Building a mentally well world starts with building a mentally well company

7 min readMay 26, 2021

How we’re rethinking benefits at Real

By Ariela Safira, Founder and CEO, Real

Earlier this year, I spent a week out of office Post-it Note-ing society, work, and life, and how to rethink their relationship for the better.

Today, 84% of millennials experience burnout in their current job, while 91% of all employees report having an unmanageable amount of work stress. And if mental health alone wasn’t a reason to improve the workplace, this has a direct impact on a company’s bottom line — 50% of millennials and 75% of Gen Zers have left a job for mental health reasons.

That’s where mental health innovation at Real begins — with our team, at work, at Real.

Why does company culture look the way it does?

Startups have a tendency to build culture and benefits based on how they’ve been offered before. If our competitor offers X days of PTO, we’ll offer X+1. This is a habit instilled in founders far before employees are hired — a startup founder is often tasked to build the infrastructure of an entire company within days, before Employee 1 joins. How much will you cover for medical care? Vision? Dental? Employees only? Entire families? How many days of PTO will you offer? Free lunches? Snacks? What is the maternity leave? The paternity leave? Do you have money in the bank to afford for one of your hires to go on maternity leave? The list goes on.

The early stages of a company are pressure-filled, panic-inducing, and exhausting as is, and when you were dreaming up redesigning mental health care, you weren’t thinking about running a cost-benefit analysis on premiums vs. deductibles across insurance plans for your employees.

This means we’re left to copy+paste the benefits template many others have used before, perhaps slightly one-upping competitors. While the intent is reasonable, it begs the question:

Are we building benefits to recruit more candidates than our competitors, or are we building benefits to keep employees well?

How do we build benefits to keep employees well?

We can build company culture and benefits like we build product: by getting to know our audience first. In this case, our audience is our employees.

This requires a human-centered-design way of thinking that extends beyond company surveys asking “On a 1–10 scale, how likely are you to recommend working at Real?” Building company culture like we build product requires a transparent culture. It also requires us as employers to get to know our employees, to understand their feelings, to listen to their pain points, to capture the nuances behind their struggles, to design solutions that we can afford at scale, and to be willing to iterate and evolve those solutions based on learnings.

So where do we begin?

One of the biggest questions we’ve collectively been asking during the pandemic is: How do we create boundaries between working and not working? PTO (when used) is one of our most definitive tools in helping us to create that boundary. So we took ten steps back and researched:

What is the goal of PTO?

Not for our competitors, not for the 2010 workplace, but for the employees of Real today — for our software engineers, for our therapists, for our NYC-based new grads, for our California-based designers, for our full team who, for the first time in all of their lives, were thrown into a year-long, global pandemic-induced quarantine.. We asked our employees:

  • Think of your most successful OOO time (either PTO from work or time when you were not employed at all). What made it successful for you?
  • Think of the last two years — when have you felt most rejuvenated at, or creative to, work?
  • How do you define true rest or self-care?
  • How did school vacations (spring break, summer vacation) as a kid compare to PTO?
  • Think of the last two years—when have you felt the greatest need for PTO? What made you need it?

We learned that people need community, and community needs shared ritual.

“School vacations mark the seasons in a way that feels like collective ritual. I found them super restorative, helpful, and regulating. PTO feels… less collective, and like you have to add the ritual in yourself, if you swing that way.”

“My most restful time from work is between Christmas and New Year’s because I know and trust that everyone is off from work. I know my coworkers are off and, given where I have worked in the past, I know that nothing will come up at work. Our customers were off in their personal lives. No one was thinking of my job and that is what allowed me to feel true sigh-of-relief-inducing rest.”

“PTO is stressful because leaving for a week often means giving someone my work for a week. I care about my coworkers, I don’t want to put more work on their plates. What does this mean? It means I won’t schedule PTO until I’m absolutely burnt out and need to. PTO becomes my emergency room, not preventative care. Rather than having PTO be an escape from intense work, it should feel like an actual vacation. I want to look forward to the time as a reward to enhance my life (not as time to do maintenance on what was bad work life balance for months).”

“Taking PTO at a startup means giving someone else your work for a week (because the work continues, even if you’re gone). That means taking PTO means being the team’s asshole! Who wants to be that guy?”

We are the loneliest generation in history— we work every single second of the day and yet, we no longer share moments of rest. We don’t share vacation time from work, we don’t share a lunch hour, we certainly don’t share an end time to the workday, and as of the past year, many of us don’t even share office space. All we know how to do together is work — and as a result, we feel legitimized by and responsible for the community around us at work. We need to bring back shared rest in order to feel legitimized by and responsible for the community around us to rest.

That’s how we came to our mental health break: a quarterly, shared week-long break from work — rest.

Like with all new products, we launched it and evaluated how it works by asking our audience — the team at Real.

Nearly unanimously, we saw that comparing mental health break to employees’ last week of PTO, employees:

  • Felt more disconnected from work during mental health week
  • Thought about work less during mental health week
  • Felt less guilty during mental health week
  • Felt more rested after mental health week
  • Felt more replenished after mental health week

“Coming back and not seeing a ton of emails from our team, I actually sighed out loud from relief & for a quick second, even wondered if I was missing out on stuff (this is truly how ingrained this is in me!) before realizing NOPE the team was out, no one had to carry a ton of my work, nothing was on fire, I truly was okay! I think after seeing this, future breaks will allow me even more room to rest & not think about work stuff.”

“This felt completely different as I knew the rest of my team was off. Historically, I would still get email notifications and slack notifications while I was on vacay or away and it always let me know how much work I had stacked up coming back which added additional stress. This week off at Real was amazing because I knew my team and I were all off and it helped me stay relaxed.”

And this is only the beginning.

We’ve asked comparable questions to define the many aspects of life and work that hurt our mental health — our lack of ritual and language around grief, our expensive health care system, our Slack-powered never-ending work culture, our lack of autonomy at work, lack of transparency. Company culture and benefits shape the way we live — they give us the framework, order, permission, and, frankly, funds to live our lives.

Like our product, our benefits will iterate and evolve over time, with our mission remaining: to make mental wellness an essential part of wellbeing.

The benefits sheet all employees get when joining Real.




A mental health care startup bringing a new therapy model to life.