Starting a business can be a professionally and financially rewarding experience. For founders and early-stage employees, however, it can also be a stress-filled and anxiety-ridden experience. Tight deadlines and thin margins force employees to do more with less and to put in unreasonable hours to keep a startup functioning as it attempts to gain traction in its market. To a certain extent, that’s an understandable part of the startup experience, but it’s one that can have dangerous consequences for employees over the long term. It is important to start building a startup culture that encourages wellness.
The reason that’s the case is that startups establish much of their workplace culture early on in their development, and there’s a risk that they could enshrine some negative practices into the company ethos that won’t be easy to shake. That’s one of the factors feeding a burnout crisis within the modern workforce, as businesses become blind to the physical and psychological toll their expectations are having on their most valuable resource – their own employees.
To avoid that situation, it’s essential for startups to make employee wellness a priority from the very beginning, in recognition of the fact that the wellbeing of the business’s employees will determine just how far the startup itself will go. For entrepreneurs and startup managers to get this right means crafting a culture of wellness that gives employees the support and tools that they need to take care of themselves and continue propelling the startup forward.
Before going into what it takes to build a culture of wellness in a startup, it’s important to more closely define the concept first. That’s because, in a business context, employee wellness is often seen as something best left to a benefits program; with companies handing off responsibility to a third-party provider and assuming the problem is solved.
More often than not, however, workplace wellness programs suffer from poor employee participation rates, owing largely to the fact that the company culture doesn’t make wellness a measured and encouraged goal.
Building a wellness culture goes beyond providing subsidized gym memberships and yoga classes – it’s instead all about designing a workplace environment that facilitates healthy habits and a management philosophy that makes it clear that employee health and wellbeing is of paramount importance.
For example, taking a firm stance by capping the number of hours an employee may work each week and making paid time off mandatory sends an unmistakable message to employees that the company is putting their needs and best interests first, and that is the core of creating a culture of wellness in a startup.
Where to Begin
For a startup to begin to create a culture of wellness, it must first deal with an issue that’s common to all fledgling businesses: a lack of overlapping skillsets. In general, most startups don’t prioritize the cross-training of employees, which makes every team member indispensable. That reality guarantees that employees will feel pressure to put in long hours and delay taking vacations because they know that their work cannot be done by anyone else.
To remedy the situation, the first step is to create an organizational structure with pre-delegated task coverage and to make time for employees to train others in the specifics of their work. That will not only create continuity for business operations but will also help employees to feel more at ease and willing to take more personal time to relax and tend to their own health and wellness needs.
Wellness is a Day-to-Day Operation
Once the company has a functional organizational structure that’s prepared to accommodate employee needs. The employee’s needs are the next vital part of creating a culture of wellness. You’ll want to adjust the workplace environment to make it more conducive to employees’ wellbeing. To do this, startups should:
- Prioritize Movement – One of the easiest ways to promote employee wellness is to get workers up and moving around as often as possible. To begin with, offering standing desks is a great way to get employees used to getting out of their seats, as is making it a practice to hold walking meetings and encouraging face-to-face collaboration with others. If practical, it’s also a great idea to provide employees with fitness tracking wearables to build a reward system for those that make sure to walk as often as possible.
- Provide Healthy Foods – Hard working employees don’t often stop to consider the snacks and foods they’re eating throughout the day. One of the ways a startup can capitalize on this is to provide healthy food options in break rooms and in common areas (sorry, no more donuts). Also, holding periodic healthy cooking demonstrations and health-centric company lunches is a great way to get employees used to choosing better food options, both at work and at home.
- Offer Biometric Screenings – To help employees stay on top of their own wellness needs, it’s a good idea to offer periodic, in-office biometric screenings that measure things like weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels. Since most people don’t seek out such services on a regular basis, making them convenient and available goes a long way toward helping employees remain cognizant of their overall physical health.
- Consider Relaxation – It is difficult for any startup to eliminate stressors for their employees, but that doesn’t mean there’s no way to ameliorate its effects. To do this, create a comprehensive break policy and provide a closed, quiet, relaxing space for employees to unwind. If possible, offer complimentary essential oils and aromatherapy options – anything employees identify that will help them to relax. If it’s agreeable to the whole staff, consider making the office pet-friendly, which will help employees to feel calm throughout the workday.
- Allow Flexible Working Arrangements – Wherever possible, it’s a good idea for startups to embrace flexible working options, including work-from-home and non-standard work hours for employees that need them. Creating a work environment that helps employees maintain a healthy work/life balance by accommodating their needs outside the office will reduce their overall stress levels, give them the time they need to care for themselves, and help them to establish boundaries that promote their wellbeing.
- Encourage open communication and sharing of ideas – Doesn’t matter if you’re a janitor or a member of senior management, everybody likes when they feel respected and their ideas worthy of someone’s time. If your company has a reputation of a prison camp, where bosses bark orders and everyone else is keeping their mouth shut, that’s bound to crumble your business, sooner or later. Your workers will feel neglected and depressed, and will probably jump ship as soon as an opportunity presents itself. Even if you can’t accept everyone’s suggestion or criticism, your employees will feel better knowing they can get it off their chest. That is why it’s critical to foster open communication from day one. If you want to take it a step further, putting your employees through a course such as NLP, or organizing team building activities will certainly pay off in the future.
For the most part, the components that help to create a culture of wellness in a startup have one thing in common: they’re all about creating a support structure. This goes beyond making certain perks and services available to employees; it instead aims at modifying the work environment to make it easy for employees to focus on wellness, without disrupting business or being heavy-handed. That’s why it’s important to note that none of the above concepts involve any mandatory tasks (save making taking vacation time a requirement). Creating any unnecessary inducements will serve to create another stressor, and will undo many of the benefits the startup is seeking to create.
Making Wellness a Business Objective
At the end of the day, startups have to make sure that they make employee wellness a business objective that they put on par with revenue and sales growth. That’s because, by their nature, startups tend to create the very forces that work against employee wellness in the first place, and anything less than a laser-focus on employee wellness will see the culture they’re trying to create fall short of the mark. But as the old saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink, and the same idea holds true when creating a wellness culture. The best the startup can do is create the conditions for wellness and communicate its importance in words and in deeds, and then it’s up to employees to embrace those cues to create a lasting culture of wellness for the life of the business.