‘We just don’t have time for that’: why prioritising mental health is a cornerstone to startup success

- July 29, 2021 4 MIN READ
Meditation, beach
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A compelling mission, values, fast paced operations, inherent risks when things don’t go to plan – startup life and special operations have a lot of similarities and a dark side people like to avoid: mental health issues.

Coming from the background of having dedicated time to train my skill set, improve fitness and structured training packages to develop things like resilience it has taught me the value of “sharpening the saw” in all aspects of life. In times of stress, it’s these learned behaviours that help special operators and founders alike steer through uncertain times.

Brett Turley

Brett Turley

This is where I am usually met with the founder or start up mentality of “We just don’t have time for that”.

After spending nearly a decade in the military, two years in one of Australia’s fastest growing startups being WithYouWithMe to now building a corporate wellness solution, unless you’re helping employees develop outside of their formal job description, you will struggle with mental health and risk the chance of your startup joining the long list of the ones that didn’t make it.

But, with overwhelming evidence pointing towards corporate wellness solutions being a waste of time, how can the industry be worth $66 billion? 

Firstly, let’s take a look at why most corporate wellness programs have a poor adoption rate or fail.


The environment does not support wellness

Corporate wellness solutions are sometimes implemented as a band aid solution well after a poor or toxic culture has been identified within a company. Prevention is always better than cure, on both a cost and effort front. 


Poor selection of program champions

Programs like this usually fall in the HR remit. They are usually too time poor to execute the program or worse yet, the champion does not value health enough to lead by example and they use it as a vanity metric or “feel good” program for PR purposes only.


Broad brush prescription

Implementing a steps program for every employee doesn’t work. In the time of instant gratification and deeply personalised UX a solution should consider the training history, injuries/limitations, interests and time available to the user.


Work/Life Balance does not exist in a startup 

Most of the time it’s a case of strap it, tap it and glue it and we apply a wellness solution that doesn’t fit the workforce. Programs that are hard to implement, manage and execute are almost guaranteed to fail in a startup environment.

This report shows that in 2019, 84% of large US employers (200 or more workers) offering health benefits offered a workplace wellness program. Various studies such as this randomized trial of 32,974 employees in the US, prove that apart from some small wins around self awareness most of these programs miss the mark when it comes to engagement, utilization and ultimately better health outcomes.

It’s reported that only 10% of employees engage and utilise wellness programs. 


Mental health costs your workforce and bottom line

This 2016 study shows in the US alone $2.2 trillion is lost from poor productivity and mental illness in the workplace. It also goes onto say that 52% of employees are overweight or obese and 76% struggle with their mental health and wellbeing.

In Australia during 2010-2015 claims involving mental health conditions were associated with an above average time off work and higher than average claim costs.

  • Typical compensation payment per claim was $24,500 compared to $9,000 for all claims, and
  • Typical time off work was 15.3 weeks compared to 5.5 weeks for all claims.

They went on to state poor support, low role clarity, poor workplace relationships and remote/isolated work being some of the key factors affecting mental health. With COVID emerging in 2020 and the pressure of running a startup amplifying these constraints it’s no wonder startup life can have detrimental effects on a founder or an employees mental health. 


With the NSW Government offering grants of up to 50k for workplaces to implement mental health solutions, the tide is starting to shift for companies to build innovative mental health solutions for their staff. But most will sadly miss the mark if they follow the current in service methods of shoot first, ask questions later.

So how do we empower founders and leaders (regardless of size and budget) to discover and implement the right solution for their organisation?

  1. Make it data driven. Instead of assuming what your employees want, survey them. 
  2. User led. Just like human centred design and user experience we need to know what our employees want and how they want it delivered. 
  3. Focus on your biggest problem. Problem with churn? Remote workforce struggling with isolation? From your data focus on one problem and place priority on having a bias towards action and execution.
  4. Pilot a program. To avoid the perceived cost vs benefit problem, trial the solution. Don’t just throw money at the problem, allow employees to volunteer and offer their data in exchange for access 
  5. Respect privacy but make it safe to speak. Most employees simply don’t want to be monitored by their employer outside of work. Some people however will freely give information and data to help the mission. Double down on these champions and let others use anonymity as they choose

Treat your wellness program like an MVP. You don’t need an overly complex solution for your customers (employees) to feel valued and supported. Find what moves the needle on your biggest problem and double down on the wellness program fit.



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