Going Remote Pt. III: Supporting the Mental Health of Your Team

By Lauren Chiluiza on June 23, 2020

As the weeks go by and we continue to shelter in place (or begin to open, depending on where you are), each of us is encountering different challenges when it comes to working remotely. We’ve had a number of interviews with leaders across our portfolio to hear their thoughts on how to scale remote work and hiring, onboarding, and compensating distributed teams. For our third installment of Going Remote, we shifted gears, to focus on an equally important topic: mental health. We hosted Heather Kirkby, Chief People Officer at Recursion, for a conversation on how you can support your teams through this period.

Recursion has always had a people-first culture with strong values. They are constantly pushing themselves to build an environment where everyone can do their best work, and have invested in programs like onsite child care, an incubator to support underrepresented founders, annual Wellness Weeks, Women in Science and Technology (WiST) events, yoga classes, and much more (even sporting an in-office rock climbing wall). This Q&A allowed for us to take a look at how they are continuing to further their culture while working remotely. Below is a summary of Heather’s advice to other founders and startup leaders as you help your teams maintain mental health in these challenging times.

Normalizing mental health through communication

It can be difficult to talk about and seek help for mental health given the stigma attached to it, but transparency—starting with an organization’s leadership—can help normalize these conversations. The current situation of deep uncertainty and lack of social relatedness is putting a huge strain on our collective mental health. Heather shared the impact it had on Rescursion’s employees when the company’s leaders acknowledged this burden in their own lives and encouraged the teams to do the same. She advised other leaders to be open with your team members about the struggles you are facing, so they will be more inclined to share theirs. This transparency can help reduce the pressure on our mental health, while simultaneously pushing past the stigma that surrounds talking about and seeking support for it.

Using real-world data also helps legitimize the (very real) challenges millions of Americans face every year. Recursion is a science-based organization, so Heather knew that she had to start by presenting the facts when introducing the topic of mental health to her employees. Early on, she shared a video summarizing information from the Neuroleadership Institute on how our brains need certainty and social relatedness, both of which have been abruptly stripped from our lives (see it here). Each of us is currently going through some type of brain stress, and we all need to take care of ourselves by seeking out physical wellbeing, social connections where possible, control over what is controllable, and expert help when necessary. In managing crisis, it’s also important to take care of each other, be empathetic to what others are going through, and to connect deeply and informally. You should focus on delivering what matters, having short-term goals, and going back to work with more empathy and flexibility. Having this continually communicated by leadership helps reinforce this behavior and removes the stigma.

To help set the tone as an organization and combat the strain created by uncertainty, Recurision’s leadership consistently communicates, provides timelines on the return to normal productivity where possible, and helps set expectations for the company. Beyond the initial video that Heather shared, their team reached out to multiple different “at-risk” groups (e.g. new hires) with check-ins to offer support.

Mental health resources: what to offer (and how to sell them)

Knowing how to effectively help your team find the resources they need can be harder than it sounds. If you haven’t done this already, Heather recommends sending out a pulse survey to see how your team has adapted to remote work. Use intentional questions like, “Are you able to deliver?” or “What degree of confidence do you have in the company?” Read the comments to see what the big themes are. This can help you figure out what resources your team needs and prioritize finding them. You can always start with an anonymous Google Form survey, but as you scale you may consider options like Culture Amp. More robust tools will allow you to use previously tested survey questions and benchmark your results against similar organizations.

Once you know some of the areas of support your team is looking for, creating a central location for all wellness and mental health resources will allow your team to find things quickly and efficiently. Your insurance may come with an Employee Assistance Program, where employees can anonymously seek out a handful of free therapy sessions at no cost. You may also consider additional services like Talkspace (text-based therapy) or Headspace (mindfulness and meditation) given the uniquely stressful times we’re under. Finally, there may also be state or national hotlines that are free of charge and could make all the difference during a moment of crisis. As you begin to compile resources for your employees, your HR team should try each resource when possible, to test their effectiveness and know which resources to guide specific employees to. Be customer-centric, and treat your colleagues as your customer (with the EAPs as the product you are selling). If a resource proves to be ineffective, save the time of your colleagues and remove it from the list. Finally, don’t forget to check in with your People Ops team that is going full speed to make this happen. Make sure they realize that they cannot fix everyone’s problems; they are a support system and guides. Listen to the team and make sure they are also utilizing the programs they are pushing forward.

Lastly, don’t let budgets be a restriction on focusing on the mental health of your organization. You and your team can create resources at no cost. Recursion has built a program called ‘Reach Outs,’ where a few people from different parts of the company reach out to specific individuals. Work with those who are doing the ‘Reach Outs’ on the types of questions to ask, e.g.: not “How are you today?,” but “What have you done for self-care this week?” This allows the new connections to reach a depth beyond what would typically be shared with their manager. At Recursion, these are kept confidential – the leaders only share broad themes with the People Ops team, so they can analyze how to continue to support the organization as a whole. Recursion also has facilitated group discussions called ‘Well-being Allies.’ These are opt-in, group coaching experiments designed to foster connection, share experiences, problem solve, process feelings, and encourage investment in well-being. Guidance is provided to the facilitators as well as best practices, which Heather has open-sourced. You can find a detailed description of the program along with questions here. 

Culture carrying: staying connected and lead by example  

Recursion is in a potentially unique situation of having had a large part of their workforce move to Salt Lake City for their role, so colleagues became many employees’ first social circle, leading to a tight-knit culture. Given the need to make sure this wasn’t lost in a distributed environment, their team has made an extra effort to be active in Slack and launch new channels to capture activities outside of work. Sharing pictures of your hike and stats from your bike ride not only helps people stay connected, but it can help teammates find commonalities they might not have known they had. This will help make sure you don’t lose that watercooler & pantry talk (and professional relationships) that we all didn’t realize we’d miss until it was gone.

As a leader, it’s also important to set this tone from the top. We currently live in a state of today, tomorrow, and yesterday, where nobody knows what day it is or how far along in the week we are. Recursion was seeing a significant decrease in the number of days people have taken off, so they even started a Slack channel to encourage people to take time off. It’s important to lead by example, so take a day off, and when you’re back, share how beneficial disconnecting from work was. Be intentional with your time, and make sure you’re carving out downtime for self care, family, or exercise (and have videos to prove it). Recursion also has two week-long shutdowns in July and December to help employees carve out time to recharge, so if this is the type of thing you’ve thought about doing in the past, now might be the time to do it.

There are countless other team-building activities you can consider to help carry your culture forward, including sharing wins, themed happy hours, talent shows, or even a 1-minute plank session. Be cognizant to set the expectation that these are opt-in only. Zoom fatigue is real, and your team should know it’s okay to miss a virtual social event. It’s also important to realize that all of these initiatives take time, effort, and ongoing maintenance to be sustainable. Realize that this is a marathon and not a sprint, and the focus should be on sustainability and flexibility during these times. At the end of the day, communication and openness will go a long way.

Thank you to everyone who joined our conversation. For those who couldn’t make it, a full recording of our conversation with Heather Kirkby and Q&A session can be found below or here .

Note: Recursion is a Two Sigma Ventures portfolio company.

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