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How to Create an Emotionally Fit Technology Startup Culture

Duncan MacRae



Clinical psychologist and co-founder of Beam, Dr Emily Anhalt, says an emotionally fit workplace culture begins with a mentally healthy tech leader.

Mental health issues are having a massive impact on UK businesses, as well as their workers; that is the stark and disturbing reality.

Stress is costing British businesses £1,000 in sick pay and associated costs per employee each year, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy has estimated.

More than 15 million working days were lost in 2017/18 in the UK due to stress, depression and anxiety, according to the Health and Safety Executive. Additionally, research from the Centre for Mental Health has found that workplace absence due to mental health reasons costs the economy £15.1 billion per annum.

The technology sector is one of the worst affected. A survey conducted by professional services firm Aon revealed that the Legal and Professional Services sector showed the highest incidence of employers (82%) that reported an increase in mental health-related illness in their workforces. The tech sector, where more than three quarters (78%) of businesses noticed an increase, was not far behind.

Overall, the UK figure of employers reporting an increase in mental health issues rose from 55% in 2017 to 68% in 2018. The stats are troubling. Are people suffering more with mental health issues than they have done in the past? Or could it be that mental health issues are being talked about and acknowledged more than they used to be?

Clinical psychologist Dr Emily Anhalt, who recently spoke at Turing Fest in Edinburgh, believes that there has long been a blind spot to how important self-awareness and emotional health are if someone’s going to be successful in the world of technology.

“Mental health is having a bit of a ‘moment’ in tech right now,” she says. “The stigma is starting to drop and a lot of people are being more vocal, not only about their mental health issues but also about their mental wellness practices.

“So people are being more outspoken about starting to see a therapist or getting a coach, or meditating every morning, or keeping a journal, or taking up yoga. People are talking about these things more and that’s fantastic.”

But it’s also starting to happen in the name of self-care, she explains – a term which she feels has become somewhat common. “It’s kind of become trendy to invest in your own self-care,” she notes, but this comes with a downside.

“The downside when something becomes trendy is that it can get co-opted by people who want to make money from it, and it can get a little bit bastardised, which means it loses some of its original meaning,” Anhalt explains. “So instead of ‘self-care’, I like to use the term ’emotional fitness’.

It’s a concept that she became increasingly interested in, especially within the technology industry.

“I decided to think about what it would look like to bridge the gap between interpersonal psychology and the startup world,” she says.

“As I did this, something kept coming up time and time again, and that was the concept of work/life balance. I don’t know about anyone else, but I wouldn’t really know where to draw the line between my work and my personal life these days. I work from home a lot, my co-founder has become my good friend, I think about my job all the time and I answer emails until midnight.

“This is all by choice. It’s my choice because I love what I do. I think, more than ever in the tech world, people are doing what they love, what they find meaning in, and they’re defining their lives and identities by their work. Who you are anywhere is who you are everywhere.”

And, if you’re bringing your whole emotional self to work then it’s really important that you are just as committed to working on your emotional self in the workplace as you are to working on it in your personal life, according to Anhalt.

So what is emotional fitness? It’s an ongoing, proactive practice that strengthens your resilience muscles and improves your emotional health, Anhalt explains. It increases your self-awareness, it improves your relationships and it’s going to make you a better leader all-round, she promises.

“Just like with physical fitness, though, there’s no quick fix here,” she warns. “You can’t work on your emotional health for a weekend and then think you’re good to go. You have to be constantly investing in it and work on it over time.”

Anhalt wanted to find out what this looks like in the context of a workplace. “One thing I knew for sure was that it starts with leadership,” she says. “So I wanted to define what it actually means for a tech leader to be emotionally fit.”

To better understand this, Anhalt interviewed 100 psychologists and entrepreneurs and compiled their answers on what it means to be an emotionally healthy leader. She asked ‘if you were sitting across the table from someone who is clearly mentally healthy, how would you know? What would it look like? What would it feel like?’

She noticed that the themes focused around seven traits.

The seven traits of the emotionally fit leader:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Empathy
  3. Playfulness
  4. Curiosity
  5. Mindfulness
  6. Resilience
  7. Good communication

“An emotionally fit leader has self-awareness,” Anhalt asserts. “They’re aware of, and they can manage, their own emotions. They have empathy. They’re aware and they care about other people’s emotions. They’re playful, curious and mindful. They’re resilient. They can accept criticism, feedback and deal with failure. They can weather the storm of entrepreneurship. And, finally, they’re able to communicate effectively.”

But the way in which startups work, it’s not just the leaders who are emotionally invested in the success of the company.

“Now that we’re doing what we love and now that we’re spending so much of our lives at work, it’s just as important that the culture at work, the atmosphere that you work in be mentally healthy, as it is for any individual person to be mentally healthy,” says Anhalt. “One begets the other.

“Companies definitely have taken notice of this. I’ve seen a lot of companies try to invest more in employee mental health, with all sorts of perks ranging from really lovely to just completely ridiculous.

“Free yoga for all employees. That sounds really nice. It gives people the chance to recalibrate and get emotionally ready for their next meeting after lunch. I’ve also seen things like all of the cars in the employee car park being washed every month so the employees have one less thing to worry about. It’s taken care of by the company. Then I’ve seen things that I don’t really think are all that healthy, like free-flowing, constant access to alcohol all through the day.”

In 2018, Google’s management wanted to discover the secrets of effective teams. The tech giant believed employees could do more working together than alone – if the conditions were right. Code-named Project Aristotle, a nod to Aristotle’s quote – “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” – Google’s study sought to answer the question: What makes a team effective at Google?

The researchers found that what really mattered was less about who is on the team, and more about how the team worked together.

They listed their findings in what they considered to be the order of importance:

Psychological safety: Psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative or disruptive. In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question or offering a new idea.

Dependability: On dependable teams, members reliably complete quality work on time (vs the opposite – shirking responsibilities).

Structure and clarity: An individual’s understanding of job expectations, the process for fulfilling these expectations, and the consequences of one’s performance are important for team effectiveness. Goals can be set at the individual or group level, and must be specific, challenging, and attainable. Google often uses Objectives and Key Results to help set and communicate short and long term goals.

Meaning: Finding a sense of purpose in either the work itself or the output is important for team effectiveness. The meaning of work is personal and can vary: financial security, supporting family, helping the team succeed or self-expression for each individual, for example.

Impact: The results of one’s work, the subjective judgement that your work is making a difference, is important for teams. Seeing that one’s work is contributing to the organisation’s goals can help reveal impact.

A crucial question still remained unanswered, though, according to Anhalt. How do we cultivate this culture of psychological safety at work? To this end, she set out to conduct another round of research. But, this time, in pursuit of just that – what can a company do to make this happen?

“Interestingly, what I found were another seven traits that matched really nicely against the seven traits of the emotionally fit leader,” she explains.

  1. Healthy Leadership
  2. Agency & Trust
  3. Culture of Play
  4. Community & Belonging
  5. Proactive Mindset
  6. Stability & Integrity
  7. Communication & Transparency

It’s extremely important to integrate emotional health into the culture of your company, Anhalt explains, as being fit is much easier if you exist in a fit environment.

“It’s the founder’s job to create an ethos of emotional fitness in their company,” she says. “Add emotional fitness to your company’s mission statement. Start meetings with a check-in. Institute postmortems, fireside chats, and Ask Me Anythings. Have a meditation space. Invest in the emotional fitness of your employees. It will pay off.”

The most important factor in regards to creating a culture of psychological safety at work it to ensure there is healthy leadership. So how does one go about increasing their own healthy leadership?

“I recommend investing in a really great coach or fantastic therapist,” Anhalt says. “The work that you’re able to do for the world is extremely tied to the work that you’ve been willing to do on your own self.

“Tech leaders believe that they’re supposed to do it all, and they’re supposed to be able to do it all on their own. But, if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a therapist, it’s that if you’re in a ‘helper’ position, it’s very important that you have support yourself.

“A coach is someone who’s going to help you make better leadership decisions, and a therapist is someone who’s going to help you understand your patterns, your emotions and your relationships.”

There are a lot of misconceptions about therapy – that it’s only for people who are really in crisis or if something’s ‘wrong’ with them.

“Actually, therapy is for anyone who wants to better understand their place in the world,” Anhalt notes. “I really can’t think of a better investment than this investment in yourself.”

Duncan MacRae


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