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Elon Musk famously quipped that “starting a company is like eating glass and staring into the abyss.” It’s nerve-racking, things inevitably go wrong and your optimism falters. It’s true that being a startup founder is incredibly stressful. Entrepreneurs are technically 50% more likely to have a mental health condition than “ordinary folk,” and twice as likely to suffer from depression.
But even for those who don’t struggle with a major mental illness, the tumultuous experience of being an entrepreneur can lead to self-doubt, imposter syndrome, loneliness and good old-fashioned burnout.
Despite these challenges, only 25% of startup CEOs surveyed in First Round’s State of Startups 2019 report are currently working with executive coaches. The percentage working with therapists or psychiatrists is similarly low, although interestingly female founders are 3x more likely to enlist support (42% vs 15%).
Regardless of gender, mental well-being is an important factor for every founder. It controls the inner narrative and determines how much one is in alignment with one’s creativity, productivity and ingenuity. Proactive care of your mental wellbeing will preserve your talents as a creator and innovator, and help you optimize your performance as a leader.
I spoke with Jess Ratcliffe, a personal-development coach to mission-driven leaders and teams. Ratcliffe works with leaders at many startups as well as bigger brands, including Virgin, Saatchi & Saatchi and Salesforce. Her insight into mental wellbeing is valuable for any entrepreneur.
Q: Why do entrepreneurs seem to suffer more acutely from mental wellbeing challenges?
Those embarking on an entrepreneurial path are on a mission to solve a problem, and it can feel like every moment not spent on that mission is time wasted. That sense of drive and urgency, as well as creating a company from nothing, comes with a burden of high expectation – most often, from ourselves. It’s also a path outside the norm, which means the entrepreneur forgoes a regular salary and the peace of mind that a “steady job” can bring. It can feel like everything is on the line, all the time, which is a heavy weight to hold.
Raising investment can also feel like a big weight to carry. You’re responsible for meeting certain metrics and outcomes, including hiring and managing a team, whose welfare you’re now responsible for.
This can all be incredibly lonely, with few people around you who truly “get it.”
Q: What are some of the most common mental wellness challenges that you see for founders?
It feels like one of the most prominent challenges will always be navigating the internal and external pressures and expectations. When we’re turning a vision we hold into reality, it’s easy to feel like we’re walking a tightrope of self-doubt and self-belief. One minute we’re firing on all cylinders and the next we feel like an imposter, who can’t believe we’re “getting away” with it.
Q: How can founders identify when they need help?
When you notice yourself feeling slowed down by self-doubt or pulled off course from the narratives in your mind, I recommend recognizing your blockers. One of the most powerful things is to proactively work on your mental wellbeing, rather than waiting for the time when it feels like you need help.
Q: Early stage founders often have very limited time and budget. How do you recommend they get the support they need?
I recommend building a trusted support systems with fellow founders. Find founders who are at a similar stage, where you can share what’s going on in your inner and outer world. Create a small group where you can share deeply and honestly, knowing that they are in a relatable situation. There is power in being able to share experiences and learnings.
Speaking with a counselor or working with a coach — someone who is impartial – helps founders feel supported and have the space to freely explore how they’re doing and what they’re feeling.
Santcus run brilliant events in London that bring people together from the startup community to proactively and positively talk about mental health and wellbeing.
Q: What are some of the cultural norms that need to change in the startup world?
There’s a cycle in the startup world of chasing new rounds of investment, which comes with an urgency to hit the metrics. This can create intense stress and pressure, with looming deadlines to hit metrics before the runway runs out. The metrics are important, however, sometimes there is an overemphasis on them in the short-term, without looking to the long run.
Over the last few years, I’ve noticed founders becoming increasingly aware of the importance of their mental wellbeing. I see more founders working with coaches and even supporting their team with access to coaching. This is incredibly exciting and will positively impact the founder, team and mission they are on.
Q: What are some of the small, day-to-day things that founders can do to increase their self confidence and find relief from the pressures of running a startup?
When our self-doubt and negative narratives can feel so strong, there are a few daily practices we can do to anchor ourselves back to our self-belief and tune into our instinct. Here are a few ideas:
- Create space in each day to set intentions for how you want to be, how you want to feel and what you want to focus on.
- Celebrate who you are, the edges you’re crossing and the work you’re creating. Don’t wait to celebrate the outcome; instead celebrate the showing up.
- Spend time noticing and journaling what’s on your mind. When we hold everything in our heads, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Journaling can help to relieve that feeling and allow you to spot patterns you might not otherwise catch.