Start-up Life: Securing the Mental Health of Start-up Founders - Why Is It Important?

Start-up Life: Securing the Mental Health of Start-up Founders - Why Is It Important?

Founder mental health is neglected, yet founders are more susceptible to mental health issues. How can founders receive support from society and investors alike to overcome this? In this article, we’ll take a look at the best ways to prevent founder burnout and encourage mental health dialogue.

Pernille Hippe Brun | November 9th, 2021

After more than a decade advising start-up founders, Pernille Hippe Brun has seen her fair share of founders struggling with staying sane, feeling lonely, and having difficulty maintaining a healthy work-life balance. For many, start-up life takes priority above all else, leading to an unhealthy and unsustainable lifestyle, frequently accompanied by deteriorating mental health.

What’s more, start-up founders often feel pressure to constantly stay ‘’strong’’ and conceal their vulnerability, as they may fear losing credibility with investors and employees if they let their guard down. They may become so preoccupied with work and lack the ability to unwind, feeling a sense of guilt when they do not work. This is a serious problem that needs to be addressed. However, the good news is that there are things that can be done to remedy these problems. Talk about mental health with other founders. Open up the conversation in order to destigmatize the topic. Find ways to prioritize self-care and make a conscious effort to unwind. And know that you are not alone. In this article, Pernille Hippe Brun will walk you through the reasons why start-up founders’ mental health is such a critical issue, and ways to improve and destigmatize mental health within the start-up sphere.

Why is Mental Health So Important for Start-up Founders?

Maintaining mental health is critical to start-up founders, and critical to the start-up as a whole: the health of the founder affects the whole team and the ability of the company to survive in the long run. Keeping your head above water, staying sane, and having a healthy and resilient lifestyle is paramount to founder well-being and also to founder performance. We know that performance is linked to well-being, and vice versa - there is no denying that - and therefore it is also of best interest to investors, that the founders they invest in, stay healthy and mentally well throughout the start-up journey. 

Performance and investments aside, it is also important for start-up founders to stay well from a human perspective.

Everyone deserves to be well, adequately rested, and have a sustainable lifestyle - and founders should not experience the contrary. Mental health is a basic human right in itself.

Simply put, founders deserve peace of mind and mental wellness. And believe it or not, this is possible! It is a colossal waste when people burnout and suffer from insomnia, anxiety and depression - especially when something can be done about it!

How And Why Does Founder Burnout Happen?

Statistics show that founders are more susceptible to mental health issues: 50% more susceptible to having a mental health issue, two times more likely to suffer from depression or even three times more at risk to develop three co-occurring mental health issues. What’s more, 77% of founders say running a business has affected their mental health, and 68% of founders are struggling with their sleep.

Despite the prevalence of these issues, mental health still remains a taboo subject for many start-up founders. This is largely attributed to the fact that the start-up world is full of uncertainty, and founders find themselves under pressure to convey an image of strength and stability and to avoid any signs of vulnerability or perceived ‘’weakness’’. Constantly trying to remain strong, while surmounting pressure and stressors pile up, can be mentally exhausting - and it can also lead to burnout. How does burnout happen, and how can we define it? The World Health Organization (WHO) classified burnout as an occupational phenomenon in 2019. According to WHO, burnout can be defined as: 

a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.

According to Dr. Patrick Legeron, author of Stress at Work, the following criteria can be used to diagnose burnout: 

  1. Emotional exhaustion: the feeling of having lost strength and basic ability, for instance, someone who is not anymore able to keep focus while reading.
  2. Depersonalization: especially a lack of empathy, seeing someone suffer in front of you without reacting accordingly. 
  3. Reduction of self-accomplishments: when someone believes that ‘’none of my accomplishments count anymore.’’

Although stress is a part of life that we all experience, (in different levels and varying severity) burnout is different in that it is an ongoing and severe form of stress, in which the ability to regularly function may be impossible. What’s more, the recovery process is also very lengthy - in comparison to typical stressful periods, which you can recover from faster.

You may still be wondering, why is burnout SO common with founders? Well, we can look at both environmental and personality factors when addressing this question. Typically, people who are the most susceptible to suffer from burnouts are people who: 

  • Seek adrenaline and dopamine kicks
  • Are high achievers
  • Demonstrate over-investment at work, or are unhealthily attached to their work
  • Are perfectionists

A lot of start-up founders actually demonstrate these personality traits, because these traits can actually help them on their journey to accomplish goals, within the highly competitive start-up industry. However, when these traits are overly-used, they can negatively contribute to burnout ensuing and feelings of loneliness, low-mood and maybe even depression sneaking up upon them.

Next, let’s look at environmental factors that play a role in contributing to the probability of burnout. These include:

  • Uncertainty
  • Stressful and extremely high-paced, high demand environments
  • High-working demands from external stakeholders
  • Emotional pressure

Unsurprisingly, start-up founders are likely to match almost every item from the above list. However, there are ways to counteract these factors and deal with them in a healthy way, which we will examine in the following section.

How Can Founders Secure their Mental Health?

Being aware of your susceptibility to both personality and environmental factors that contribute to burnout and mental health issues is a great place to start in addressing the problems. For example, if you are a founder who matches the criteria of being an adrenaline-seeking perfectionist that over-invests in your work, take time to counter these traits, by doing the following:

Counter-acting perfectionism: If all you are doing is working, you are feeding your inner perfectionist - and this is going to get worse if you do not pull away from constantly striving for perfection. Concentrate on doing things that ease your mind and bring you back to the present moment - whether this is journaling, meditating, or giving yourself some extra time in the morning to just ‘’be’ or setting your intention for the day. Within a work context, make sure you don’t shy away from delegating tasks, and remember that using your time wisely is a lot more effective than overworking to the point of exhaustion.

Live a whole, healthy live: : When you’re too attached to your work, it becomes a major part of your identity. This isn’t necessarily always a negative thing, as founders do need a high degree of passion and a huge amount of commitment to their work. The danger is in letting your work become all of who you are. To prevent this from happening, concentrate on building up your life also outside of work. Whatever it may be, Make sure to nurture your non-work related relationships, hobbies, and achievements too- so that work does not become the single definition of who you are. 

Detox from adrenelin seeking behavior:: For many founders, the thrill and rush of start-up life can be exhilarating. But, if you find yourself predisposed to seeking a high-degree of adrenaline and dopamine kicks, be mindful of its addictive nature when it comes to working as a founder. Counteract this temptation by finding ways to counteract the inclination to get yet another kick - and remind yourself of how damaging the adreneline seeking behavior can be in the long run, not only to yourself, but also to your surroundings.

On top of this, the following advice has also proven its worth when it comes to securing founder mental health:

  • Set priorities: a founders’ calendar is most likely full to the brim with meetings, engagements, and an overwhelming amount of tasks. Take some time to focus on prioritization and be strategic about how you spend your time. This will take some of the pressure off a busy schedule. In the beginning you might feel like you are turning a bunch of people down by no longer meeting with them or talking everything through with them, but in the long run, what counts is securing your overall mental health as well as your business - not your need for pleasing others or giving everyone the impression that you are available all the time. 
  • Be honest - with yourself and others - about how you are feeling
  • Get to know your triggers and what stresses you out - so that you can do something about them in due time
  • Take time off - during vacations, weekends, evenings, during the day, and find the time to unwind completely (find your own way!)
  • Exercise…in whatever feels good for your body!
  • Celebrate wins - talk about losses
  • Build resilience. Find ways to bounce back, try again, stay motivated, get back on track when you fail and fall
  • Learn to delegate and let go - trusting people to deliver helps and motivates others at the same time
  • Lower expectations with yourself - it is ok not to deliver 100%!
  • Practice/learn self-compassion and mindfulness meditation - including how to shut thoughts off and speak friendly and calmly to yourself
  • Get to know your values, strengths and what motivates you - stay true to what drives you and who you are and build a team around you to help you compensate for your weaknesses
  • Spend time in nature and practice looking up and around - look at the horizon - raise your sight

Why are Founders Reluctant to Talk About Their Mental Health, and How Can They Open Up?

‘’Quietly suffering’’ is an apt phrase to describe how most founders are coping with their mental health. Although mental health within the workplace is garnering more attention and open conversation, we still have a long way to go when it comes to destigmatizing mental health. Unfortunately, more layers of complexity emerge when it comes to founders’ mental health. This is because the added pressure that founders face, such as gaining and sustaining the right investors, as well as retaining and paying employees (even among company uncertainty) can be all consuming. Often, founders fear that showing vulnerability will make them ‘’weak’’ and therefore shy away from openly discussing their struggles. There is also an immense amount of pressure put on founders to stay steady and act as ‘’a rock’’ in times of company turmoil. As a result, founders are often alone when they need others the most. This isolation and loneliness breeds mental health issues - and as founders find themselves increasingly alone, they are left with no one to talk to about these issues. 

What Can Investors Do To Help Founders’ Mental Health?

As previously discussed and further discussed below, founders can take practical steps to prevent burnout and mental health issues from taking place. But it’s important to note that founders can not go alone in remedying their burnout and/or mental health issues. Self-help - while hugely beneficial - can only go so far.

At a macro level, organizations and investors must contribute to bettering founders’ mental health and opening up honest dialogues. Investors need to help destigmatize mental health. One way to do this is to take the Investors Pledge which sends a powerful signal to founders that it’s OKAY for founders to get help, and to openly talk about their mental health struggles. Investors should also support founders by being open about their own struggles, and letting founders know that it is okay to be authentic and vulnerable. Letting founders know that their honesty about their own situation is more important than them trying to put up an inauthentic and false picture of them being super humans. And at the end of the day, founders are “just” humans - and mental health is a human right - period. 

That said - even if this should be enough of an argument to invest in founders mental health in its own right- investors who do invest in founders mental health also do get a better return on investment on their money because they secure the longevity of a healthy business overall by helping the founder(s) stay sane and healthy through the journey, as they for instance do in preseed ventures and byFounders - hugh shoutout to them!

How Does Business Coaching Help Founders?

As I previously discussed, founders can find themselves to be exceptionally lonely. And although it helps to reach out to colleagues, partners, and/or friends, the reality is that founders often feel misunderstood as people in their life may not ‘’get’’ what they are going through. When Christina Richardson, a founder and entrepreneur coach, surveyed hundreds of founders about their mental health back in 2019, she said “every single person used the word lonely”. Coaching is a great remedy to this feeling of founder loneliness and isolation, as are programs offered where you get to meet with other startup founders and talk things through. Coaching can hold founders together throughout their most challenging moments.

The health and breakout success of a startup can be unlocked or blocked by the health of its founder and entire team, and no matter how good you are at your job, everyone can be better with a coach

- Jonathan Petrides.

Professional business coaching can provide an objective insight into how the founder is performing, as well as helping to set goals on what needs to be accomplished. Coaches can help keep founders on track, be a reliable shoulder to lean on in times of turmoil, and provide a solid, objective point of view - that may be lacking from bias if it were to come from colleagues or co-founders. Reach out to us if you would like to learn more about how business coaching can help you stay sane throughout your founder journey. 

Conclusion

Protecting the mental health of founders is not just important for performance and success - it is also a moral imperative. We need to humanize the founder experience - and realize that founders benefit from mental health support at both a micro and macro level. This is crucial for investors to understand - as much as the pressure that founders face comes with the high-pressure territory of attracting investors. From a personal perspective, founders can focus on looking after their mental health by staying present, getting to know and applying their strengths, using tools to prevent burnout, and reaching out and staying connected with others through the journey. Externally, founders need to feel supported by their network - including colleagues, investors, family, and friends. It’s important to show compassion for the high-pressure stressors that founders are faced with on a daily basis. Finally, founders can also avail of business coaching to gain an objective perspective on how they are doing, and what they can do to succeed. It’s time to destigmatize founders’ mental health and humanize the founder experience.

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Meet the Author

Pernille Hippe Brun

Pernille Hippe Brun

Professional Business Coach, CEO and Co-Founder, Session

Experienced Strategic Advisor, Business Consultant, Executive Coach, Facilitator, Board Member, and Speaker. Author of four books on organizational life and leadership, including "Strengths-Based Leadership Handbook" and "On the Move - lessons for the Future from Nordic Leaders".

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