One of the joys of starting your own company, says Sharesies co-founder Sonya Williams, is having the ability to incorporate values you hold dear into the foundation of a business.

For Sharesies - an online investment platform that is designed to give someone with $5 the same investment opportunities as someone with $500,000 - this meant prioritising mental health.

“That’s the joy of being able to start your own business with like-minded people,” Sonya says. “There were seven of us [in 2017] and we all wanted to do something very special and impactful, but how we did that was also very important to us.”

What makes you successful is the people around you, Sonya says. “Therefore, you have to make sure your people are well. We’re in an innovative industry where you need creative thinking, you need new ideas. We’re also in a fast-moving type of business, which means we need resilient people who can adapt to change.

“If you’re not well, that’s hard. How you feel about yourself could really impact how you feel in any moment. You can’t be creative if you’re not confident. You can’t put new ideas out into the world if the voice in your head is telling you ‘you’re no good and no-one likes you.’”

In the early days of the business Tamara Buckland was hired as Head of People Experience. Tamara led the creation of a mental health framework that led to four staff members undertaking mental health first aid training.

When people need extra help or guidance, mental health first aiders can point them in the right direction. “It’s about making sure people feel safe and know they have a place to go to work out their next steps.” There are a few windows booked into everyone’s schedules, and staff members can choose to use this time to talk to a member of the mental health first aider team if they need or want to.

“It means you know not to book meetings over those windows,” Sonya says. “You can put these services in place, but a big part of it is people feeling like they have permission to use them.”

The company also offers other activities, including guided meditations and dance classes. Once COVID-19 hit, those classes – along with the entire business itself – had to move online. “Our response team did a really good job at preparing us and communicating each step to us,” Sonya says.

“I was quite nervous about it; how we would keep everyone connected. But as a business, we made it one of our top four priorities: how we stay connected and get through this pandemic together. Because it was one of our key priorities, it was discussed at every meeting, which kept it really top of mind.”

As well as regular mental health and wellness activities, the company also offered a range of online experiences and services for the team – ranging from the practical to the silly and fun. “We did a virtual farm tour, where we all got on our video cams and got to see some ponies being brushed,” Sonya laughs. “We had a quiz night. We hit a significant milestone for the business – 150,000 Kiwi investors – so we sent everyone little party packs and had a big party on Google Hangouts.”

They also had a psychologist talk to the team, via video, about what could be going on for everyone and how to manage anxiety. “We tried to think what makes us ‘us’, and how do we make that work in a remote environment,” Sonya says. This meant everything from continuing to promote mental health maintenance, right through to making sure people still got their office ‘banter’ fix. “We set up a separate Slack channel called ‘Remote Café,’ which was just for general chitchat – so people could still share all the stories you do share when you’re working in an office!”

Ultimately, it comes down to a basic principle, Sonya says. “People need to feel safe in order to be thriving. People think you can’t be a start-up with all these pressures and look after yourselves, but we don’t think we could be successful if we didn’t look after ourselves.”

This alignment between workplace culture and staff wellbeing is one of the key components in the Mental Health Foundation’s Working Well programme, which offers a range of tools and resources for New Zealand businesses.

For example, under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, workplaces have a legal responsibility to manage risks to mental health and wellbeing – and those that value employee wellbeing are linked to having the strongest productivity, so it’s a relationship that works both ways.

Higher levels of psychological wellbeing and employment engagement are linked to better performance, productivity, and organisational citizenship, e.g. feeling like part of a team.

If you’re looking for ways to prioritise mental health in your workplace, see our Working Well Guide.