Supporting Mental Health at Lullabot

support group

Before I dive into our Mental Health Initiative, I'll tell you how it came to exist. Leading up to our annual team retreat, I send a team survey to discover what excites or worries people. The questions change year to year, but here are what appear to be the perennial questions. I'll include the majority response from the team to each item as well.

  • If you could make one significant change to our company, without worrying about consequences, what would you change? Generating subscription revenue to buffer the ups and downs of client services work.
  • What's the one thing you find more motivating to your work than anything else? Recognition for a job well-done.
  • What's the most significant opportunity we're missing with our clients that we should be focused on? Having a support and maintenance offering.

This survey has had a significant impact on where we've put our focus and attention this year. We've created a support and maintenance offering and continue to find ways to celebrate our team for all the hard work and effort they put into their projects. But when I asked the question about making one change to our company, a couple of people responded with "better support for mental health." Having recently attended DrupalCorn in Iowa and listening to J.D. Flynn's inspiring and courageous presentation "Erasing the Stigma, Mental Health in Tech," I worried that we might not be doing enough, but I also didn't know if it was a problem—because we don't talk much about mental illness.

There's a stigma connected to mental illness, even when it's a sickness...not a weakness. Thinking of mental illness as a weakness is like telling someone who is wearing glasses that they aren't looking hard enough and shouldn't need glasses in the first place. As a company, it makes sense to help your team stay healthy, happy, and reduce the number of sick days people need to take. Depression, anxiety, and mood disorders all actively work to undermine performance and contribute to burnout. Burnout is awful.

1 in 5 adults will experience mental illness within a given year.

Mental health is as essential for knowledge work in the 21st century as physical health was for physical labor in the past. As psychiatrist Dr. Michael Freeman writes:

By the end of the twentieth century, creativity became the driving force behind America's explosive economic growth. The creativity that drives economic growth is also a common feature of people with bipolar spectrum conditions, depression, substance use conditions, and ADHD.

In other words, there's likely a correlation between the rise of and demand for creative work and mental illness. Further, for as much as remote work lowers stress levels, it can foster loneliness and isolation, which left unchecked, can lead to anxiety and depression. Or as the CEO of Doist, Amir Salihefendic said, "When you don't see your coworkers in person every day, it's easy to assume that everything is ok when it's not."

So in August of 2018, I put out a call to action to form a Mental Health Initiative at Lullabot and many people stepped forward to better understand the issues surrounding mental health. Something useful from the beginning was to have a Human Resources representative as part of the team because many of the questions and insights led back to insurance-related questions. And, since we have insurance coverage for people in the US, Canada, and the UK, it can get confusing.

Phase 1: Forming a mission statement

After several meetings, we defined the purpose of the group.

To promote optimal mental health at Lullabot and reduce the stigma of mental illness by raising awareness, providing resources, and increasing support.

The first part of the mission statement acknowledges that we have two goals: to promote optimal mental health and to reduce the stigma of mental illness. In other words, this isn't just for people with a diagnosed illness. We also want to provide support for any mental health issues, which could be other stressors or challenges. Our strategy to make this happen is made of three parts:

  1. Raising awareness

  2. Providing resources

  3. Increasing support

With a three-pronged strategy in place, we could begin to categorize the services and support we currently provide.

Phase 2: What do we currently provide?

After we formed our mission statement, it was time to audit our existing support and services. We basically looked at everything we did for mental health and mapped them to each of the three strategies outlined in our mission statement.

We found that we did a lot as a company to increase support and provide resources. At the top of those lists were things like creating a #being-human Slack channel, team calls, manager one-on-ones, and so on. For resources, we provide health insurance with coverage for mental health services, an employee assistance program, and a handbook. Where we noticeably fell short was on raising awareness. We didn't really have anything on that list.

Next, we did a quick brainstorm of the things it might be helpful to add. Some examples were taking mental health first aid classes, increasing our education and awareness on mental health, discussing burnout and so on. But before we went any further, we knew it was time to get insight and direction from the team.

What does our team need?

While we have lots of ideas on ways we can improve mental health, none of it matters if it doesn't help the team. Nothing beats asking people for input over making assumptions on their behalf. So we created a survey to benchmark and set goals for future improvement. The study was anonymous and optional, with the results only available to Human Resources. And the poll was primarily modeled from the fantastic work of the Open Source Mental Health Initiative.

Phase 3: Next steps

Currently, we're in the process of aggregating the survey feedback from our team. Some of the broad takeaways so far:

  • Many team members found our insurance coverage lacking support for mental health needs. Specifically, some said the remaining cost after deductibles were still too high.

  • 75% of the team wants to learn more about our insurance coverage as it relates to mental health. We need to learn the kinds of questions people need answering and make it easy for them to get that information.

  • A little less than half the respondents said mental health issues sometimes interfere with work productivity. A "mental health issue" can be anything from daily stressors, challenges with working remotely, and finding coping mechanisms, to not-yet-diagnosed mental health conditions.

  • 12% of the team said they would not feel comfortable discussing a mental health issue with a supervisor.

  • 70% of the team was interested in learning more about burnout, anxiety, depression and understanding mental illness in general. This speaks to a significant educational opportunity.

It's scary to find out we’re not doing enough. But we would have never made it this far if we hadn't brought it up in the first place, and ignorance isn't an option. There is a lot to unpack in the five bullet points above. Is health coverage worse for certain countries? What does supplemental care look like? How does workers compensation help, if at all? Is there training we can offer managers to understand mental health issues better and cultivate compassion? How do we best spread awareness of mental health? How do we keep these conversation engaging and not too heavy?

We don't have all the answers, but we've lifted the veil of ignorance and set a clear path forward with actionable steps we can take. We also hope that sharing our efforts will contribute to reducing the stigma of mental illness. If you have resources or ways you can help support our initiative, please let us know. For example, if you are someone who routinely speaks to others about mental health, we'd love to connect and possibly have you talk to our team during a lunch-and-learn. Meanwhile, we will continue to share our insights with our broader communities as well.

Huge thanks to J.D. Flynn who paved the way for us to have this conversation by presenting the topic with courage and compassion. Please consider supporting him so he can continue his mental health advocacy efforts. And thank you to the work of the OSMI group who paved the way for our internal survey. Finally, we wouldn’t have made any progress without the leadership of Kris Konrady and Marissa Epstein. Huge thanks to the rest of our Mental Health working group: Angus Mak, Greg Dunlap, Chris Albrecht, Juan Olalla, Dave Reid, and James Sansbury.

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