“Take the foot off the pedal”: How these Melbourne startups are putting employee mental health first


Linktree co-founder and chief Alex Zaccaria. Source: supplied.

This week has been tough for Melburnians, as we get our heads around Daniel Andrews’ recovery roadmap. The Premier’s plan has extended stage four lockdown for a further two weeks, and laid out a schedule that won’t see hospitality businesses opening for seated customers until at least the end of October.

SmartCompany reached out to the city’s startup community, to gauge how the tech sector is feeling about this latest development in the COVID rollercoaster.

And, while many noted the ongoing economic hardship — not everyone is working at an edtech going gangbusters right now — another theme also emerged.

For many founders, taking care of their staff is a priority right now. In particular, they’re trying to look out for their mental health.

Linc founder Erwin van der Koogh noted on LinkedIn that he’s actually feeling “relatively good” about the news.

“It really hammers home that the state government is taking this as serious as they should be and are willing to make unpopular decisions,” he said.

“But mental health/energy levels have been low for a while now and not getting much better,” he noted.

“We have [to] take the foot off the pedal a bit and [have] consciously scheduled time for just talking basically, without an agenda.”

Alex Zaccaria, founder and chief of Linktree and someone who is outspoken on mental health in startups, says taking care of employees is a priority for the business right now.

“It’s been a challenging time for Victorians,” he tells SmartCompany.

Linktree offers staff free access to a meditation platform, actively encourages open conversation about the need for ‘mental health days’, and has what Zaccaria calls “rituals” to encourage communication on Slack.

“We are committed to providing our employees with the resources and culture they need to feel supported and heard,” he says.

“We understand and are all experiencing the huge mental and physical toll these restrictions have placed on our team.”


Linktree has given employees a day of paid leave next week, offering them “additional time to recuperate and unwind”.

Zaccaria has also tacked on two additional days off to be taken after the lockdown ends, presumably to allow for partying and the pub.

While six months ago, gifting staff with days off might have been unprecedented, it’s something that might be picking up in popularity.

Just weeks ago, toilet paper startup Who Gives a Crap announced it would be operating at 50% capacity for two weeks, allowing every staff member to take a week off.

Renewable energy provider Powershop Australia is also offering staff members a day off in September, as part of its R U OK Day measures.

It offers staff “a chance to spend some time away from work, with their families or simply investing some time in what makes them feel good”, Powership chief Jason Stein tells SmartCompany.

“We’re in the fortunate position of being able to do this and we want to ensure our staff are supported so we can continue to give our best to our customers.”

Even food delivery giant Deliveroo gave its Aussie employees an extra day off in lieu, “to help people recharge and step away from their screens”, chief of Deliveroo Australia Ed McManus tells SmartCompany.

“We recognised just how hard people had been working,” he says.

“With the lockdown extension, we are cognisant that activities such as these will continue to be vitally important to keep people connected and resilient,” he adds.

Deliveroo implemented a number of initiatives at the beginning of the stage four lockdown, “recognising the toll that isolation would have on our people no matter their home circumstances,” McManus says.

There are fortnightly meditation sessions and counselling services available. The business has also appointed two mental health aid officers, and sent managers on mental health awareness training.

There’s also a focus on physical health.

Employees are able to access a weekly personal training session and fortnightly yoga, and they’re encouraged to take ‘walking meetings’ outside.

Finally, the business sends fresh fruit and vegetables to employees and shares healthy recipes to help keep staff eating well.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Many of these startup leaders also stressed the importance of staying connected. And it’s not only about virtual Friday night drinks. There’s also a need for one-to-one catch-ups and regular check-ins.

That has been a focus for David Rennex, chief of AI-driven debt recovery platform DebtForce.

“As a leader, I want to make sure that my staff know that I’m here for them, and that DebtForce will support them through this difficult time,” he says.

“I’d say the most effective tool has been the one-on-one Zoom meetings which have enabled me to check-in, listening and understanding the challenges my team are facing,” he adds.

“We have also encouraged the team to keep active, offering all staff options for online group sessions for pilates, yoga or gym personal training, which have proved a huge hit.”

Largely, it seems there’s not any one thing a founder can, or should, be doing to support employees with their mental health. Rather, you need a whole support structure.

Meditation won’t work for some people, exercise classes won’t appeal to others. Situations differ from person to person. So, it’s about making it clear mental health is a priority, and showing support is there if needed.

For Michael Tutek, founder and chief of e-commerce startup Preezie, it comes down to flexibility.

“Be flexible with your work-life balance and just show each other support and build that internal support network for each other,” he says.

“We are there for each other for work, but also as friends outside work.”

If you or someone you know need to talk to someone, contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Headspace on 1800 650 890.

You can reach Beyond Blue’s COVID-19 support line on 1800 512 348, or find mental health resources for small business owners here.

NOW READ: “This is what I need. I’m burnt out and I’m tired”: How these high-profile founders look after their mental health

NOW READ: Business owners “running on empty” as ongoing COVID-19 uncertainty takes a toll on mental health


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