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The ‘Traffic Light’ Exercise, Tweeting About Therapy, and 5 More Ways To Support Mental Health at Work

There’s been a lot of crying in my career – tears of frustration, sadness, and also joy.

As a newspaper editor, reporters would sometimes come into my office, close the door and break down in sobs. Doing social media for an open-office tech startup, I had to leave the building and walk around the block to cry.

No job has normalized tears for me more than Buffer, and I’m so grateful for it. At Buffer, we try to bring ourselves authentically to work. We delight in the joys of life – new babies, pets, plants! work and life achievements! – and we don’t shy away from the hard stuff – depression, anxiety, burnout, and grieving.

I’ve cried many times, with many different teammates. And I’ve sat with teammates as they cried, bearing witness to their joy and pain. Along the way I’ve come to understand that although work may not be a family, we can support one another’s emotional and mental health at work in powerful ways.

According to the mental health advocacy nonprofit Made of Millions:

  • 44% of adults say their stress has increased over the past five years.
  • 56% of employees say stress and anxiety impact their job performance.
  • 62% of missed workdays can be attributed to a mental condition.

In honor of May’s Mental Health Awareness Month, in this post we’ll talk about mental health at work – what we’re doing at Buffer to focus on this important topic, and what anyone can do – regardless of their company or role – to gently focus on well being.

How Buffer Supports Mental Health At Work

1. We Bust Stigmas Together

The most important thing I believe we do for mental health at work is normalize the idea that all emotions are valid and that all humans need help sometimes.

Our CEO, Joel, regularly Tweets publicly about going to see his therapist, his experiences with burnout, and more “founder lows” (as well as highs!). Joe, one of our Android developers, wrote an awesome blog post about how he’s learning to build resilience and fight anxiety with the help of therapy. It’s not uncommon to see a recurring therapy appointment on a teammate’s calendar, or see someone share in Slack that they’re starting a new mental health medication.

Nearly 450 million people worldwide are currently living with a mental illness, but almost 2/3s of them never seek treatment. There’s no reason we should all live in fear of sharing this side of ourselves and miss out on ways our lives could be better.

And yet almost two out of three people who have received hospital treatment for a mental health condition say they have experienced discrimination at work.

We believe the future of work is stigma free.

New teammates are often amazed at the level of vulnerable sharing that happens in spaces like our “healthy work” Slack channel. But when we’re open with one another, the amount of trust we build propels Buffer forward in incredible ways.

“I think it’s quite special that we’re simply able to share our experiences with mental health in Slack,” one teammate told me for this piece. “A lot of people at other companies could never imagine doing so. And then also that we’re supported in doing so, celebrated for being open, and validated by fellow teammates that others are feeling the exact same way.”

2. We Provide and Share Resources

Buffer offers a free subscription to Joyable, an online emotional health tool, for all teammates and partners (and kids 13+!) as part of our mental health benefits. Joyable offers stress reduction tools like breathing exercises and light meditation, as well as the ability to talk to their coaches via text or phone. Joyable also helps teammates match with a fitting “in real life” mental health provider in their area that works with our insurance plans.

A look at one of Joyable’s exercises on thought patterns

We’ve also been really impressed with the team from the emotional well-being platform Modern Health, who provide a similar program and told us they’ve seen a huge uptick in employers looking to reduce burnout and prevent mental health issues.

Digital programs have been shown to be as effective as face-to-face therapy, but are available anywhere and anytime! A great choice for a fully remote team.

Additionally, we share mental health resources in our Slack “healthy work” room and provide optional training like webinars and sessions on mindfulness at work that teammates can take advantage of.

3. We Respect Introverts and Extroverts

We’re an introspective group at Buffer – we love personality tests and learning more about how to work better with one another. And we’re definitely aware that our team, like most, is a mix of extroverts, introverts, and ambiverts.

Since we’ve found that loneliness is a key concern for remote workers, we’ve developed lots of mechanism to fight it for our extroverts.

Loneliness is one of the biggest struggles for remote workers

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.

On the more introvert side of things, we prioritize asynchronous communication for most types of meetings because it can be comfortable and more productive to do things like brainstorm when you don’t feel “put on the spot.” We also offer introverts lots of space and time to recharge, particularly on our full-team company retreats.

4. We Prioritize and Normalize Time Off

We really, really believe in the power of time off at Buffer. So much so that we morphed our policy of unlimited days off into a 3-week minimum vacation policy when we found folks weren’t taking enough time off. Now we check in each quarter to remind folks to plan and take time away.

“Our low barrier to entry for taking time off is the biggest benefit I’ve found!,” one teammate shared with me. “So if you’re burnt out or not feeling well, there is very little process to get that time off.”

Additionally, we provide teammates with an “Unsick Day,” too. This initiative encourages folks to take control of their health by taking a dedicated day at least once a year just for preventive care – which very much includes time to locate or meet with a therapist. And there’s always room in the calendar for regular mental health appointments.

“Having the flexibility in our days to have therapy appointments is quite big,” a teammate told me. “Sometimes we don‘t realize it because we are in the midst of it and take it for granted.”

5. We Communicate Vulnerably

As we communicate at Buffer, we try to make space for all different moods and emotions. One of our favorite opening activities for any smaller gathering like an area stand-up meeting is what we refer to as an “energy check” or sometimes “traffic lights.”

We go around the virtual room via Zoom and share whether we’re feeling red, yellow or green that day.

  • Red means you’re overwhelmed, upset or generally having a tough time
  • Yellow means things aren’t ideal but you’re hanging in there
  • Green means you’re feeling good about things

Sometimes we just share the color and that’s it. More often the color is perhaps accompanied by a sentence or two about why the person chose it, like “I’m feeling yellow today because I’m a little anxious about hitting a deadline I have coming up, and I have a dentist appointment this afternoon I’m nervous about.”

This exercise is awesome to help build awareness of what folks are bringing with them into a meeting – work-related feelings and otherwise. And we have worked hard to normalize all the response options – it’s always OK to say you’re feeling red or yellow. We’d rather know than have you try to fake it!

It’s wonderful when things are going well. But it’s equally okay to be vulnerable, overwhelmed, or having a bad day. All emotions are valid.

It was really fun recently to see a teacher’s viral experiment in doing a similar check-in every day with her students!

6. We Look Out for Burnout

Our CEO and founder, Joel, recently shared the story of his experience with burnout in 2017. Up until then, we as a team didn’t know much or think much about burnout.

But now that we’re in Year 8 of building Buffer, burnout is something we’re growing increasingly aware of. We now know it can strike no matter how fulfilling the role or how supportive the team. And we know it has been named as a factor in type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, gastrointestinal issues, high cholesterol and even death.

In addition to combating burnout with frequent check-ins and time off, we recently introduced a new sabbatical policy: After every 5 years of working at Buffer, teammates are invited to take a 6-week break, fully paid.

I hope this helps our teammates bring their best selves to Buffer for as long as they want. And in the event of burnout, I found a lot of great wisdom in the responses to this Tweet.

7. We Don’t Share Rooms When We Travel!

Finally, a small but important one: When we travel for work, for example to one of our team retreats or area onsites, we have a rule that no one shares rooms or bathrooms. Work travel is typically draining, and it’s key for us to give teammates rest and privacy at the end of the day.

Plus: 7 Self-Care and Mental Health Tools for All

Increasingly, companies and employers are spending more time and attention on employee mental health, which is great! But even if your company doesn’t provide a huge amount of support right now, there are a lot of tools available to you for free or cheap to help you take charge of your own mental heath.

  • Woebot is a free app that uses cognitive behavioral therapy strategies for daily check-ins, with more than 150 evidence-based lessons, exercises, and stories to help you understand yourself better.
  • Moodpath, an app for Android and iOS, is a free personalized mental health companion that supports you in phases of stress, depression, and anxiety.
  • SuperBetter, another app for Android and iOS, gamifies mental health with challenges that focus on increasing resilience and transforming thought pattern and habbits
  • Shine is a low-cost “self-compassion coach in your pocket.” Every morning the app sends you a text to get you motivated for the day, and if you click to learn more you’ll find a daily check-in option, audio meditations and more.
  • Talkspace is online therapy starting at $49/week.
  • Additionally, many Bufferoos love tools like Headspace, CalmHappify and more, which help to create self care through your phone with meditation, breathing exercises and more.
  • Forest is a neat app that helps you increase focus and limit phone time by turning your phone into a growing forest (that begins to die when you leave the app!) Also try the “Screen Time” feature on your phone (It’s under Settings > Screen Time for iPhone users and Settings > Digital Wellbeing for Android folks) to set “App Limits” for apps that are hard for you to quit.

Over to You

Thanks for following along with this journey into mental health at work. Let’s keep this conversation going! What are the biggest challenges you’ve found to mental health at work? What resources would help you out? Does your workplace provide any unique resources that have made a difference?

  • Vanessa Naja

    Wow, you guys never ceases to amaze me. What a special gift to have this at work. I hope in the future, many more companies will adopt this. Really awesome!!!

  • I struggled with anxiety and panic attacks, so… running events was a nightmare. Fortunately, my boss and colleague were pros at lending me a hand. 🙂 I couldn’t have done it without their support. I’m so so heartened by this post, Courtney. Gives me faith ❤

    • Wow, sounds like you worked with a great and supportive team, Priscilla! So happy to hear that! Appreciate you sharing here!

  • Really cool article, thank you Courtney. Going to try to implement these policies in my bassoon studio and the broader conservatory at Oberlin. Thank you!

    • Wow, that’s incredible, Drew! Good luck in supporting your team’s mental health!

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  • Brandon Hunter

    A coworker just shared this with me this week (via Slack). I used to work in Acute Inpatient Psychiatric Care before I learned to code and got into tech. During one of our company-wide standups a few months ago (we’re approaching 100 employees) I announced I had created our own version of your “healthy work” channel and initially the feedback was positive. But, due to a “dead-channel” slack inquisition I had been forced to announce it before I’d defined a clear vision, purpose, and guidelines for the channel so it was met with some mild resistance (mostly on how to use bots to moderate and screen people so that it ensured privacy and discretion) which basically led to no one joining the channel (except one person) and the bots became just another item on my personal backlog that I didn’t have time to take care of so I gave up on it a couple months ago.

    My question is, how do I get something like this actually going so that its not going to cause people to worry about “We shouldn’t have people publicly sharing they’re thinking of killing themselves in Slack and then that information getting outside our circle and…” (close to actual quote)? I think because I introduced it as a place for us to bring our whole-selves to work (Radical Candor is one of our strongly recommended and provided readings) and to be there to support anyone who may find themselves in a distressful situation and want to reach out or air something out thats affecting them and people automatically snapped to thinking of it as a suicide hotline. Any pointers you can provide would potentially make a huge difference because, as I said, I lost the capacity to implement it on my own and gave up.

    Thanks so much for this article, this gives me hope not only for the Slack endeavor but for the rest of it as well as I had no idea companies were actually doing this!

    • Hi Brandon! First of all; big kudos to you for caring about your team’s health and well-being so much and trying something like the Slack group! It sounds like you have an interesting challenge in front of you. I don’t have tried-and-tested advice here, but if you were to relaunch the channel I’d say it could be handy to start by seeding it first – enlisting a small group of like-minded folks to join it and maybe prepping them briefly on what you’d like the group to be and do for your team. You might also focus on interpreting health really broadly at first, sharing more general stress and health links, to make sure folks are invited into the concept a bit more slowly. Our Slack room has had conversation on everything from flu shots to meditation to ergonomic office chairs, if that helps at all. You’ll probably have to do a bit more of the heavy lifting first, but hopefully it’ll catch on! Would love to know how this goes for you if you try again. Good luck!

      • Brandon Hunter

        Thanks Courtney! That seems like pretty solid advice considering I had more approval and interest and support of the larger idea and plan but no one wanted to be the first ones in on it seemingly. A more gradual approach, particularly one that is more “self-care” and “wellness” oriented initially seems like a way to ease people into it. I’ll try to get in touch and let you know how it goes if I can remember haha. Thanks again, and btw I and a couple coworkers love the things you’re doing at Buffer that you mentioned in this piece as well as others!

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