Founding and running a startup is a challenge. Entrepreneurs are risk-takers and hard workers, and many underestimate just how difficult life is as a startup founder.
As a founder or CEO, you face numerous challenges and uphill struggles. Challenges cause stress and anxiety and can exacerbate pre-existing mental health conditions. If you’re not proactively looking after your mental health, you’re likely to burn out.
“Hustle culture” and working 24/7 are still glamorized in the business world. In certain entrepreneur-focused media outlets — such as Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, and others — founders who “hustle” 80 hours a week are viewed as successful.
Founders who aren’t working 12 to 16-hour days — even on weekends — feel like they aren’t trying hard enough.
If you’re heading into ‘overwhelm’ territory, here’s what you need to know about managing your mental health.
Do startup founders struggle with mental health more than the general population?
Startup founders battle external and internal pressures as well as high expectations. Under these conditions, is it any wonder that entrepreneurs are 50% more likely to struggle with mental health issues than the rest of the population?
Over the last five years, founders have started to open up more about their mental health. Startup accelerators and others in the global startup community are encouraging founders to discuss their mental health.
Fortunately, there is an increased transparency around mental health and the personal struggles that founders face. The pandemic accelerated this trend.
In conjunction with a shaky economic situation, it’s better to face these difficulties together. Economic factors influence mental health.
When the financial climate gets tougher, people and companies struggle to adapt, survive, and thrive.
Now is the time to take proactive steps towards effectively managing your mental health.
What challenges do startup founders face?
Here are the most common challenges you face:
Growth doesn’t come cheaply. Either you take the bootstrapped approach or you raise capital. In the current investment climate, fundraising is tough and it takes longer to secure backing.
If you’re successful, you have the additional burden of answering to your investors and growing faster to give them the returns they seek.
You are either responsible for generating 100% of business revenue without financial backing or you have a legal, fiduciary duty to investors and shareholders.
Receiving investment is like putting gas in a car; you need to drive it. And investors expect you to reach a specific destination (an exit event) for a return on their money.
Founders need teams to implement their vision. However, this places an extra layer of responsibility onto entrepreneurs, multiplying the pressure they already feel.
Your dream has become someone’s career. Those paychecks going out every month aren’t simply an accounting line item, they’re the income your staff need to pay their rent and bills.
Keeping customers happy
Every customer you win is another metric toward achieving profitable, sustainable growth. But, they’re also another individual or company you’re providing with a service so keeping them happy is essential. You can’t afford to lose customers.
Achieving Product-Market Fit (PMF) and scaling
Before you can scale, your startup needs to achieve PMF. Growth comes with risks that every founder must overcome.
In many ways, running a $100 million revenue startup is more difficult than running a $10 million company —- with more customers, employees, and investors, the stresses and risks become greater.
Accumulated, continual stress takes a toll on entrepreneurs.
Imagine everyday work stress in a person’s career and multiply it by 100. That’s how it feels to be a startup founder.
In 2015, Dr. Michael Freeman, a psychiatrist, psychologist, and consultant, published a paper on the mental health characteristics of entrepreneurs: “Are Entrepreneurs Touched with Fire?”
Hundreds of startup founders were interviewed. A team of entrepreneurship researchers from UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco conducted the interviews, and the resulting paper is one of the most authoritative ever produced on entrepreneurial mental health.
The study found that:
- Self-reported mental health concerns were present across 72% of the entrepreneurs in this sample (over double that of the average population)
- 49% reported having one or more lifetime mental health conditions
- 32% reported having two or more lifetime mental health conditions
- 18% reported having three or more lifetime mental health conditions
In addition, entrepreneurs were significantly more likely than the average population to exhibit the following conditions:
- A lifetime history of depression (30%)
- ADHD (29%)
- Substance use and abuse (12%)
- A bipolar diagnosis: 11% greater than the average population
A recent National Institute of Mental Health study uncovered similar results, confirming that: “mental health issues directly or indirectly impact 72% of entrepreneurs. This compares to 48% of the general population.”
Entrepreneurs struggling with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues often turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Instead of talking about their problems, many choose alcohol, gambling, and drugs as a crutch; a ‘quick fix’ to get through the day and ease the burden of responsibilities they face.
An obsessive focus on work, along with unhealthy coping mechanisms and poor stress management, causes some founders to have difficulty maintaining their close relationships.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
If you’re battling any of the above, keep reading.
12 ways startup founders can effectively manage their mental health
Everyone has good and bad days.
Startup founders suffer with mental health issues because they’re dealing with greater risks. There is extra pressure in life and business.
Owning a business is a gulf apart from having the (relative) security of employment.
Regardless of whether or not you’ve raised funding, you are completely responsible for the success of your venture. Your team relies on you to lead the company well, to keep revenues flowing in, and to manage the cash flow.
Consider the following 12 actions to manage your mental health more effectively.
1. Get enough sleep
Adequate rest is essential.
You can’t run a company if you’re half asleep.
Nor will you sleep well if you work until midnight every day or check your phone overnight. Work can wait. Sleep can’t.
Rest, recharge, and try to engage in activities other than your business between 22:00 and 07:00.
2. Exercise for at least 45 minutes daily
Exercise is equally important. Whether that’s going to the gym, running, walking or swimming, do something that gets you out of your head. Physically, the health benefits are worth the effort. And exercise is known to improve executive function and decision making.
Exercise — particularly two weekly activities that work up a sweat — helps you make better decisions. It improves your leadership skills and clarity of thought. Plus, overcoming any problems you’re battling gets easier when you take time to exercise.
As a business leader, your ability to think clearly makes a massive difference to you, those around you, and to your company’s progress.
3. Maintain friendships outside of startup circles
Entrepreneurship is lonely at times.
A startup founder’s role is comparable to that of a ship’s captain. You’re the one who sets the course, and it’s up to you whether the ship sails smoothly or hits the rocks.
Naturally, many founders seek out others who face similar tests. And you should. It’s a great way to build a network of connections and to strengthen the list of people you can rely on to talk through problems and to offer support — one founder to another.
However, you need to keep and maintain friendships with those who were close to you before you started down this road (providing those friendships still make sense in your life).
These relationships will keep you grounded and sane, and provide love and support when times get tough.
4. Spend time with family
For many founders, family is everything. It’s their ‘why.’ Regardless of whether or not you have children, business should never be more important than family. Business, money, and clients come and go, but family is forever.
Spending time with loved ones will give you a reason to keep going. Family time will help you overcome challenges that seem impossible alone. Succeed or fail; your family and relationships will endure beyond your time as a startup founder.
5. Eat healthy food (avoid the junk food trap)
It’s easy to eat junk food when you’re busy. Burgers, pizzas, and sugary drinks are quick, cheap, and readily available, but they’re detrimental to your mind and body.
Going for prolonged periods without eating is equally detrimental to your mental and physical health.
Your mind and body need healthy food and liquids to function well. It’s the fuel you need to succeed. Plus, your focus will improve with the right diet.
Aim to eat breakfast, a nutritious lunch, and at least one healthy cooked meal every day. These actions will ensure you function at your best.
6. Ask for help
Asking for help is a major first step toward solving any problem.
Maybe you just need to talk about the pressure you face as a founder. Try conferring with your partner, friends, family, or others in your circle of trust.
Be open and honest. If you can’t solve a problem, aim to speak with someone who is qualified to help. Keeping your stress, low moods, and other health issues to yourself only worsens the problem.
Dealing with mental health issues quickly is as crucial as tackling time-sensitive business matters — especially if your business worries have caused you to feel hopeless. One feeds into the other and potentially causes a negative spiral.
Ignoring a mental health problem makes any external (business) challenge more difficult to control.
7. Make time for yourself
As a founder, your time is in demand. You have a team to manage; customers, sales leads, and investors to accommodate. Then, there are your family and friends to consider.
Everyone wants a piece of you.
It’s wonderful to be needed, but remember that you can’t pull water from an empty well. No one else can force you to set aside time for yourself, yet it’s crucial for your peace of mind in our hyper-connected era.
Guard and control your time well. Put your own time first.
Set time-based boundaries and hours when you aren’t available. Force yourself to have a digital detox.
You’re not expected to answer your emails and direct messages at every hour of the day. Delete apps or switch off notifications for fixed periods, like evenings and weekends. Don’t worry; your business won’t crash and burn if you don’t reply to a message instantly.
This time spent offline will recharge your batteries and send a positive message to your team. As a leader, you demonstrate that it’s possible to build a successful startup without falling into the 24/7 hustle culture and hyper-connected trap. Otherwise, you risk burnout.
Protecting your time (and giving yourself the ability to recharge) is one of the best ways to avoid the danger of burnout.
8. Work with a therapist or lifestyle coach
Your mental health is as precious as your physical health. The only difference is that we usually go to a doctor when something is wrong.
But, you can protect your mental health before something goes ‘wrong.’ Over the long term, you could work with a therapist, counselor, or lifestyle coach who will guide you through both good times and bad.
Of course, if you are suffering significant difficulty, contacting a trained mental health practitioner should always be your first call.
Speaking with a mental health professional on a regular basis will give you clarity and help you to overcome your personal and professional challenges. Whenever possible, work together on any deep-rooted issues and the thought processes that hold you back.
9. Practice mindfulness
Meditation, mindfulness, yoga, and mental health apps aren’t a substitute for therapy. However, they are an effective tool to manage your daily mental health between therapy sessions.
According to a Harvard Medical School study, the practice of mindfulness creates numerous mental and physical benefits and is beneficial for everyone — entrepreneur or not.
Mindfulness is a recommended practice for founders. It’s not an acceptance of failure; it’s a way to accept that reality doesn’t always conform to our plans — no matter how much we wish it to.
Adjusting your mindset to allow for flexibility makes these imperfections and uncertainties easier to deal with.
10. Stop trying to control everything
Letting go is one of the hardest things to accept as a founder.
And yet, it’s the only way your startup will scale.
Recruit staff for specific roles and keep refining the processes you’ve built to manage your team. Avoid micromanaging people.
You can’t (and shouldn’t) do their job. Don’t trick yourself into thinking that you must check every aspect of their work.
Employees get things wrong. They don’t always have the same passion and dedication as you do. Providing you have robust processes, systems, and training, most employees will rise to the challenge of working within a fast-paced startup.
Make sure your team knows what’s expected of them.
There’s a good chance that your first 10 employees will be the people who help you create the processes and systems that support scaling your operation.
Trust them to do what you need. Learn to delegate. You’ll remove numerous daily obstacles from your life and have time to concentrate on what moves the needle in your business.
11. Learn to say “no”
You can’t do everything.
It’s tempting to say “yes” to every request, but learning to say “no” offers enormous benefits.
Overloading yourself, taking on too many clients, scaling too quickly, and attending every conference, expo, or webinar, is the perfect recipe for burnout.
Protect your sanity.
Be realistic about what you can achieve in a day, week, month or quarter.
Focus on SMART Goals (specific, measurable, attainable, and time-sensitive) and avoid unnecessary distractions. Before you jump on another call or accept any request, ask yourself if saying yes would help you to achieve your goals.
Will it aid your mental health?
If the answer is no, then say no.
12. Keep your plans and goals flexible
Entrepreneurship is imperfect.
Having fixed and inflexible goals will only cause frustration, upset, and feelings of failure.
Instead of taking an inflexible approach, use mindfulness to accept that plans and timelines change.
A golden rule for startup founders is to assume that everything will likely take twice as long as you originally planned.
Use conservative estimates to your advantage. Build redundancies and buffers into your plans. If something doesn’t take as long to implement or come to fruition, you’re ahead of your more comfortable and flexible timeline. It’s also a great way to manage expectations with investors. You’ll surprise them when you’re ahead of schedule.
Dealing with mental health as a startup founder
Paying attention to your mental health is as essential to your well-being as it is to the success of your startup.
A failure to manage any mental health issues could seriously damage your startup. As a founder, running out of energy and enthusiasm to keep going is often worse than running out of cash.
Fortunately, there is a solution.
Take your mental health seriously.
Look after it. Rest, eat, sleep, and exercise.
Seek professional help when necessary and use a coach or mentor for support.
Remember, as an entrepreneur, you work in the knowledge economy.
Knowledge, insight, and creative solutions to problems generate entrepreneurial value and breakthroughs. If your mind isn’t functioning as well as it could, your entire startup, hopes, and dreams are in jeopardy.
We’ll leave you with this quote from Dr. Michael Freeman’s study:
“Mental health is as essential for knowledge work in the 21st century as physical health was for physical labor in the past. Creativity, ingenuity, insight, brilliance, planning, analysis, and other executive functions are often the cognitive cornerstones of breakthrough value creation by entrepreneurs.”
Let that sink in.
12 takeaways for startup founders struggling with their mental health
- Get enough sleep
- Exercise for at least 45 minutes daily
- Maintain friendships outside of startup circles
- Spend time with family
- Eat healthy food (stay away from the junk food trap)
- Ask for help
- Make time for yourself
- Work with a therapist, counselor, or lifestyle coach
- Practice mindfulness
- Don’t try to do everything: Delegate
- Learn when to say “No”
- Keep your plans and goals flexible