Separating self from startup: Founders open up about how to manage your mental health in the stressful business world
People working in startups and small businesses are disproportionately at risk of depression and anxiety. But when everyone is sharing stories of million-dollar funding rounds, big-name backers and revenue booms, there’s not a lot of space left for talking about the potential personal costs of running a business.
In 2017, Evermind conducted a survey of people working in small businesses in New South Wales measuring participants’ symptoms of depression. It found 55% fell into the “at risk” category, compared to 37% of the general population, while 9.5% fell into the “severe” risk category, and 10.1% were considered to be at “extremely severe” risk.
The results are similar for anxiety, with 51% at some risk and 16.4% at “extremely severe risk”, compared to 27% and 9% of the general population, respectively.
In his book Unicorn Tears: Why Startups Fail and How to Avoid it, entrepreneur and venture capitalist Jamie Pride, outlines his own experiences of stress, sleepless nights and depression, following the ASX listing of his employment solutions company REFFIND in 2015.
“I started thinking dark thoughts, I felt I had no one to turn to … After six months, I was a physical and mental wreck. I had never felt this bad before. I felt like a failure at work and at home,” he says in the book.
Pride ended up in hospital with severe chest pains, thinking he was having a heart attack, before he re-evaluated his priorities.
Speaking to StartupSmart, Pride says founders tend to portray a “facade that they’re crushing it”, bottling up their problems or numbing them with drugs or alcohol.
“They’re essentially stressing out, dealing with anxiety or depression or both,” he says.
According to Pride, 92% of startups will fail. He says: “Accessibility into the ecosystem is greater than ever — anyone can found a startup.”
“What are we doing to prepare those founders?”
Jamie Pride, author of Unicorn Tears: Why Startups Fail and How to Avoid it. Source: Supplied
Equally, when founders push themselves to burnout, it can have a negative effect on performance. Angela Henderson, a mental health clinician and business consultant, says when small business owners “become obsessed with their business”, they often start making careless mistakes. She knows of one case where those mistakes translated to a string of bad reviews.
“That’s one example where it’s not actually helping your business grow, it’s a hindrance,” she tells SmartCompany.
As Emma Perera, co-founder of WellBeing GROW, a startup providing corporate wellbeing solutions, explains, “prevention is better than cure, and that is overwhelmingly the case in this instance.”
So what can you do to look after yourself, as well as your business? We asked some founders for their tips on maintaining mental wellbeing.
Separate the self from the startup
Pride calls this “decoupling [your] identity from the startup”, or trying not to equate the entirety of your self-worth with your business.
Brian McCarthy, co-founder of Brandello, says, for some people, starting a business is an “existential event”.
“Building the business is part of their identity, and if something goes wrong it hurts their identity,” he explains.
“If they admit they’re having a tough time, they think people might interpret that as the brand having a tough time.”
In reality, that “couldn’t be further from the truth”, he says, but it can still feel like opening up simply isn’t an option.
“Part of the secret to keeping a balance is consciously thinking about things that are outside of the bubble,” McCarthy says (although he admits “it’s really difficult” to do).
Emma Perera (far left) and the Wellbeing GROW executive team. Source: Supplied
Be aware of your triggers
Perera advises entrepreneurs to get informed about their own mental health, building “self-awareness around your own triggers”.
This is particularly true, she says, for those who have teams around them.
“Emotions are contagious and leaders need to lead strongly,” she says.
“If your feelings are out of control, no matter how large your team is, that does trickle down.”
There’s a perception that leaders should “eat last”, but Pride says, “that’s not right”.
“Leaders need to be taking care of themselves so they’re not irritable, tired, grumpy, and so they’re at their most creative.”
Focus on capacity, not capability
According to Pride, founders tend to focus on building their capabilities to handle any and all problems, but for some, it can be more effective to improve mental capacity instead.
“They see taking care of themselves as a future event,” Pride says, rather than prioritising their own needs and making sure they have “a full tank when there are moments of crisis”.
Perera places significant importance on rest.
“It doesn’t even mean sleeping, but rest and switch off for a moment, to just take stock,” she says.
“You can’t do that without prioritising your time,” she says.
For McCarthy and Pride, this “rest” comes from exercise. McCarthy says he makes a point of exercising “every single day, no matter what”, even if it’s just a run around the block.
Angela Henderson, business consultant and coach. Source: Supplied
Help tackle the stigma
In the startup world, Perera says, “we’re all about promotion, raising capital, not showing weakness — crushing it, ‘boom’.”
However, she says there has been an increase in founders coming forward to say they’re reassessing their priorities.
“The more we put this on the agenda, the more we’ll reduce the stigma,” she says.
“But it doesn’t come naturally for people to talk about.”
Pride says that reluctance to talk about failure can make founders feel even more isolated if they’re not in fact “crushing it”.
“They feel like they’re the only one that’s failing,” he says.
This isn’t an issue that’s unique to entrepreneurs, it’s just more prominent among them.
Henderson notes that startup founders and entrepreneurs are still predominantly male, and in general, men are less likely to reach out for help than women. Particularly in the US, she says, all the “big name” entrepreneurs are men.
“I don’t hear them talk about mental health and the burnout associated with it,” she says.
Brian McCarthy and Marco Muscat, co-founders of Brandollo. Source: Supplied
Find a peer support group
McCarthy recalls the isolation he felt after leaving a conventional office environment to work solely on Brandollo, from home.
“When [founders] leave the conventional working environment, they leave behind conventional support networks as well, and no one really talks about that,” he reflects.
“The first time you realise that is when you’re sitting alone in your living room with only yourself to talk to.”
Even very basic support is crucial, he says. If you work in an office, “people know if you don’t turn up”. If you work alone, and can’t bring yourself to get out of bed in the morning, that could easily go unnoticed.
McCarthy recommends finding people to communicate with. Once he met his co-founder, Marco Muscat, at a shared workspace, he went from “dealing with all the problems and the unknown, to having someone to share them with”.
Henderson adds that founders tend to compare themselves to other founders to “define success”. But they’re all portraying a rose-tinted version of their own affairs, so “the baseline of normal has shifted”.
While the startup community can be very supportive with regards to advancing business, Pride says there’s not a lot of space for “talking about you”.
Pride has set up The Founder Circle, a not-for-profit designed to meet that very need through free weekly sessions, “helping founders to come forward and be more authentic and talk about the real challenges faced every day”.