Even the most successful entrepreneurs can look like the perfect picture of success. Unusually high achievers, they built their SME into a business sold for millions, have the trappings of success such as a glamorous yacht moored in a Mediterranean harbour, and an enviable black book of powerful contacts. Indeed, the prevailing entrepreneur narrative is one of constant upside. In reality however, most founders’ mental health paints a very different picture, even if they’ve made it big.
The majority of business owners report that they’ve dealt with or are currently dealing with burnout. Depression is common and debilitating anxiety strikes even the most confident along with poor physical health as a result of the high wire act of intense, almost inhuman stress. Entrepreneurs wear many hats and are responsible for their company’s growth and success, including raising money, finding the talent, ensuring good governance and compliance, all whilst developing a product and ensuring its place in the future.
It’s a lonely journey for entrepreneurs and typically people only hear about the success stories, the post-acquisition luxuries, but it’s just as important to acknowledge honest, authentic entrepreneur experiences of the damage caused by intense, sustained stress. By doing so, business leaders can find ways to minimize the damage and improve their mental health to allow them to enjoy the successes they deserve for their blood, sweat and tears and risk taking.
5 challenges and solutions for better entrepreneurial mental health
1. Learn to handle stress before you encounter it
Entrepreneurs who are disrupting a market and delivering a high-impact vision are locked in a race against time. They’re moving at speed to make the business a success to then exit via acquisition or IPO. This requires not just constant problem solving against often brutally tough deadlines, but also high stakes decision making every week, in fact every day plus funding issues…the list goes on.
To pile on more pressure, a successful entrepreneur’s business will pivot multiple times just to achieve its goal, particularly if it’s in an ultra fast-moving goods environment where consumer behaviour and competitors change constantly. That’s against a shifting economic backdrop where unpleasant surprises can and do happen. In short, entrepreneurs have to hope for the best but plan for the worst, and that includes anticipating stress and planning to cope with it.
If they don’t, the small shocks that impact on their mental health in the short term, when sustained over time, add up to deeper, longer-lasting damage. Therefore expecting stress and knowing how to deal with it in advance can be a superpower. So try to cultivate that skill before stress strikes.
2. Pontification breeds anxiety
It’s said that pontification is the cause of 70% of anxiety. Truly, procrastination is the enemy. Being able to make quick decisions, optimise for them and have the courage to question them, then pivot again is crucial. Decisiveness is great for reducing stress, whilst dawdling and procrastinating decisions is a sure way to increase anxiety.
At the same time, if you don’t deliberate enough, you can make bad decisions. Making game-changing calls can dramatically affect your business’s chances, so a thoroughly interrogating aspect can be the difference between of success or failure. So, therefore, frustratingly, pontification can be critically important for the business yet anxiety-inducing for leaders. It creates an ongoing dilemma for entrepreneurs: choose between the health of the business and the health of themselves
Imagine being an entrepreneur used to comfortably holding their own in any situation or with whoever was present, but then suddenly not being able to because of anxiety brought on, slowly but surely, from over-deliberation. Going from a lion in the boardroom to losing confidence in your ability to make even trivial decisions, like what clothes to wear to dinner or what shoes to pack for a trip can be crippling. On the other hand, imagine coming close to incredible success – like selling your company for more money than you ever dreamed of and cementing your heroic reputation as a business leader – but failing to do so because you avoided prolonged deliberation. There is no easy solution, and finding the balance is difficult. Knowing that the likely effects of too little or much of one and the other however, forearms you to a degree.
3. Find your ‘rock’ – a co-founder that you respect
Being an entrepreneur can be isolating, which is one of many reasons to work with a co-founder. You might well go through Hell and back continually together. Not just the occasional awkward meeting, but desperate ones, for example a large payroll due and no cash at hand. Combined with the difficult personal problems entrepreneurs experience when chasing their goal at full pelt, it’s a relationship ripe for strain and downright abuse.
So choose a co-founder wisely that you respect, and that respects you back. Finding a partner to rely on can massively help with an entrepreneur’s mental health. If each puts their ego to one side, has the aim to find the right answer rather than just their own answer, and serves the company’s mission, they have a better chance of succeeding and staging off further stress.
Respect fosters trust in each partner, creating an open dialogue that makes for less anxiety and better mental health for leaders. The alternative is anxiety piled on by ego-led decision-making that could result in erroneous, self-serving decisions – not mission-focused ones – and causes problems and rifts between co-founders.
4. Talk it out
Related to finding a co-founder you respect, is one you can confide in about the state of your mental health. On the entrepreneurial roller coaster, neither founder will have maximum energy all of the time. They will each have different sets of problems within the business to deal with as well as those in their personal life.
They are the person most likely to understand your state, so talk with them. Ask them if they’ve noticed signs that you’re being different or if they think you’re okay. The mutual respect mentioned in point three above means each founder will be able to discuss those issues, and help each other by picking up the slack where necessary and allow the other opportunity to recharge. With the perfect partner they and you will know when the other needs help.
5. Get physical
Resilience for most entrepreneurs comes in the form of adrenaline and cortisol. Both are vital but in high and continued doses extremely damaging to the body, harming learning and memory functions, the immune system, and causing a litany of physical ailments. Taking action after the damage is done is better than nothing, but many entrepreneurs are burdened by the physical health issues caused by stress long after they have exited their company.
Far better to take care of your health first. To be the driving force of a high-performance business, your engine has to be in tip-top shape. Consider working with a nutritionist to optimise your diet and allow you to get the best fuel. Create a fantastic home environment, a healthy sanctuary away from work. For many entrepreneurs, work is their number one hobby, but engage in non-work, immersive hobbies to create islands of mental calmness and clarity in life. Your brain and body will thank you for it in future. So will your company.
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