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It's definitely exciting and extremely fulfilling to be the founder of a startup and the person driving the company's direction and growth – entrepreneurs all round the world will be the first to say that. But it's also really stressful at times, being the person responsible for the company's success and the livelihoods of everyone else on the team in a situation of uncertainty and volatility. And that's much less recognised or acknowledged.
It's common to feel the stress – but not necessarily desirable
For years, researchers have been highlighting how much more stress entrepreneurs feel than the average business leader. Various studies around the world, from the US to India to Singapore, have found that entrepreneurs are approximately 1.5 times more likely to face mental health issues than the general population, and these issues can even spill over to their loved ones. So, if you are an entrepreneur and you're feeling in a bad place, you're not alone.
The problem is exacerbated because entrepreneurs also face more challenges in recognising their own mental health issues than the average person. A large part of this is because stress and burnout in the startup sector is all too often glamorised by the media and made to seem a natural, even desirable aspect of entrepreneurship. Some workaholic societies even take work-related mental health difficulties as a badge of honour or assume that the more stressed a startup founder is, the better they must be doing!
But obviously this isn't, and shouldn't be, the case. Even the World Economic Forum recognises the problems inherent in this view of entrepreneurship. In one pre-pandemic article, clinical psychotherapist Dr. Paul Hokenmeyer writes for the WEF:
“Entrepreneurs are trained to ignore the qualitative needs of their well-being measured in meaningful and authentic relationships, overall life satisfaction and happiness. The message they have internalised from the field’s most celebrated entrepreneurs is the outdated prescription of 'no pain, no gain' and a pernicious message that success is purely measured in quantitative returns, return on investment and profit.”
In other words, the messaging and the role models out there aren't necessarily worth following. Entrepreneurs need not and should not embrace the harm that comes from the prolonged and intense stress of the startup life.
The strain is unavoidable, given the challenges of piloting your own business – but it doesn't mean you have to break your own mind and body on the obstacles.
Recognise and meet important human needs
For entrepreneurs caught up in the daily scramble to keep the business going in the right direction, it can be difficult to practice self-awareness – to recognise the signs of stress – or set aside the time to deal with them. But there are common behavioural cues which can act as a flag that the stress is piling up. For instance:
- Constantly feeling irritable and short-tempered
- Easily becoming angry about obstacles, even small ones
- Constantly feeling physically tense, and then feeling unwell as a result of the tension
- Disrupted sleep patterns and difficulty establishing a healthy sleep routine
If these symptoms sound familiar, surveys of startup founders have also shown that they are unhappily common. What's more, many entrepreneurs aren't really equipped to handle the problem. There are two main reasons: firstly, the same culture that glorifies “hustle” also makes entrepreneurs inclined to believe that they can't afford the time off or the resources to visit a therapist, to practice self-care, or even just to rest.
Secondly, it's often difficult for entrepreneurs to maintain close relationships, even with their own family members. It's not just about not having the time to catch up with people – the challenges and stresses they face, and even the triumphs they achieve, can seem too far removed from the rest of their social circle. But not having those close relationships means not having support and a listening ear, or worse, having to deal with unhappy family members who feel pushed away.
Getting out of this cycle of self-imposed pressure and isolation takes some active effort, though. Some recommendations that therapists suggest are:
- Think of your business as a long, measured marathon rather than a sprint, and conserve your well-being accordingly
- Deliberately make time in your calendar for self-care, whether it is ending work early once a week or taking out 1-2 hours purely for a leisure activity
- Make sure your leisure activity is not something competitive or something that will keep you in the “hustle” mindset while you're doing it
- If necessary, make not only the time, but the budget, for external help such as counselling; the proliferation of online resources today makes this easier
- Most importantly, cultivate your relationships: make dedicated time for the people in your life, show them that you still appreciate them, and trust them
Cultivating relationships is particularly important, and in fact some surveys have shown that peer support and family support are among the top five most popular coping strategies that entrepreneurs use to handle stress.
Investors have a big role to play too
Just as startup founders can't be expected to go it alone with only their own financial resources, so they shouldn't be expected to muddle through with only their own mental health resources. Investors can do a great deal to help uplift mental health among entrepreneurs: it's another form of safeguarding their investment over the long term.
Investors can take a few simple but tangible steps to support entrepreneurs' mental health. Firstly, they can start the conversation: by showing that they will not penalise entrepreneurs for needing to deal with mental health issues, they can create a safe space for addressing and ameliorating stress and burnout. More importantly, they can set the tone for the entire company's attitude towards using time and resources for mental well-being.
Secondly, they can make mental health support part of the resources they provide to their portfolio. Investors, more than any other participant in the startup ecosystem, have the ability to reach out and bring in mental health professionals into the network, and to normalise the assistance of these professionals and make it available to the entrepreneurs in that network. It is no different from connecting entrepreneurs to consultants, mentors, legal professionals, or indeed any other kind of assistance.
It's good to remember that the health of a business and the health of its founder are closely intertwined – when one suffers, the other feels the impact. But entrepreneurs need to take care that they don't become caught in a vicious cycle where the business performance and their own stress levels feed negatively into each other.
So, this weekend, spare some awareness for the mental health of entrepreneurs around the world. If you're one yourself, take a few minutes out to examine your own stress levels; if you're someone close to an entrepreneur, check in on them and say hello; and if you're an investor, give a little thought to how you can support the mental well-being of the founders in your portfolio.
Happy World Entrepreneurs' Day to all the startup founders out there!