“In five years, employees will choose jobs based on a psychologically considerate environment”: Interview with Spill’s founder Calvin Benton

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There’s no hiding that we face a mental health crisis, but did you know that poor mental health is particularly common in the world of entrepreneurship? According to a study carried out by the National Institute of Mental Health, 72% of entrepreneurs are directly or indirectly affected by mental health issues compared to 48% of non entrepreneurs.

It’s a shocking statistic and an issue which has rarely been prioritised by the startup community. Now, with the coronavirus worsening mental health for many, the need for adequate mental health solutions is finally getting the focus it deserves.

Leading these changes from the inside out is UK-based mental health startup Spill. Founded four years ago, Spill provides solutions to both startups and larger companies looking to make mental health a priority for their employees. We caught up with founder Calvin Benton to find out how Spill along with it’s new Slack app is tackling the mental health crisis.

Calvin, you were a Software developer before founding Spill in 2017. What was your motivation for taking the jump into entrepreneurship and starting the company?

Both my parents are therapists, so I’d grown up seeing single-handedly how positive an impact therapy can have on people’s lives. But I’d also seen how inaccessible therapy can be. If there’s one thing that technology (and software in particular) has a knack for, it’s disrupting industries and making them dramatically more accessible. I thought that the way to get therapy to millions more people was to use the power of technology.

Our society is facing a mental health crisis that the COVID-19 pandemic has without a doubt intensified, how is Spill’s new Slack app providing a solution to this?

With many traditional mental health support products, there are a raft of barriers that often put people off from getting support unless they’re at that point of crisis. Waiting lists, high private clinic prices, application forms, screening calls… it doesn’t make it easy for those who are experiencing poor mental health.

Because Spill is paid for by employers, the cost barrier is removed. Because Spill is accessed through Slack, it’s super easy to find and use, any time. And because we let people get whatever kind of support they need in just a few clicks – mental health tools, message-based support, or booking phone or video therapy sessions – there aren’t any hoops to jump through.

Spill is helping to create work environments where people feel secure, engaged, and understood. Why should companies big and small invest in the mental health of their employees?

For most of human history, people have worked predominantly with their hands. Whether that was in the fields or in a factory, we could be feeling low, anxious, burnt out or grieving and still get the job done. Now that we’ve transitioned towards an economy based mostly on knowledge work, psychological health is paramount.

Not only does poor mental health affect the quality of a person’s work, but it also affects the team dynamics. A Monitor Deloitte report in 2017 estimated that poor mental health costs private sector companies over £1,500 per employee per year (around 1736) in terms of ‘presenteeism’ (lower productivity), absenteeism and staff turnover.

Organisations that prioritise psychological safety and wellbeing, on the other hand, attract and retain better talent. Aside from the financial argument, there’s a moral one: especially recently, with initiatives like the B-Corp movement taking off, leaders are thinking about what kind of business they want to run. And we think businesses that prioritise the emotional health of their employees are the businesses of the future.

Spill’s new Slack app has seen some rapid growth – going from 0 to 100+ paying companies in less than 12 months. How did you prioritise your own team’s wellbeing whilst growing so quickly?

Great question! As we’ve had such a fast-paced year, coupled with the emotional toll of lockdown, it has definitely been tough on the Spill team, but we’ve had to make sure to walk the talk. We put in place quarterly holiday minimums to make sure everyone was well-rested.

We tried something called ‘Deep Work Wednesdays’, where every Wednesday people block out their calendar, put on their out-of-office and we have no internal calls: it’s just a day for deep work and execution. We make sure everyone has weekly non-performance-based 1-to-1s, which are a space to talk about how they’re feeling about work and life in general. And, of course, everyone at Spill has access to Spill.

New research by Spill and Censuswide found that 38% of tech workers have considered therapy for the first time this year. Do you think this is down to the pandemic or are there other factors at play?

I think that overall, yes, there has been a huge ‘pandemic effect’ when it comes to increased demand for (and discussion about) mental health support. But if we look at many mental health metrics, from the rate of depressive episodes to the instance of burnout to self-reported levels of happiness or life satisfaction, it seems that there’s been a downward trend in the last decade. In my opinion, the pandemic has been a catalyst for more people to seek mental health support, but the underlying demand for it has been long building up.

The research also shows that the need for mental health support may be greater for startups. Why do you think that’s the case?

Poor mental health seems to be particularly prevalent in startups due to a few reasons, in my opinion. Startups are often mission-driven, with people willing to go above and beyond in the name of the cause, which can lead to long hours and poorer work-life balance.

VC-funded tech companies often have limited runway (especially in the early stages), which can increase uncertainty for employees and encourage a ‘strike while the iron’s hot’ hard-work mindset. And with core team members often having equity in the business as well, everyone is more emotionally invested in the businesses success – which means failures can hit people harder, and fully switching off from work in the evenings and weekends can be harder to do.

Spill recently raised €2.3 million from Ada Ventures. What will you use the money for?

We’re super excited to use the money to make Spill’s core offering of mental health support available to many more people. We’re also excited to move upstream and develop preventative features on the Spill Slack app that help employees work, think and live in more psychologically considerate ways, reducing the risk of experiencing poor mental health in the first place. We’ll be looking at how we can help prevent burnout, improve team psychological safety, and make people feel more emotionally engaged and rewarded by the work they do.

Looking to the future, do you have any plans for international expansion? Are there any markets you’re particularly keen on entering?

100%. Already, and without concertedly focusing on it, nearly a quarter of Spill users are based outside the UK, everywhere from Germany to the US, to Australia, and the Philippines. I’m looking forward to focusing more on this in future.

What are your predictions for the mental health sector over the coming 5 years? What can we expect?

I think that, in five years’ time, employees will be choosing jobs based not on stock options and swanky offices and away days and perks, but on the company’s reputation for creating a psychologically considerate and engaging environment.

We’re all humans with brains and feelings, and the psychological fundamentals we want from work – to be heard, recognised, looked out for, rewarded and challenged – will be more important than ever.

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