Mental health issues uniquely impact coworking space members and business owners alike who are mainly made up of founders and entrepreneurs.
According to a UC Berkeley study, 72% of entrepreneurs said they had mental health concerns, and were much more likely to report “a lifetime history of depression (30%), ADHD (29%), substance use conditions (12%), and bipolar diagnosis (11%).”
Fortunately, there’s an expert on the case: Laura Shook Guzman is a marriage and family therapist, somatic psychotherapist, coworking space founder in Austin, Texas, and co-founder of Women Who Cowork. WWCO is a community where women and people of marginalized genders who work in the coworking industry can find support as entrepreneurs, career advice, and most recently, mental health support.
On June 18, Guzman and her cofounder Iris Kavanagh hosted a virtual mental health retreat for coworking operators of all genders, full of workshops, guided meditations and support for people in the coworking industry feeling the layers of burnout from a challenging year in general as well as the coworking industry’s unique challenges for mental health.
We sat down with Guzman to hear more about themes that came up in the retreat, how coworking operators can make their spaces mentally healthy workplaces, and how coworking leaders can better support their team’s mental health.
“For a lot of these operators and founders, they’ve all found themselves working really hard to keep things afloat when they haven’t been able to operate at full capacity because of COVID,” said Guzman.
“It was already a challenging role to have even before COVID. They have a hard time with work-life balance. It’s very difficult for them to do all the things that need to be done in a coworking space and to make time for themselves.”
Guzman said that in her experience, coworking operators often feel caught between roles: Being the caretakers of their members and holding the emotional labor required to be a good caretaker in the first place. This feeling is commonly called compassion fatigue and can be made extra stressful due to circumstances out of operators’ control, such as not knowing when their spaces will reopen to full capacity.
“There’s high levels of uncertainty, financial risks, and strain on your relationships, often leading to a sense of isolation,” Guzman said.
She adds that the concierge nature of the community manager or operator role can be very exhausting, creating an environment where taking breaks is impossible — and often comes with outdated gendered expectations about hospitality from members who leave dirty coffee cups on the front desk expecting the woman staff person to throw them out, for instance.
So how can busy coworking operators recover from this prevalent, layered burnout?
“Give yourself permission to take time for yourself, and communicate that to your members,” Guzman stresses, adding that meaning well and being constantly available for interruptions isn’t as mentally healthy as establishing boundaries around your time.
“Say: ‘I am on my hour break. I love you guys, but unless it’s a fire, let me have my hour.’”
Guzman says founders often think that by taking space and having boundaries, they are failing their space in some way and violating member expectations of 24/7 concierge service — which is not at all true.
“You can’t as a human being show up that way,” warns Guzman.
“And especially with COVID, we can’t show up that way when we’re experiencing collective exhaustion and collective trauma.”
Guzman also said that members are watching space operators to set mental health boundaries and expectations for their workplaces.
“They’re going to learn from what they see, not just what you say,” she said.
When it comes to promoting mental wellness in your workplace, Guzman says, “it’s just not waiting until mental awareness month.” Being proactive is key to creating a mentally healthy workspace.
Guzman recommends operators display posters in high visibility spaces such as the bathroom stalls, meeting areas, water cooler areas with signage about struggling with burnout, anxiety or depression. (You can download the toolkit she recommends using here from Mental Health America.)
Your members are looking to see if you will follow through on wellness commitments in the way your business and space is structured, and will follow your lead, says Guzman.
“You don’t have to go buy all the expensive wellness equipment or have a treadmill desk for everyone,” Guzman says.
“Have one room that you set aside for members to rest in,” she recommends, adding, “and host walks or outings to local small businesses” to get people away from their desks and moving.
“These are things that you can do that show wellness is important to you. When it comes to our health, the mental, physical, and emotional are all equally important.”
For male coworkers and supervisors in coworking spaces, Guzman had a list of ways these colleagues can support the women they work with.
→ Don’t bring traditional office gender expectations to your innovative, subversive space! Call out or pull aside other men you see reinforcing gender norms in the workplace, such as expecting women community managers to act as secretaries or maids.
→ Give them permission to step away. Ensure their work responsibilities, schedule and your coworking space itself allow for rest like lunch breaks and naps as well as tasks such as doctor appointments, child care and breastfeeding accommodations.
→ Put sexual harassment policies in place. Too few coworking spaces have robust HR policies, especially around hospitality and service roles where members may make offhand comments about a woman coworker’s physical appearance each day at the front desk. A standard policy and procedure for addressing concerns will go a long way in making women feel safer in your space.
→ Offer wellness stipends and continuing education to the women who report to you. This may seem obvious, but having a stipend to use on a massage, a yoga class, a therapist or a new bike for their commute can have huge positive impacts in your workplace. It also helps retain top marginalized talent instead of losing them to a competitor — or creating a competing space!
→ Increase their visibility in the organization so their labor isn’t invisible. How regularly do you appreciate their work? Guzman asks: “Do you recognize your community manager on your website? Do you name them? How can you help them elevate their career in general? Help them build their brand?”