Entrepreneur Mental Health: Tips and Advice for Startup Founders
Entrepreneurs are a highly stressed group. Here are some wellbeing tips for founders who are low on time for self-care.
Entrepreneurship is intrinsically taxing. There is a mind-numbing amount of pressure and anxiety involved in conceiving, nurturing, and growing any business idea. It’s no surprise, therefore, that so many entrepreneurs experience psychosomatic signs of mental distress – such as withdrawing oneself socially, loss of hair, excessive drinking or smoking, brain fog, etc.
Startup founders have to run the business, keep clients satisfied, work with limited resources, release salaries on time, maintain personal expenses, and constantly perform cost-benefit analysis for investors, and these can be taxing for the entrepreneur’s mental health. There is also a high degree of uncertainty and lack of assurance, unlike in the case of salaried people who work in a more stable environment.
Why Entrepreneurs are Vulnerable to Mental Health Issues
Founders face the strange dilemma of not being able to openly talk about their stress. They do this to keep their co-founders, employees and clients motivated. Positive thinking and pep talks become a way of life – so much so that if they express their feelings of dejection or depression openly, it derails the performance of employees and trust of the investors.
Founders are expected to have a solid grit and determination to achieve their goals within the stipulated time. This constant pressure impacts the entrepreneur’s mental health. Worldwide, approximately 72% of entrepreneurs have shown symptoms of mental illness or stress (according to a study by Michael Freeman). The irony is that despite the being in a high-risk group, the leaders are not prioritising their mental wellbeing (study by KPMG). Four out of five founders experience an unusually high degree of stress but fail to seek help. And thus, the wellbeing of leaders takes a back-seat.
There are no doubts about how being a startup founder is extremely demanding due to stress caused by financial risks, investors ROI, opportunity costs, pressure to succeed, uncertainty and competition.
Let us look at some mental and emotional wellbeing solutions for startup founders and leaders that you can consciously include in your day-to-day life.
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Acknowledge Your Identity as a Person – More Than a ‘Founder’
An experienced Silicon Valley coach and speaker, and a former VC, Jerry Colonna observed that the most founders make their startups as their identity and tend to ignore their life, priorities, health, and wellbeing. They cease to relate to the individuals they were before the start-up. Their wellbeing becomes a function of their startups’ success and they become extremely vulnerable if the startup fails.
To maintain good mental health as a founder, you must understand that pressure, uncertainty, and failure are a part of startup culture. But your own family, hobbies, health, and happiness are far more important than the startup performance or investors’ money. The key lies in finding a balance.
Founders cease to have a life outside of their work and this is their biggest mistake. To acknowledge and hold onto your different identities, you must:
- Practice self-compassion.
- Do not compromise on your personal value system.
- Maintain peace with the fact that things may not go as planned…and that is fine.
- Ensure that family time, me-time, personal goals, and hobbies are NOT ignored due to work.
Also read: Self-compassion: Basics and Best Practice
Stay Committed, but Not Attached
The real power lies in recognising who you are outside of the startup. Write a daily journal and make sure you answer questions such as:
- What did I do for myself today?
- Who am I if not for my startup?
- What are my personal achievements?
- If I was a person without my company, who am I?
- What were my dreams and ambitions while growing up?
- If my startup fails, whom do I have as my inner or fallback circle?
- Am I investing in my relationships and hobbies?
It will initially be overwhelming to find the balance to these questions. But if you try to find the answers daily, you will realise that you are subconsciously prioritising your parents, spouse, friends and yourself and have meaningful relationships outside of the startup, too.
Check out How Entrepreneurs Can Identify And Overcome Anxiety: 10 Actionable Tips
Remind Yourself of Your Personal Worth
We all grow up with a certain value system and it is important to take pride in the person that we become. Do not compromise on your value system for the success of your startup and understand that ‘what you want from life’ is more important than ‘what you want for your company’.
Spend me time and reflect on the core values that define you. Focus on your deeds and see if you can hold onto your integrity, ethics, and values. Are you forced to do something that goes against your core value? One dipstick is to measure your integrity is to never indulge in an act that you will be ashamed of telling your family or kids about. If there is anything unethical that you are engaging in, it's bound to haunt you and impact your emotional wellbeing eventually. Remind yourself that you have immense courage and charisma, and that although the success of your startup is extremely important, it is not the only thing that determines your worth.
Also read: Mental Balance: Aspects, Barriers, and More
Let Your Inner Motivation Drive You
A founder’s enthusiasm towards his company fuels the journey of entrepreneurship like the engine of a train. The inner motivation is determined by answering the questions such as –
- What keeps you going?
- What gives you the kick or drive?
- What do you like the most about your work?
- What drives you and gets you out of bed each morning?
- What impact do you want to create on the world?
Preserving your inner motivation during the entrepreneurship journey is vital to entrepreneurs’ mental wellbeing and the company’s performance. It is important to understand the difference between intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation, which is temporary. Short-term fun, curiosity, goals, money, titles, media coverage, and status are all extrinsic motivational factors.
Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is long-lasting and defines the ‘purpose’ of the founder. It does not diminish with status, money or media attention and gives a sense of pride and satisfaction to the founder (Study by Deci Edward).
Have a Flexible Mindset
Mental flexibility is extremely important to keep founders afloat, successful, and happy. An entrepreneur who has a fixed mindset is so rigid in his or her mind to fit in the job role that it becomes okay for him or her to compromise on passion, values, well-being and personal aspirations.
Entrepreneurship is like stardom, in that success and failure come at peaks. So, while it is important to enjoy success, it is also important to deal with failure and have a flexible and growth-oriented mindset. Determining life success through job fitment or company success is not good for mental wellbeing. Passion is a double-edged sword. Having a Plan B always helps, and founders need not get hung up only on one definition of success.
Pen Your Thoughts, Issues and Challenges in a CIC Model
A powerful tool leader can use to maintain their wellbeing is to map their thoughts, challenges and issues in a model called Circle of Influence and Control (CIC).
Classify your issues as –
- Within my control
- Not within my control but within my influence
- Neither within my control, nor within my influence
By classifying your issues and thoughts in these three categories, you will be able to determine where to invest your time, efforts and energy and thus be in better control of your startup and life overall. Work where you can solve or influence a problem and do not worry about the factors that are beyond your circle of control and influence.
Rest, Rejuvenate, Recharge
Take care of yourself, invest in mindful practices, have a fitness regime, indulge in some sport regularly, have a routine sleep cycle and avoid unnecessary screen time. Make wellbeing a clear priority.
It is also very important to eat healthy and be invested in your relationships in a meaningful way. Avoid junk food. An effective tip to watch your health regime is to avoid lunch or dinner meetings where you tend to indulge. Be mindful of the calories consumed versus calories burnt and never take your own wellbeing lightly. Understand that mental illness and depression or stress are common issues, and you need not be judged. Prioritise your mental health as an entrepreneur. If needed, seek support from life coaches or mental health experts and if you need guidance on how to deal with sadness and stress, remember that wellbeing for leaders is as important as the business.
Notes from Conference held at Adelaide, South Australia on the topic: Australian Centre for Entrepreneurship Research Exchange Conference in 2015
 Copy of Are entrepreneurs touched with fire 12/14.docx (michaelafreemanmd.com) Michael A. Freeman, M.D. University of California San Francisco, Sheri L. Johnson, Ph.D. University of California Berkeley
What Makes Entrepreneurs Burn Out (hbr.org), What Makes Entrepreneurs Burn Out by Eva de Mol, Jeff Pollack, and Violet T. Ho
Deci, Edward. (1971). The Effects of Externally Mediated Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 18. 105-115. 10.1037/h0030644
Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. 25th anniversary edition. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004