72% of entrepreneurs are directly or indirectly affected by mental health issues compared to just 48% of non entrepreneurs. That’s according to a study by the National Institute of Mental Health. 49% of entrepreneurs deal with mental health issues directly while only 32% of others experienced them. Similarly, 23% of entrepreneurs have family members who face these issues compared to just 16% of others with family members who face these same types of issues.
I’ve been an entrepreneur now for almost a decade (9 years and counting). I’m just one of 500 million entrepreneurs; we make up about eight percent of the global population, amazingly. As a category – we are exponentially more likely to suffer from mental health problems, and yet, people don’t talk about that enough – it is fetishised and glamourised, so here’s an attempt to share some data and personal experience to show the other side.
In my 9 years, I’ve failed 4 times, and had 2 successes, and am currently scaling my latest company, Heights, which launched to the public in January of this year – 2020, great timing indeed. During this time, I have suffered from 3 major mental health problems.
Mental Health & Entrepreneurship
First it was burnout. Second time was chronic anxiety. Probably worst of all was my insomnia. I’m really lucky to say that I’ve been clear of such problems for 2 years and counting, and have become obsessed with how to manage my mental wellbeing.
In fact, I started Heights as a newsletter, (then called ‘Dawn’), and have sent it every Sunday for 100 weeks, on how to manage your mental wellbeing, according to science – so I’ve learned, and implemented a lot, based on my own issues. The reason I started writing it, besides wanting to share what I was learning – was because of my experience with ‘imposter syndrome’ running my previous startup, Grabble.
Knowing that I would be entering such a complex category (brain health & mental wellbeing), the process of writing a newsletter every week, was my premeditated plan to try and address it this time, with deliberate practice & cadence for reading science journals every week, and rewriting it in plain English.
While many view entrepreneurship as a dream career full of excitement, it is a real rocky road. According to this study by Michael Freeman, entrepreneurs are 50 percent more likely to report having a mental health condition. And yet, we still struggle to talk about it.
In his brilliant book, Lost Connections, the author Johann Harri makes the comment that ‘humans need tribes, like bees need hives’ – and I think this point gets to a major crux of what causes so much of what we, as entrepreneurs, experience as mental health problems.
There is the famous quote that ‘it’s lonely at the top’ but it can be very lonely on the way there too, and even worse right back down at the bottom. In COVID times with a mix of quarantines, lockdowns, curfews and too many zoom meetings, this already large problem in our sector has just gotten bigger.
As someone who has helped build a community of entrepreneurs and has hosted a series of dinners & gatherings discussing the challenges of running a startup/scaleup with over 500 founders in the last 7 years, I have the good fortune to know I’m not alone, and I hope that sentiment is shared with those that have been to those dinners too. Alas, that ability to build compassionate connections in real life has been removed this year, and I’m already feeling the impact of that, working from my bedroom for the last 6 months, like many of us.
Of course, there is no such thing, but we can help others feel less lonely. As damaging as social media can be, and often is, whilst we are physically separated, for many, it’s all we have. If all we, as entrepreneurs see, is images of others ‘killing it’ the whole time, what message does that send to those at their loneliest? That’s not a feeling just reserved for people struggling with failing and financing – some of my most successful friends feel this level of loneliness and despair no matter their company’s success, in fact, perfectionism causes it’s own problems.
Brene Brown says: “Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction and life paralysis.”
We need to find a way to normalise discussing when we have bad days, and being honest about our stress, our burnout, our anxiety, our depression – whatever the emotion is, it’s human – and it’s human to care for someone else’s current situation.
Beyond being there for one another, being honest about when we are struggling, sharing these kinds of emotions on social media – that is real leadership. The reason isn’t just because it shows you in your more frail state, but because it informs your employees know that by being honest about your own, you respect their mental health too, which will reduce their own anxiety about how honest they can be working with you.
How To Act
World Mental Health Day is this Saturday, and the theme is ‘mental health for all’. That means for your colleagues, your investors, your suppliers, your fellow entrepreneurs, for you.
Seeing as one of the biggest challenges entrepreneurs face, especially with their mental health is asking for help, why not use this week as an opportunity to set yourself a new daily practice – reach out to one fellow founder every day this week, and see how they are doing, and if they fancy having a call to chat through their problems. By connecting with them you’ll be improving their mental health, and your own too.
Most importantly, whatever you are going through right now, know you are not alone, please do reach out to just one friend, and see what kind of difference it can make.
At Heights, we’re releasing a Podcast called ‘Working In’ this Friday with Stephen Fry, also featuring various world leading experts unpacking not just their mental health tips, but a whole array to support brain health and mental wellness.
On my entrepreneurship podcast, Secret Leaders, this episode with founder of The School of Life, Alain De Botton answering tricky questions around anxiety and mental health is really insightful too.