Kelly Greenwood | CEO and Founder, Mind Share Partners
Even before he took a leave of absence due to burnout, Joel Gascoigne, cofounder and CEO of social media software company Buffer, strived to build a culture in which employees could bring their full selves to work. Little did he know that this would extend not only to his employees’ mental health, but also that of his own.
Buffer has a fully distributed team of 80-plus people across 15 countries. That poses both unique challenges and opportunities in terms of mental health. I interviewed Joel and Courtney Seiter, Buffer’s director of people, to learn more about Joel’s personal experience as well as how Buffer has been thoughtful about its team’s mental health.
Creating a culture of support for mental health starts with champions at all levels of the organization.
As CEO, you took a month and a half leave of absence due to severe burnout. Could you tell us a bit about the lead up to this and how your experience affected Buffer’s mental health culture and policies?
Joel Gascoigne: The lead up to being burned out went back to the end of 2015, beginning of 2016 for me. My cofounder and I started getting gradually misaligned on our vision for Buffer’s future. In mid-2016, this was made worse because of financial challenges that resulted in layoffs at Buffer. In early 2017, Buffer’s cofounder and CTO both left the company.
Throughout all of this, I can look back and see that while I was exercising and keeping myself in good shape, as well as feeling optimistic about the future of Buffer, it was adrenaline that was carrying me forward.
By the spring of 2017, the company felt much more stable and the adrenaline was no longer needed. As soon as the adrenaline subsided, my body could feel what it had come through. That’s when the burnout really hit me. Being burned out feels like being knocked off balance. I knew I needed to do something because in that state, I couldn’t lead the company. I spent a week chatting about it with the leadership team, who were very supportive. I wrote a memo to the team sharing my plans, and then I signed out of Slack.
In terms of Buffer’s mental health culture and policies, this impacted the team quite a bit. I was very open about it. It’s even a part of the Buffer story that I share with new teammates when they join. This eventually led to setting up a sabbatical policy at Buffer. We also give all teammates access to Joyable, an online tool for managing anxiety and depression.
Founders aren’t the only ones affected by mental health—60% of U.S. employees experience symptoms of a mental health condition every year. Learn how to address mental health in your workplace in 2020.
Has it made it easier for employees to share their own challenges?
Gascoigne: Definitely. I think you have to lead by example to have the most success. There’s a preconceived notion that the CEO should be the strongest person on the team and not share openly, but I try to be almost the opposite and that’s made it easier for others.
What was it like as a leader to open up to your team about your mental health? You now Tweet about going to your therapist.
Gascoigne: It was a little scary, but it wasn’t as difficult as it could have been because of the culture of transparency we have at Buffer. We’ve always had a caring culture and sharing about mental health felt really aligned with that.
What will it take for other CEOs to be candid about their mental health?
Gascoigne: The more people that do share means that others will become comfortable sharing their experiences as well, and it’s great seeing that. This type of honesty inspires other leaders and makes them feel like they can be open, too.
When it comes to talking about mental health for the first time, I recommend starting smaller and making it more manageable. Creating a safe space to share things happening in your personal life with your team goes a long way.
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Early on, Buffer wanted to build a culture in which people could bring themselves authentically to work. Why was this a priority? How did you accomplish this with an entirely remote workforce and how did this translate into mental health?
Courtney Seiter: We first started thinking about this when many of us on the team read the book Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux. It describes a concept we came to call “bringing your whole self to work.” As Laloux describes it:
We are all of fundamental equal worth. At the same time, our community will be richest if we let all members contribute in their distinctive way, appreciating the differences in roles, education, backgrounds, interests, skills, characters, points of view and so on."
To us, authenticity has meant an opportunity to bring all the elements of who we are to work—our passions and strengths, our achievements and our anxieties, even our relationships and families. It allows us to be truly ourselves and alleviates the pressure to leave some of our personality behind when we’re at work.
A focus on authenticity has allowed the team to know one another on a deeper, truer level. It’s given us a great lens for thinking about topics of mental health, diversity and inclusion, and has paved the way for us to grow in our capacity for understanding and empathy.
What are the pros and cons of having a remote workforce from a mental health perspective and how do you address them? How do you build a culture, particularly one of trust and psychological safety, when everyone is remote?
Seiter: Generally speaking, we’ve found that remote work is great for mental health. Our teammates are able to avoid a commute and spend more time doing what they want as a result. We don’t have working hours, and we don’t measure hours at all. We focus on results, balance and sustained productivity.
Since we’re spread across so many time zones and countries, we do have to work harder and create more deliberate opportunities to get to know one another on a deeper level. We also know that loneliness is a key concern for remote workers, so we’ve developed lots of mechanisms to fight it.
We gather teammates together for optional events like pair calls and other relaxed, informal chat opportunities. We also pay for teammates to work in coworking spaces if they prefer to have more interaction with others, and we reimburse folks for their coffees and pastries if they like working from coffee shops to get some human interaction.
Tell us about how Buffer has leveraged Slack to establish a virtual mental health employee resource group (ERG) and what it entails. What has been successful and what could be improved?
Seiter: We’ve had a lot of success with our “healthy work” Slack channel. Here’s the description we give for this space: “Let’s share tips to help care for ourselves! Taking healthy breaks during the day, mindfulness, acts of kindness as a way to stay mentally healthy, how to identify stress triggers and disarm stress and anxiety.”
One element that has contributed to its success is that we started out by interpreting “health” really broadly at first, sharing more general stress and health links, to make sure folks were invited into the concept gradually. We’ve seen conversations on everything from flu shots to meditation to ergonomic office chairs.
Today, new teammates are often amazed at the level of vulnerable sharing that happens there – it’s not uncommon to see folks asking for recommendations to help find a therapist, discussing various anxiety treatments they’re trying and lots more. But it took time to build that level of trust, and a few brave teammates to “go first” in sharing their experiences.
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Kelly Greenwood is the Founder & CEO of Mind Share Partners, a nonprofit changing the culture of workplace mental health so that both organizations and employees can thrive. She is a nationally recognized advocate and speaker for mental health, as well as a Forbes contributor and the editor-at-large for Mental Health at Work, a special blog section on Thrive Global. She partners with and advises leading companies on their mental health strategies, helping to create mentally healthy workplaces all over the country.
Kelly has a cross-sector background that includes corporate, nonprofit and foundation roles. Prior to Mind Share Partners, she served as the Chief Growth & Strategy Officer of Techbridge Girls and was a Principal on the Portfolio Team at the Skoll Foundation. Previously, she worked as a management consultant at Accenture, A.T. Kearney and the Bridgespan Group, the nonprofit spin-off of Bain & Company.
Kelly holds an M.B.A. from Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and graduated summa cum laude from Duke University with a B.A. in Psychology and Spanish.