Why Welkin Cares About Mental Health and How I Started Welkin’s “MEH” Employee Resource Group

“Unlike a lot of places I’ve worked, Welkin actually lives the values we list on our website.” This is what I tell every new Welikan on their first day during our new hire orientation meeting, and over the last two and a half years working at Welkin, I believe more and more in those words I say to our newest hires.

When I first started as Welkin’s Office Manager, it took me a while to buy into the idea that a company genuinely cared about its employees as much as Welkin claimed to. I had just left a company that felt like it was ripped out of an episode of Silicon Valley, where at an all-hands meeting the CEO told employees, “If you don’t think this is the best company you’ve ever worked for, you should leave now.” I hoarded my sick days and didn’t share much of my personal life with coworkers for fear that they would use some bit of it against me down the road.  

After a year and a half, the stress of my job and a number of unfortunate events in my personal life culminated in a full-blown panic attack on San Francisco’s MUNI. Two days later, I was hospitalized in SF General’s Psychiatric ward after calling 9-11 due to a barrage of suicidal thoughts. I was back at the office two days later, terrified to speak to my manager about what had happened and too embarrassed to request personal time off. It was just easier to show up and cry in the bathroom than to have an honest conversation about my mental health at work.

A month after that incident, I left that role promising myself I was going to find a place that cared about its employees as human beings rather than just cogs in a machine. Through some form of kismet, two months after my panic attack, I was hired at Welkin.

How Welkin Encourages Wellness

As I mentioned above, one of the first things that every new employee learns about is Welkin’s values. Welkin’s Wellness value states, “Our company mission and our culture overlap, placing priority on personal wellbeing. We don’t believe your work should come at the expense of your health and happiness.” We practice this in our day-to-day in a variety of ways.  

From encouraging flexible work hours and giving employees unlimited PTO and sick days to openly posting medical and therapy appointments on our calendars, we understand that employees are humans first and that means taking time, often during the typical work day hours of 9-5, to maintain physical, mental, and emotional wellness.  

At my previous company, the idea of taking time during the day to visit the dentist or doctor would have been met with an eye roll or a snide remark. At Welkin, everyone, from the CEO on down in the organization, is encouraged to set aside time for wellness.

We utilize a variety of tools to allow employees to take the time they need while also maintaining open two-way communication with their teammates.  One of our most utilized Slack channels is the #wfx channel, allowing employees to alert teammates when they’re working remotely or will be out of the office for any given amount of time.

Another way that Welkin supports employee wellness is through our Wellness Benefit, where each employee receives $75/month to spend on anything they deem wellness-related. We’ve had employees purchase ski passes, gym memberships, and teeth-whitening kits, pay for medication or appointment co-pays, and we’ve even extended it to include employees’ pets’ wellness, covering the costs of pet insurance and vet visits.

Mental Health in the Valley

It’s no secret that we’re currently facing a global mental health crisis. A study by the WHO found that one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. Millennials, and specifically the numerous millennial entrepreneurs who fill Silicon Valley, are found to be significantly more likely to report a lifetime history of depression, ADHD, substance use conditions, and bipolar diagnosis.

There are a number of factors contributing to this, from the millennial quest for perfection to the “work hard, play hard” mentality that permeates the Bay Area.  Whatever the underlying cause may be, it’s troubling to know that 18% of my colleagues likely suffer from some form of anxiety disorder.

My Experience with Mental Health at Welkin

Having lived with OCD and OCD-induced anxiety for my entire life, I know how difficult it is to navigate the workplace feeling like you have to hide an enormous part of who you really are, tucking away that major part of you until you leave the office each night. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve walked out of a bathroom, wiping mascara from under my eyes, telling my coworkers, “No really, I’m fine,” after a particularly nasty panic attack.

I don’t remember specifically the first time that my mental health came up with my manager at Welkin, but maybe that speaks for itself. The conversation that does stand out in my memory is when my primary care physician prescribed me Lexapro, my first SSRI. She believed that my depression was just that, and that with an SSRI, my suicidal thoughts would dissipate. She was wrong.

Within days of starting on Lexapro, I could barely get out of bed, much less function at a high level at work. I went into my weekly one-on-one with my manager and within seconds of her asking, “How are you doing?”, I broke down. I’ve always had an open relationship with her and she had context on my on-again off-again relationship, my sister’s cancer scare, and my imposter syndrome. But that day I told her about my new medication and how it was impacting me.

In stark contrast to how I felt when I went through a similar mental health hurdle at my previous company, I felt safe, respected, and supported like I’d never felt before. We crafted a game plan for how I could continue working while adjusting to my new medication and how I could keep an open line of communication with her throughout the process. A few weeks later, I transitioned off of Lexapro and onto a different medication when I visited my first psychiatrist and was finally diagnosed with OCD rather than depression. My manager was there for me through the entire process.

This experience felt highly unique to me, but I wondered, “how many of my coworkers are feeling exactly like I am right now?” Not surprisingly, it was a lot.

About six months after I transitioned to my new medication, when for the first time I finally felt like I had solid footing at work and in my personal life, I asked my manager what she thought about starting an employee resource group (ERG) to support mental health at Welkin. “I think that’s awesome, you should go for it!”  She also suggested that it encompass more than just mental health, and so, the Mental & Emotional Health, or “MEH” for short, ERG was born.

The Formation of “MEH”

The leadership team at Welkin has always supported ERGs and at the time, we already had the framework down for how to start one and how employees could interact with them. Our first ERG, #queers, was started about a year earlier to support LGBTQIA+ employees and their allies. #queers was followed closely by #welcome-at-welkin, an Employee Resource Group for women and gender minorities. Both had strong employee participation, but for some reason I was still nervous to introduce a new ERG to the team because I wondered if people would feel comfortable laying it all on the table and sharing their mental or emotional struggles with their teammates.

Much to my surprise, our first meeting had about 15 employees attend, a mix of both ICs and managers (out of a total of 45, that was a 33% participation rate). I was blown away. The meeting was relatively unstructured and began with a round-robin of answering the question of, “why are you interested in the ERG?” and “what do you hope to get out of it?”

All 15 of my coworkers opened up and shared stories of how they’ve had to navigate the workplace as a person struggling with a mental health diagnosis, while being neurodiverse, or while being a caretaker for a loved one with a mental health diagnosis. And all 15 of the stories had the same takeaway: that Welkin was the first place they ever felt safe sharing this with their team.

I was both comforted and saddened, but most of all, I was determined to continue what our founders had created – a safe space where all Welikans could come to work without fear of being ostracized for being a human being that was struggling with something internally.

MEH’s Impact at Welkin

A few weeks later, the MEH ERG hosted a Lunch & Learn where we discussed how employees could talk to their managers about their mental health and how, as a company, we could be more inclusive of employees who were neurodiverse or had a mental health diagnosis. We also instituted bi-weekly “MEH time” where employees can share with each other things they’re going through or ask questions of their teammates who have gone through similar scenarios.

Our MEH ERG has created a Confluence page of resources for employees: how to find a therapist; a list of wellness apps, articles, and YouTube videos; a list of recommended doctors and counselors in the Bay Area that we’re familiar with and/or are covered by our company health insurance.  Anyone at Welkin can drop a link or make a recommendation, and it’s grown over time to be a good go-to resource for employees who are taking the first steps in their mental health journey.

In addition to our resource page, the MEH ERG instituted a simple way for employees to tell the team that they’re taking a mental health day. This was one of the most common issues that came up in our first meeting and we decided that we needed to select one emoji that could represent taking a mental health day in the #wfx channel. It had to be something that wasn’t used often but everyone could identify, and so, the became our symbol.  

The origin of the :eye-in-speech-bubble: emoji was a 2014 campaign against bullying called I Am Witness, and although our usage is not in any way referencing bullying, we believe that acknowledging that Welkin sees employees during their tough times and supports their wellbeing was appropriate.

What’s Next for Wellness at Welkin?

The MEH ERG continues to support Welikans across the organization during our regular MEH sessions, giving employees a safe space to share their stories and ask for advice. We’ve continued to post interesting and helpful articles in the #MEH Slack channel and have plans to host a fireside chat with our founders so they can share their experiences with mental health.  MEH also gives regular updates regarding ERG events at our weekly all-hands meeting.

My dream is to help other startups build cultures that support positive mental health practices – like the ones we’ve fostered at Welkin – where employees can share what they are going through more openly with their managers and teammates.  The only way that we’re going to make a measurable impact in our industry is to break down the stigma tied to mental and emotional health, and the first step is sharing what Welkin is doing regarding wellness through this blog.  

There are small and inexpensive steps that companies can adopt that have an invaluable ROI. Companies should encourage managers to ask employees how they’re doing in 1:1s rather than just asking what projects they’re working on, adopt flexible working policies, share resources, provide in-house wellness programs or wellness stipends, and create spaces for employees in both IC and leadership positions to share their stories with each other.

What I’ve learned through this process is that Welkin is a place where it’s okay to be vulnerable and that wellness is more than paying for an employee’s gym membership. The message coming from a company’s leadership needs to be that they see you as a human being that goes through ups and downs and that they are willing to support you through those times.  At Welkin, we practice what we preach and I’m eternally grateful to walk into an office every day where it’s okay to cry in a conference room and not have to say, “I’m fine.”

About the Author: 

Rachel Johnson is the People Operations Manager at Welkin. Along with being a champion for mental health in the office, she embodies our Wellness value by running ultra marathons and eating lots of donuts (because wellness is all about balance!).