Putting Mental Health On The Table with Skull and Cakebones
For most business owners, your business is you—and you are your business. With identities intertwined in business plans and goals, setting boundaries between your work and personal life is a challenge.
Your mental health, much like your physical health, has direct and immediate effects on your business. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that mental illnesses like depression interfere with a person's ability to complete daily tasks 20% of the time and affects a person's cognitive performance (including time management, mental-interpersonal demands, and output demands) 35% of the time.
Like many entrepreneurs, Sascha Biesi, owner of Skull & Cakebones, has struggled with her mental health. Through her personal experience, she believes confronting mental unwellness head-on can significantly help prevent it from becoming worse. It's no easy feat to manage, but it is critical to your overall well-being and, consequently, the advancement of your business.
Sascha was diagnosed with depression in high school, and in college, bipolar disorder. Doctors told her she was "med resistant," which is a term used to describe patients whose mental illnesses don't seem to react to treatment plans. As a result, Sascha underwent years of new medicine combinations and treatments, the most intensive being electric shock therapy, to try to tackle her serious mental health challenges.
In 2009, she came out of four hospitalizations and two months of electric shock therapy severely underweight. Her treatment had provided no relief, and she began experiencing intense memory loss as a result of the therapy. As an escape and memory exercise, she turned to her grandmother's recipe box.
"I started using cooking and baking as a way to start trying to remember more than one thing at a time, and that was how I got really, really good at the vegan stuff. It was after electric shock therapy that I just sort of woke up from that experience with this ability to be a vegan chef," Sascha said.
She kept her lifelong battle to improve her mental health hidden for a large part of her career, choosing instead to attribute her baking creativity to necessity—her daughter, Ruby, has allergies that dictate much of what she can eat.
"I was singing the song of the mother. It was very relatable and sweet," Sascha said. That all changed one day when Skull & Cakebones lost a young employee, the same age as Ruby, to suicide.
"She left me at work and went home and ended her life. It was at that moment that I realized I wanted to be more involved. I wanted to be more open. I wanted to be more vocal. I wanted to be more available. And the only way for me to be able to do that was to use our business as a platform," Sascha said.
Yauss Berenji, Sascha's wife and business partner, said she begged Sascha to allow her to start being more vocal about mental health across Skull & Cakebones' social media accounts—a decision that did not come easily, as they weren't sure how it would be received by their community and customers.
"To take something like mental health that has so much stigma and shame attached to it, [you can't] expect that everyone's gonna be like, 'Oh my God, you're so right. We haven't talked about this for like 700 years, but now is the time.' You have to let it go," Yauss said. "It feels personal, but you can't take it personally. I hope that somehow they can see this is for the greater benefit and move on."
Doing well by doing good
What makes you different can help your business stand out too. Allowing your identity to seep into your business's identity can lead you to a community of people who can relate. The biggest reward, Yauss and Sascha say, comes not from sales, new recipes, or pop-up shops, but from deeply integrating themselves and connecting with their community.
Their customer service in particular reflects this focus on mental health, connection, and empathy. "[When we] see a customer that we know is struggling, we do things like make sure their ticket goes to the front so it can be made first," Yauss said.
"'Cause they become friends now," Sascha added. "Once you start talking about your mental health with somebody, they stop just being a customer. They start to become a friend because you're exchanging really personal information with each other. Now you're starting to talk on a different level than, 'How is your grilled cheese today?'"
Skull & Cakebones' approach to customer interaction is a prime example of how small businesses can play irreplaceable roles not just in their communities, but in the lives of individual customers.
Check out these top tips from Yauss and Sascha on the role of mental health in life and business:
- Use your relationships to help you stick to your mental health goals. Identifying a business partner (or someone in your personal life) who can help you hold yourself accountable to your boundaries and remind you to take a rest day is invaluable.
- As you run your business, many moments in your day-to-day might seem like an emergency—they usually aren't. Remember to take a step back and put things in perspective to help you make better decisions.
- Always think of your future self. Dealing with your stressors and health problems now can save your future self a lot of time, energy, and pain.
Listen to the episode below to hear directly from Sascha, Yauss, and Emily, and subscribe to Behind the Review for more from new business owners and reviewers every Thursday.
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