Why We Need To Talk About Founders’ Mental Health

mental health

Founding a startup is a stressful job, and founders need to keep watch on their mental health for signs of distress.

Entrepreneurs often do not talk about their mental health problems, even though they are more likely to suffer from them.

A 2015 research, found that entrepreneurs are twice as likely to suffer from depression, three times more likely to suffer from substance abuse, 10 times more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder, and twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts than the average population.

Besides, the research also highlights the gravity of the problem. 49% of the surveyed entrepreneurs reported having at least one mental health condition, while 32% reported having two or more mental health conditions. Additionally, 18% of the respondents reported having three or more mental health conditions.

“[Entrepreneurs] might work overtime, they might work seven days a week, without even consciously realizing that it’s very detrimental to their mental health,” says clinical psychologist Chad Yip.

Why are entrepreneurs more prone to mental health problems?

In the cut-throat world of business where 90% of startups fail, founders can feel the pressure to keep up appearances and hide vulnerabilities, including their struggles with mental health.

“I think as founders, entrepreneurs, there’s always this mindset that you have to have it all together. That you’re infallible,” says Sean Low, Co-founder of men’s digital health clinic Noah.

According to Justin Kung, Founder of mental wellness startup Everyday Empathy, founders operate in an environment with a low success rate, which makes them more vulnerable to mental health problems.

The fear of losing investors, who may question a founder’s capability to run the business in case mental health challenges involved are, is a top concern that prevents entrepreneurs from talking about mental health problems, Kung says.

All these developments can lead to founders disregarding their mental health, in an environment that can tend to compound feelings of stress and rejection.

An entrepreneur is often expected to play multiple roles or juggle multiple tasks at the same time, says Low. For instance, founders have to constantly pursue investors while at the same time run the company and hit sales targets, he explains. This can create anxiety and stress, as Low himself experienced during the fundraising process.

Moreover, entrepreneurs often lead hectic routines that neglect all areas of their life except work and underestimate the importance of rest. This creates an unbalanced and unhealthy mental health environment.

Working with founders, Kung has often found that entrepreneurs not only devote their maximum time and energy to their business, but also start equate themselves with it. They start to view the business’ success or failure as their own.

“And so often times, what happens is, when you start putting so much emotional energy into something, you start to expect something back from it,” Kung adds. And although a business might grow and gratify some of these expectations, it is ultimately an unhealthy relationship, he says.

“You are throwing a lot of time and emotional energy into something which, by definition, is unable to reciprocate,” says Kung.

Fitting the bill as a founder

Yip notes that entrepreneurs struggle with societal pressures that add to their anxiety, and make them vulnerable to mental health challenges. They are expected to fit a certain stereotype of founders – energetic, decisive, futuristic, infallible, and constantly hustling.

This creates “unseen, unrealistic expectations” which entrepreneurs internalize, Yip says. “So that actually creates a lot of new layers of anxiety, a lot of stress and depression, which, in the long term, is really not sustainable.”

Kung highlights another side of the coin where entrepreneurs have to tackle active discouragement from immediate family members and close relatives. Entrepreneurship is a risky endeavor and Asian families, in general, often discourage their children from starting businesses, says Kung.

This puts founders into a defensive position, where they feel the pressure to present a dressed up picture of success, and hide the failures or challenges. Besides, entrepreneurs are generally reluctant to ask for help, says Kung, which compounds the problem.

“I find with a lot of entrepreneurs that they are generally highly competent, high functioning members of society. They are typically intelligent and… so they place quite heavy or strong expectations on themselves,” says Kung. “While there are exceptions to the rule, I think in general, entrepreneurs are hesitant to ask for help regularly, or to seek help in a truly vulnerable way.”

What can be done?

In his experience, Kung has found that deteriorating mental health among founders can often lead to a total loss of interest towards their business.

“I think burnout doesn’t even begin to capture the state that people end up in, when they have basically exerted or leveraged every aspect of themselves, every ounce of social, emotional capital,” says Kung. “… It’s almost like you’ve hollowed yourself out in the pursuit of creating something which you no longer even believe in. So it’s almost like an emptiness of the soul level of overexertion.”

Managing mental health is no easy feat. Entrepreneurs themselves can try to reduce stress, anxiety, and their vulnerability to mental health problems by leading more balanced lives, through meditation and mental wellness activities, and therapy. But destigmatizing these issues would require creating awareness and participation from all stakeholders, particularly investors, a thought that Kung echoes.

As former entrepreneurs and mentors, investors need to normalize discussing mental health challenges. They need to start open dialogues and provide a safe and supportive environment so that entrepreneurs can discuss their mental health challenges without fear of repercussions.

Moreover, investors can also ensure that the startup environment provides focus on mental wellness for all employees, including the founders, instead of chasing a toxic hustle culture.

At the end of the day, normalizing mental health discussions among founders requires a cultural shift – a fundamental change in the way people perceive and view mental health challenges, and how they react to confessions of mental illness. This would, perhaps, lead to a deglamorization of hustle culture, and an awakening to the need for mental wellness.

Header image by Freepik

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