A Conversation On Workplace Mental Health in Silicon Valley

An insider interview with Sunil Rajaraman

I recently read an article in The Information where Sunil Rajaraman, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and writer, shared about the constant pressures tech entrepreneurs and founders face when it comes to appearances online. I was inspired by his personal share in the piece of his experience with anxiety as a successful startup founder, and his insights on how the external images Silicon Valley founders are portraying online are often very different from how they actually feel about their lives. 

With conversations buzzing around the Valley about mental health, I wanted to get an insider view on the current state of workplace mental health there. I sat down with Sunil to talk about his own story with mental health, insights into the current state of workplace mental health in the Valley, stigma, social pressure, and more. 

Q: “In one of your recent articles you mentioned your experience with anxiety, while being the Founder and CEO of a venture-backed startup. What was that experience like for you? How could companies better support individuals who are high-performers but don’t necessarily want to disclose their mental health condition?”

Sunil: “The first time I ever had an anxiety attack was in the Fall of 2012, and it’s unfortunate because it was also around the time my first daughter was born. The company I was running at that time was fundraising a series A round of financing, and anyone who has been in fundraising mode understands the pressures of that experience on its own. Now add becoming a new father to the mix, and I naturally started experiencing symptoms of anxiety.

I also think that probably happened in part due to the amount of stress being a Founder and CEO in Silicon Valley presents, with a strong need to keep up appearances and having to switch context so often. Somedays, you have to be in fundraising mode. Somedays, you have to be strong for your employees, and that same night you come home and have to be a good husband and father. The constant switching of context is what I believe led to the anxiety and ultimately not having a real outlet to share what I was feeling inside.

There was a need to feel connected to a sense of self. What helped me through the process after many anxiety attacks was going to see a therapist the following summer. I started having regular sessions and it was the best thing I ever did.”

Q: “You mention in another article “the gap between what we feel compelled to share publicly and how we feel privately takes a toll on our mental well being”. In Silicon Valley, the pressure is amplified to show up a certain way online and consistently put up a positive front for your business and your life. How do you think Silicon Valley leaders can combat this defeating and pressure driven social influence?”

Sunil: “I really don’t know to be honest with you. I think overall the culture has actually gotten much worse and the pressure has actually increased, and I see it accelerating. In order to “undo it” and reverse the cycle I currently don’t know the answer.

It’s funny, I actually see people sharing more and more stories similar to my own story with anxiety, but in some cases, you almost suspect it is to keep up an image. It’s become trendy to talk about mental health, and it’s hard to say what will necessarily reverse the stigma in the Valley, other than a few people who just genuinely have gone through troubles and decide talk to other people about it or share it online. Then assuming those hearing the story are open to take in the advice and learn from it, change can begin.”

Q: “How do you feel about Peer Support Groups focused on mental health?”

Sunil: “In my opinion, peer support can be helpful having people in similar experiences who understand the pressures first-hand as a founder and CEO. The groups I joined had other founders and CEOs, but I still felt myself put up a bit of a guard, because you don’t necessarily feel 100% comfortable sharing everything going on.

For example, when you are in a peer group you might not get into the personal stuff, where if you are communicating with friends you might be able to get into the personal, but they may not understand the business pressures.

From my experience, I really do feel therapy is the best possible solution to managing your mental health. Peer groups can be a great addition to therapy to connect with others who can relate professionally to your experience.”

Q: “Why don’t you think mental health gets talked about as much when it comes to a workplace setting? Where do you think the hyper-stigma of mental health in Silicon Valley comes from?”

Sunil: “In Silicon Valley and other places, there is this culture of a binary outcome. Either you are a wild success or you are a failure. By the time you are 30 years old, if you haven’t had a major exit of a certain size, you are getting “too old” to have made it. There is age pressure, career pressure, social affiliation pressure, and all sorts of pressure existing in the Valley.”

Q: “When it comes to young entrepreneurs and employees in Silicon Valley, what do you think it means to redefine the parameters of success for them?”

Sunil: “I think one tangible thing that would alleviate pressure is elongating time frames. When you are in this place and you are between the ages of 25 - 40, it feels like the world is going to end on your 41st birthday.

We are living longer today, so we are going to be working longer. Young people here see their career retirement happening by the time they are 45, when the reality is you are going to be working beyond that. Giving them a longer time frame and perspective for their career helps.”

Q: “What are 3 things leaders at a company can do today to support the mental wellbeing of their employees?”

Sunil: “Offer therapy in your benefits. There are plenty of companies offering this solution. And helping to de-stigmatize it by encouraging people to use it and letting them know it’s there to support them in times they experience burnout, stress, etc.

More education around the nature of startups and the nature of careers. For example, an in-house HR expert explaining the probability of success in your startup is limited and educating employees about what financial outcomes look like, not just for a particular startup, but for their life and career in general.

Encouraging people to find an outlet. Writing has become a great outlet for me and I think everyone can find something that works for them. Helping people discover an outlet that makes them feel better day to day is important.”

Q: “Do you think it’s a company’s responsibility to support mental health?”

Sunil: “It’s a little bit of both the company and the employee. Companies can provide the right infrastructure to set employees up for success and create an environment aligned with good mental health. My belief though, is that all change comes from within. You can hire the best nutritionist in the world, but it doesn’t mean you will fix your diet. A large amount of effort has to come from personal accountability too.”

Q: “Have you seen examples of companies based in Silicon Valley that are doing a good job to support mental health in their workplace?”

Sunil: “There is no one that stands out in the entrepreneur/CEO community as notably doing a good job, but everyone is talking about it right now.”

Q: “Why are venture capitalists investing heavily in firms that are aiming to solve and support mental health conditions like depression and anxiety via technology?”

Sunil: “Last fall, with stories like the Facebook election rigging and the toxicity of social media, there was a collective realization that maybe the products we were creating were having some negative side effects around mental health.

Tristan Harris came forward on 60-minutes, explaining the work he was doing as a Google product leader to keep people using the technology as long as possible. So we were learning how products and tech we were building may not be all that great for mental health. Anyone working on a tech product should focus on mental health in some capacity and therefore, we in the tech industry should invest in companies fixing the negative byproducts of the tech that has been built.”

Q: “Any final thoughts?”

Sunil: “I hope the conversation about mental health is not a trend and continues to grow. I really do hope everyone inside the Valley and outside finds their peace, whatever that may look like. And I hope everyone accepts people more and more for who they are. Everyone is different, and nobody is “normal”, and I believe that is what makes better teams, businesses, and communities.”

Silicon Valley, Mental Health at Work, Mental Health

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