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Mental health at work: a practical guide to well-being
We’ve opened up about workplace mental health. From psychological safety and burnout to mental rest days and perks aimed at your well-being. No new-age woo-woo here. Just practical tips and useful insights from our team that you and your team can try right away.
Last updated16 Sep 2022
Reading time17 min
A couple of years back, our founder, David, was crashing. It wasn’t widely known at the time, but he knew he had a problem. His sleep patterns were off, his physical and mental health had plunged, and he even got a painful case of shingles.
It was a severe case of burnout. And restoring his health would require taking three months off from work. That’s when David opened up in, “We need to talk about mental health at work.”
🎧 Prefer an audio version? David shares his story about how steering Hotjar through Covid pushed him to breaking point, and discusses the big decision he faced as a result that would change Hotjar forever in this podcast.
Even before then, mental health was something we took seriously. And since then, we’re doing even more to help reduce the stigma of mental health.
We’ve put together this guide to share practical ways to take care of your well-being at work. In each chapter, you’ll learn immediately actionable insights and tips for:
Nurturing psychological safety
Working with imposter syndrome
Introducing practical mindfulness
Taking a proper mental health day
We’ll also tell you all about how Hotjar puts its money in its mental-health mouth, including the dollar amounts and days off we give to every employee to make sure their well-being comes first. Let’s start with a brief why.
Why talk about mental health at work?
The anxiety as we push through a never-ending to-do list
The self-doubt as we give a presentation in front of our team
The concern about a family member who’s struggling
The discouragement when we don’t have time to keep our bodies in shape or pursue personal hobbies and interests
This is why we’re talking about mental health. It’s not just about what happens at work. Because our work creeps into our home lives, and our challenges at home don’t disappear when we show up for work.
Our work and personal lives are not separate spheres of reality.
But while workplace conversations around mental health have increased, it’s still far from the norm. Some research reports that over 200 million workdays a year are lost due to mental health conditions, equating to $16.8 billion in employee productivity. Among employees affected, nearly 60% have never opened up about their mental health struggles.
At Hotjar, we believe that mental health is health.
It’s why we’re building a work culture that supports the well-being of our employees, including generous well-being budgets, ample time off work, and a psychologically safe space for people to share and grow together.
Why do this?
Because we know that our business depends on how people show up everyday. It’s the collective power of our teams that makes our business thrive. And—full disclosure—our leaders are human, too. So they know what it means to feel whole and how easily cracks can appear across our mental canvas.
But this isn’t a philosophical exercise. Below we offer practical insights and tips for identifying and addressing a range of workplace well-being issues.
So let’s dive right in, starting with how to build a psychologically safe culture.
Psychological safety: how to create space where people share freely
To make mental health a priority for your team, you have to think holistically about the work environment and any cultural pressures within your organization.
The mark of a healthy company culture is that people can doubt and disagree without fear. This is psychological safety. In psychologically safe teams, people feel comfortable speaking up, sharing struggles, and being themselves.
Psychological safety must be fostered from the top. Company leaders and managers play a big role in shaping the guidelines and feedback that reinforce safe spaces.
But each team member also plays their part. Here are some things you can do to let your colleagues know they’re free to share without fear of criticism or reprimand.
1. Scatter appreciation
There’s not much worse than coming up with a great idea, then having a colleague present it as their own. Not a good recipe for building trust and collaboration.
Instead, distribute credit for ideas and project outcomes. Let teammates know they’re valued and appreciated. Genuinely, of course.
2. See the people behind the titles
When you go to work, a job title follows your name. That title tips us off to the experience and expertise someone brings. But it’s only a fraction of who that person really is.
Adrià is a ‘Growth Product Manager,’ but he’s also a dad who loves to play volleyball.
Nicole is a ‘Senior Brand Editor,’ but she’s also a mindfulness guide who loves to travel.
Get to know the humans behind the roles. These connections build trust, a natural ingredient for psychologically safe teams.
3. Stop behind-the-back chatter
Gossip kills trust. Even a little “Did you hear what she did?” is enough to start a negative ripple through a team. Here’s an alternative: give people compliments behind their backs. This shows that you really want the best for others.
4. Feedback on the work, not the person
In a psychologically safe environment, feedback is given to improve the work, not to criticize the creator.
When you give feedback, add a supporting suggestion: “I like how you [approach this], maybe we could [try something similar with that].”
And when you receive feedback, think of it as an opportunity to learn, not an attack on your ability.
5. Turn resistance into curiosity
Often our immediate reactions to new suggestions are doubtful and defensive. Instead of resistance, try curiosity.
Change: “I don’t like that,” into “I’d never thought of that. Tell me more.” Asking genuinely curious questions is a powerful way to get teammates to open up, and encourage safe spaces for people to share.
That’s a start, but there’s a lot more to it. Read more about how we’re building psychologically safe teams here.
Burnout: how to keep teams from wearing out
We opened this guide with a story about how our founder suffered from burnout. Here are some common signs of burnout listed by Mental Health UK:
Feeling tired or drained most of the time
Feeling helpless, trapped and/or defeated
Feeling detached/alone in the world
Having a cynical/negative outlook
Procrastinating and taking longer to get things done
None of these signs on its own necessarily indicates burnout. But when they persist over long stretches, it might be time for a break. Here are some ways we keep an eye on burnout in our teams.
Have meaningful one-on-one check-ins
A great leader walks the walk, directs the team, and also cares. We encourage our leaders and managers to put effort into building personal relationships with their team, not just making sure the work is getting done.
For example, in a one-on-one, instead of saying, “What’s going on this week?” a manager might ask, “How can I support you right now?” Even better, they come to the call ready with ways they can offer support.
Hire before it’s too late
You’ve been there. You’re working your tail off, and one day you realize you’re doing more than one person’s job. We try to catch this before it happens. Rather than waiting for someone to get completely overwhelmed before approving a new opening, we listen to team feedback and aim to hire efficiently and often.
Normalize re-prioritizing workloads
It’s hard to admit that you’re having trouble concentrating, or that personal life is creeping into work time. That’s why we have regular check-ins to walk through projects together, shifting workloads as needed. This allows us to re-prioritize when people realize they’re overbooked. Just because you wrote it down a few days ago, doesn’t mean it can’t change.
Remember: everyone is fighting a battle that you know nothing about
No one is immune from psychological suffering of one kind or another. Some symptoms are more obvious, some people better control the external manifestations, but everyone has something that’s wearing them down.
This doesn’t devalue the frustration and overwhelm that each of us is dealing with. But it’s a reminder to keep an eye on others around you. Check-in to make sure they’re doing okay. Extend a hand if you think a coworker might be getting buried.
Are you or your team suffering from burnout? Read more about how to talk about burnout with your teams.
Imposter syndrome: how to work through feelings of self-doubt
Feelings of inadequacy, incompetence, and self-doubt are common in the workplace. And sometimes these feelings are healthy. They keep us from becoming overconfident and motivate us to improve.
But repeated over time, feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy can take a toll on your mental health. It’s particularly prevalent amongst high-achievers and often goes by the name ‘imposter syndrome.’
Here are a few common feelings that often echo through our inner voices and some things to try to help you move forward.
You feel like “I’ve been doing this forever, and I still feel like a beginner”
Try this: mentor junior colleagues. Sharing your expertise with those less experienced can help remind you of how much you do know.
You feel that “they’re so confident, and I don’t know what I’m doing”
Try this: don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides. You feel that you’re not good enough, and your coworkers all look so confident. Remember that outsides rarely match insides.
You feel that maybe “they only said ‘nice job’ to be nice”
Try this: be aware of your own mind. Many of us don’t even realize the constant chatter going on in our heads. Noticing your negative self-talk is a first step toward calming it.
You feel as though “this isn’t nearly as good as it could be”
Try this: forget perfect. Being good at something doesn’t mean you always get it right. No one expects you to be infallible.
You feel like “no one even notices me and the work I do”
Try this: surround yourself with good, caring people. Do your coworkers and company respect and support you? Everyone deserves this.
Feeling like a fraud at work? Read more on how to unmask your inner imposter.
Mindful at work: how mindfulness helps improve well-being
“What am I going to make for dinner?” “I sounded like such an idiot in that meeting.” “Did anyone like my last post?” “I need to schedule that appointment.”
That might sound like a random jumble of thoughts. And if you listen closely, that’s exactly what our minds are serving us from moment to moment. Have you ever stopped to listen to your mind?
Science, plus thousands of years of human experience, have shown that mindfulness can help reduce anxiety and stress, improve focus and attention, and increase positive emotions towards yourself and others. Less stress? More focus? Sounds like a solid well-being hack.
But there’s a problem. For many people, mindfulness conjures up unkind connotations of the esoteric and mystical. It’s also a practice that can take a long time to get good at. And yoga mats are expensive.
Fortunately, you don’t need an expensive yoga mat, and you don’t need to be an expert meditator. Here are some simple, practical ways to integrate mindfulness into your workday.
1. Pause in between tasks
Before starting a new task, stop. Our days are filled with us jumping between various activities. Each jump from one task to the next is a perfect trigger to check-in and ask yourself, what have I just done? What am I about to do next?
2. Breathe deeply
It’s the oldest trick in the book. Taking a few deep breaths is a simple yet profound way to bring yourself back to the here and now. It can break thought loops and recenter your mind on the task at hand. Seriously, just breathing? Yeah seriously, just try it.
3. Keep an eye on that monkey mind
There it goes again, swinging from thought to thought. Catch it. Mindfulness is simply being aware of what’s on your mind. Every time you catch yourself lost in thought, notice it. Then bring yourself back to the room. Taking one of those deep breaths can help here. Simply noticing your lost monkey mind is part of becoming more mindful.
4. Scan your body
Take a few minutes to mentally scan your body. Start at your head, then move down through your jaw, neck, then slowly down to your feet and toes. As you pass through the different parts of your body, notice any tension, then consciously relax it. A simple exercise with a profound effect.
If you have a bit more time to spare, take an intentional break, starting by simply getting out of your office chair with this 15-minute yoga class led by our colleague (and certified yoga instructor) Laura (no fancy equipment or clothing required).
5. Find a mindfulness buddy
Most new habits are difficult to start. And many positive behaviors are even harder to maintain. To help, find a mindfulness buddy that keeps you accountable and inspired. It can be as simple as checking in on each other throughout the day with a reminder to take a break.
Do you know how to host a mindful meeting or coffee break? It’s easier than you think. Read more about how to incorporate practical mindfulness into your workday.
Or take a guided meditation break
Step out of automatic pilot with this short guided mindfulness meditation. Bring awareness to how you felt before the practice and after. Come back to this session anytime you need a mini-break from your workday. Perfect for absolute beginners.
Mental health days: how to take proper time off
Everyone needs a break. And if your own inner voice isn’t enough to convince you this is true, the science is behind it, too: proper downtime is crucial for increasing attention, boosting mood, unlocking creativity, and solving problems.
But how do you take your breaks?
When someone asks how you take your coffee, you know your answer: black, sugar only, with double skim coconut whoopie cream, or whatever. It’s how you take your coffee.
But the question of how to take your days off doesn’t come with such clarity. And it’s something that deserves attention, because there are lots of options to help give you the recharge you need.
Here is some inspiration we’ve gathered through conversations with our team.
Find peace in the joy of doing nothing
One remedy for constant doing is simply being. Take time to fully decompress, and let your mind settle without feeling the need to tick anything off your to-do list.
When was the last time you did absolutely nothing? Try it: no work, no phone, no thinking. Just being.
Let life take you by the hand
Let go of any plans and see what happens. Having no plan can be liberating and often sparks inspiration and creativity. You might be surprised where life leads you. One of our colleagues explained how they use their mental health days:
I give myself permission to do whatever the hell I feel like doing from one moment to the next. That might mean a morning run, followed by listening to birds in my backyard. Then a trip into YouTube or a good book. Or a trip to the park or a museum. It’s never the same. The one thing it never includes is checking company comms.
Explore new places
Choose a place on the map, and go. Be it off the grid or in a new town you’ve never been but always wanted to go. If you have more time, turn it into an overnighter.
Being away from your usual environment can be a great way to reset your system and take your mind off work duties. A date with nature is known to bring excellent healing effects, reducing anxiety and depression, and improving mood and overall mental health.
Spend quality time with people you love
Take a friend and go to lunch, the cinema, or the latest art exhibition. Or call a family member that you enjoy chatting with, and find out what’s new with them. What you do often matters less than whom you do it with. Remember that last time you had a laugh with a good friend? You’ll never regret those moments.
Tick things off your to-do list
Quite the opposite from the above suggestions, but sometimes we just need to get things done. Those life admin things like doing the laundry, working in the garden, or painting that wall you’re tired of looking at. Taking a day to tick things off your list can bring a sense of relief and accomplishment. And that might be just the kind of mental health day you need.
Remember: it’s you who needs the break. So how you do it is up to you. Sometimes it’s worth taking a tiny break before the break to figure out the best way to recharge your mind.
Need more ideas for how to use your days away? Here are more mental health day tips from our team.
How Hotjar supports employee mental health
We’ve shared different ways we try to encourage mental health and well-being across the company. But we know how things work: it’s time and money that make the world go ‘round.
That’s why we put our money where our mental-health mouth is and allow our team the time they need—real time—to take care of their minds and bodies.
Here’s a sample of the benefits and perks we provide to support our team’s mental health.
Well-being budget = €2,400 per year. This can be used for any aspect of health, from massages to fitness memberships to therapy appointments.
Paid vacation = 40 days per year. And managers provide frequent encouragement for people to take this time and step fully away from work.
Holiday budget = €2,000 per year. This is a budget to help you go on holiday. We don’t want any excuse for people not to relax in the way that works for them.
Paid sick leave = 10 days per year. And there’s no distinction between sick days and mental health days, so there’s no reason to explain why you need a rest day. Because mental health = health.
Working together budget = €2,000 per year. We’re fully remote, and we know how important it is to interact with real people. This budget helps people meet up with remote colleagues.
Unpaid leave = unlimited. Of course that’s in addition to our paid leave. If you need more time away, we’ll still be here when you’re back without penalty.
Overwork = bad. Unlike some places where working overtime is rewarded, working more than 40 hours per week can negatively impact a performance review.
Paid exception leave. For employees facing challenging life circumstances, such as poor health or grieving a loss, we help with this, too.
Trust from day zero
Distributed teams like ours require a strong foundation of trust. From the first day an employee is hired, we trust that they have the well-being of the company and team in mind.
This is why we let people choose where they live, how they work, and how to manage their own time. We also let employees book their own time off. When there’s trust, there’s no need to add layers of operational friction by forcing people to ask for approval.
Curious about everything else we pay for? Read more about our benefits and how we provide perks that people actually want.
How to deepen connection by un-shaming mental health in the workplace
It’s hard to boil down work well-being into a simple summary. But if we had to try, one takeaway is this: it’s okay to not be okay.
But it’s not okay to leave it at that. Companies need to do their part to encourage and ensure they’re building a healthy, psychologically safe space for people to come together to do their best work.
And people need to use the information and tools available to them to care for their own health, physical and mental. From taking a mental health day off work to finding ways to pause and recharge during the work day.
Openly discussing mental health at work still carries a lot of shame and stigma. It’s unfortunate. And many people continue to feel isolated and suffer in silence, precursors to burnout, low motivation, and poor mental health.
But we are not alone in this. And through our empathy, vulnerability, and conversations, we can all play a part in shaping the work culture of tomorrow.
We hope this guide has provided a few useful thoughts to help along the way
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