,

I guess there was this kind of a structure the way I would work. Everyone had a schedule, and I was able to carve some time for myself. Now I'm working. Now I'm making lunch. Now I'm exercising, and now I'm with the family.

And now it's just like this constant race. Bouncing from device to device. Helping everybody switching. Honestly, my wife and I play hot potato. She runs out and she's a nurse and has been like crazy to deal with that. Then when she comes home, you'd think that she could take off and relax, but you can't now I got to work.

So now it's here you go, hot potato. Now she's got to deal with it. So definitely that lack of structure.

Scott: [00:05:53] Yeah. Our boys go to the same school. Between those hours of 9-1 or 9-4 of turning on devices. I try to keep my iPads locked or having a passcode that the kids don't know. So they aren't going on there and wasting time. Constantly having to put in the passcodes, get zoom set up, and technical support.

At least my boys are lucky enough to have that opportunity to learn. Have some type of structure, even though a lot of times is spending making sure they're actually sitting there. My daughter has been home, but hasn't been learning. She doesn't have the opportunity.

So trying to keep an almost six-year-old entertained all day without just sticking an iPad video in front of him. It's been challenging.

Tevi: [00:06:28] In some ways it's like we had this opportunity. Everybody went remote. Now it's remote time to shine. In other ways it's not possible to be successful under these conditions. For many people, they don't have either a space to work.

So even if they don't have a noisy family or something, it's hard to work. If you don't have that space set up for it. For other people, they have a family and dealing with the craziest schedule or lack of schedule is not a way to sell remote life and remote work. So it's definitely been a challenge for the world.

Scott: [00:07:00] Almost about a year ago I tried to use that mental picture. Look at the positive way. This is a great opportunity to spend more quality time with the kids and do things with them. Sit with them, teach them, and spend more time with them then maybe I didn't have previous to that. As that first lockdown went on and then we kept going, that just went right out the window.

Tevi: [00:07:18] Yeah, that was super fun for a month.

Scott: [00:07:22] I can be with my kids, do zooms with them, and teach them stuff I need to get back to work.

Tevi: [00:07:26] Yeah. So what do you think companies should do right now? It's an issue because we're dealing with lots of stress, a pandemic, and health. People are losing family members. They're getting sick. They're having trouble working from home. All sorts of these different things that cause anxiety or depression. All these mental and health challenges.

What should companies do? What should managers do? How do we deal with that?

Scott: [00:07:47] This is the year for mental health. This should be the number one priority for all companies this year regardless of the size. Starting from the executive team to the people/HR teams, to every level of management. We spoke about it when the podcast started and it went back to last year, it's empathy.

It has to be at the forefront of everyone's mind. The world is just a mess and depending where you are, it's probably going to stay that way until later this year. Management really just needs to have empathy and understanding that the world is just a total mess.

Companies should be looking into being more flexible if they haven't been doing it yet. With scheduling and attendance. Most teams last year that went remote overnight started filling their calendars with meetings. I'm not a believer in meetings, but those definitely need to go away.

Not only from the time-wasting perspective, but you're locking people in to engagement when it may not be a good time for them. So if it's a 30 minute or 45 minute team meeting, their kids may need help, or something's going on in the house.

With synchronous meetings all day, that may not be something good for them. Another thing companies really need to ramp up this year is implementing tools to check in with everyone on the team. On a weekly basis.

There's a lot of different ways you could do that. To start, you really need a culture of honesty and transparency to be valuable. At a minimum, companies can send out those pulse surveys every week. That give you a happy smiley emoji to the crying emoji. Every week, have the employee click on how they felt, mentally and emotionally that week.

Any company seeing negative trends needs more feedback from the team of what's causing it and how the company can be helping. Once they start getting that feedback, they need to be implementing that feedback like ASAP.

I would like to see instead of emojis, asking questions. What has made you happy to work this week? What has made you unhappy this week? What's one thing the company could do that could make you happier next week. Really taking that specific feedback and trying to implement new changes.

Tevi: [00:09:42] That's a very administrative approach to measuring happiness, and not necessarily providing a happier environment. meetings are not great, but let's be careful about the word we use. Because I think the face-to-face interaction is helpful if someone is feeling isolated.

So if you're stuck in a lockdown all by yourself, even with kids, without kids, whatever, whoever you are being stuck in lockdown is very isolating. So that face to face video chat might be something that you crave. So like grain of salt meetings are bad, but that might be one thing you can do to improve people's connection with each other.

Scott: [00:10:18] Yeah, I agree. We've spoken about my ideas of meetings work-related need to go out the window. Those should be replaced by the team building and team engagement. Whether it's 1:1s between teammates or a leader and their team or getting the team together for 20 minutes to do something fun.

Those opportunities are extremely crucial at this point. Like you said, it gives someone who may be alone to have an opportunity to have the team in front of them for 20 minutes. Maybe 5 minute conversations with different people in their team over video.

Tevi: [00:10:48] Do you think there are any advantages or benefits to being in a remote environment? To be able to provide a better experience, and improve people's mental health or happiness at work.

Scott: [00:11:03] It's a good question. I think it's that freedom to fight anxiety. I've seen this personally. During the first lockdown I stayed in the house. Everyone in the world was terrified. If you go outside, you're going to die.

As time went on we realized that wasn't the case, but I didn't leave the house. maybe one time a week I'd go out for a walk up and down the block. It was terrible. I had to change that. So every day I go out for a run for an hour. Just having that opportunity to get out of my house.

If you were in an office environment, where are you really going to go? Do you have an opportunity to walk around? Do you have the mountains? We live here with mountains and hills next to us. Just get out into the nature.

You can spend time with your family. Maybe with the spouse go out for a walk or go get ice cream.

The freedom, is a huge benefit for people working remotely and their mental health. What are you thinking?

Tevi: [00:11:51] That's definitely a huge aspect of mental health. I think it might be easy for someone who walks into the office. You see their face their posture. They come in late consistently, right? Hey, something's up? I think it might be a lot easier for someone to skate by and go struggle unnoticed.

As a manager, as a leader, as a teammate you have to reach out proactively and find out how people are actually doing and not wait to notice something.

Scott: [00:12:20] Yeah, I think you're spot on. I've gotten a lot of this similar feedback when I have friendly conversations on social media about working from home and remote. Positives and negatives. People who are on the side of going back to the office are usually giving that sense of we missed the opportunity for the face-to-face. We lose that opportunity for serendipitous conversations at the coffee machine. I am not a believer in that because the tools exist today to do all the things. There may be not the ideal tool for it. As a leader, you should be doing a 5 -10 minute video call with everyone on your team. Once a week at most to check in. It has nothing to do with work.

It's not your bi-weekly stand up meeting. It's just, "Hey, how's everything going? How's your family? What's going on with you?" and sharing the same thing. Here's what's going on with me. My kids are home. Being very open and transparent.

at my time in division, I started doing a 5 minute FaceTime with everyone that I could get. So I was trying to replicate those serendipitous opportunities and meeting in the coffee shop. I just did it. I reached out to somebody random or someone on my team and said, "Hey, five minute FaceTime now?"

Launch a zoom call and in five minutes to catch up. "Hey, how's it going? What's new." the tools are there. It's whether people are using the tools in the right way. Yes, body language and faces can be missed unless you're doing those things right.

Tevi: [00:13:42] The flip side is that somebody could fake it. They could just put on a smile at work and nobody knows what's going on. A manager, friends, and other teammates should be proactive about helping. Even if it's a five minute check-in, I think it's important that you use language, which encourages and elicits a response that's truthful and authentic.

Because if you say how's everything? you're not going to get a great authentic response. if say "How's your family?" It's a little bit more specific and they will most likely give you a more genuine response. That kind of proactive in terms of the behavior that you're reaching out for weekly with everybody, but it's also proactive in your language making sure that you really are connecting. You actually do care how everyone's doing. Not just so that they can be productive, but so that they could thrive in the company and feel like they're connected.

We've discussed in the past an employee who's happy at work will want to stay for a long time and be productive. That brings a lot of value to the company in the long-term.

Scott: [00:14:39] Yeah, I think the transparency also for me is it's really important. If every one of those check-ins is always, "How are you doing? How's your family. What's new with you?" It's very one-sided. I'm the one being asked always and do I feel comfortable sharing that? When you have that transparency from leadership it's starting off, " What I'm dealing with. What's new with my family. "What's new in my community." I think that reinforces that idea of comfort for the team. My manager, my leader, my CEO is being transparent. Here's what they're struggling with.

They're struggling with kids bouncing off the walls. They're struggling about not being able to go to the cafes. That creates that culture of openness. If my leader is upfront and transparent with how they're doing, that allows me to feel more confident to be able to share my own thoughts as well.

Tevi: [00:15:27] I don't know if you heard all that background?

Scott: [00:15:30] Was that my house or yours?

Tevi: [00:15:31] Knocks at the door. That's at my house. I'm being paged. Yeah. Work from home while everyone's else is at home. Not so simple.

Scott: [00:15:39] Totally agree.

Tevi: [00:15:41] Just to comment a little bit on the point of happiness. You mentioned a keyword there.

I thought it was important is that belonging. If somebody feels a connection to their team and they feel like they belong in their company, they're satisfied and they're happy that it's not just like this word of being happy, like they're wearing a smile. It's that connection and belonging and feeling they're contributing in a positive way.

If you could foster that feeling around the work that they're doing. Then the work will be a fulfilling part of their life and there'll be producing good work. that's a benefit for everybody.

Scott: [00:16:15] Something to build off that idea. Build it as a habit. Build as a culture. Something that we had at InVision for many years. I was the first one of the happiness officers. Did you see that being a good opportunity for a new role within the company, or somebody should be putting on that hat?

At InVision, the person who took that over for me was a certified life coach. So is there an idea of bringing in a life coach, a certified mental health therapist within the company to check in with people? On a daily basis or weekly basis? Just having those check-in opportunities with people on the team.

Depending on the size of the team you may need more people doing it, or you may meet less often. It's something that I've been thinking about. Maybe it is a good opportunity to expand within other companies.

Tevi: [00:17:05] I'm not sure I understand the question.

Scott: [00:17:07] Not so much a question. Maybe a specific role we see in 2021. A happiness officer or happiness champion. Life coach or mental health therapist that comes in and their job is those check-ins.

Tevi: [00:17:19] I don't know that it's going to grow. I've seen happiness officers and people officers and everyone tries to rebrand themselves. We really care about you as employees. it's really they're fishing for information.

They're protecting their bosses and nobody trusts them. I don't think that perception will ever change. no matter what you call them. Now, if you're saying happiness officer is separate from HR or people ops I don't think anyone's going to believe that.

Scott: [00:17:46] Fair enough. Fair enough.

Tevi: [00:17:48] What I've seen as a benefit to the company, are mental health services. So a company might offer subscriptions to Headspace or calm or something like that. Or they'll offer other third party service tool or therapy type of benefit. Where people can go on their own and the company doesn't have any connection.

It's private, it's separate. that would be a nice benefit to allow people to maintain wellness.

Scott: [00:18:14] Perfect idea. What other benefits do you think this year in 2021 companies should be focusing on in the mental health space to be rolling out within the company and why?

Tevi: [00:18:25] Of course I'm going to lean towards remote tools. There's still a stigma around seeing a therapist for some reason. I think that should change. I think also everyone's stuck at home.

There should be a remote tool like Headspace, Calm,, or one of these other things out there which allow you to get service from the comfort of your own home. People are busy, so they don't necessarily feel how important it is to go get help. So it's hard to go out and take the few hours to drive somewhere and see somebody So if you have an app. It's essentially a remote tool. Whether it's a guided on your own Headspace or yeah, tele-health totally.

Something like Headspace, which is talking with a professional. It's more a self guided journey. So I see that getting more popular. It's also a lot easier to plug into employee's benefits package.

Scott: [00:19:16] On the one side, I think the company needs a flat out policy to give access to those tele-health mental health tools. I think that should be across the board. Everybody has access to it. You want to use it, you don't want to use it.

A number of these tools are uS-based. US-based therapists who only practice in the US, and people internationally don't have access to that. So if there is no tool available internationally, then the company should reimburse for those local sessions. They shouldn't restrict some people who aren't in a certain location from getting access to that.

InVsion uses Headspace. I've used it many times with the team plan there. This is where I diverge because everyone's different, and everyone has their own ways to battle anxiety. Whether it's meditation through Headspace or Calm, doing yoga, or like me, going out for a run.

Tevi: [00:20:02] It's not only anxiety. There's also plenty of other, sorry, not to interrupt, but there are plenty of other things that people need to deal with.

Scott: [00:20:10] So how a company tries to tackle that challenge. Whether getting a company level Headspace accountant. Which is probably financially better for them to get a company wide plan. But it may limit the impact it has for people that may not be interested in tool like that.

Maybe they'd would be better off with a yoga tool or whatever it may be. The opportunity may be for some set of types of tools. So maybe like a meditation, maybe yoga, maybe four or five different tools that somebody could pick, I'd like to see.

Outside of just the financial costs, a mental health day.

I know the mental health day has been kicked around for many years. I've used in many times where you just, I just need a day off. Every employee should get one mental health day , at minimum, every month. There's no kind of approval requirements.

They should make the request let's say 24 hours in advance.

Tevi: [00:21:01] Often the mental health day doesn't give you that kind of warning.

Scott: [00:21:05] Yeah. it should be something that doesn't have the possibility of being rejected. It could be that you had a lousy day at work today. A deal fell through, or there was a major bug or an outage and say, "Hey, I had a really tough day today. tomorrow is going to be the mental health day." I'd like to see teams doing that.

Many startups have that unlimited vacation idea. We're not going to go into that, but what I would like to see is taking that every employee has to take a week off in a block every single quarter.

No couple of days here and a couple of days there. You aren't getting that continuous long time to unwind and recharge the batteries. Management should be sitting on top of employee's head. Saying, "Hey, you haven't taken this. You need to take this week off. Get it in the books now." giving that time and opportunity to disconnect. There's no work allowed. Delete Slack from your phone or block them or however you're going to do it.

Tevi: [00:21:55] Yeah. I hundred percent agree. There's been a shift over the last number of years to mandatory vacation. Mandatory time off. Not just use it or lose it, but we'll give you a $1000 or $2,000 bonus if you take your vacation. Just to encourage people to take off and you lose it if you see if you're on Slack or your email.

I think that kind of stuff is very important because there's a power dynamic between a company and its employees. We hope a good employee wants to perform. The company is in a position of power where they decide, what you get to do with your life.

So if a company really does care about the wellbeing and mental health of their employees, they will do what suggesting. We're telling employees to take their time off to disconnect, spend time with your family, spend time alone, go do something fun. There are a lot of companies that have started to be more proactive about that.

Scott: [00:22:45] Yeah, I like it. So any last thoughts you have here?

Tevi: [00:22:51] I think that there's some interesting stuff in the works on the technology side. With remote services and tools. Telehealth, mental health. I'm curious to know, like from our listeners, maybe if they use those tools and what their experiences with it? On the flip side is, do they prefer not to use that?

Do they prefer the human to human interaction, and how they're dealing with that during lockdowns? Very tricky stuff. I'm curious to know what everyone is going through.

Scott: [00:23:16] This series, maybe more than other series, we'd really love to hear feedback. How they'd been dealing with their own mental health over the last year, and what challenges they've been having as a leader. What they've been doing their companies have been doing, or what they'd like to see the companies.

Until the next episode, thank you so much for joining everybody.

Tevi: [00:23:34] Thank you, Scott.

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