Updated 13 May 22
Being a startup founder comes with an array of emotions. The startup curve below is a fairly common journey of emotion through the first 12 months. The highs of starting, the crash when reality sets in, the trough of sorrow when you feel like quitting - all part of the journey!
Sometimes you can feel the whole spectrum of emotions in just a few hours. Founders are likely also well acquainted with the pressure to succeed, from family, friends, investors, and the ‘hustle culture’ that can be perpetuated as the only path to success.
According to Forbes, 72% of entrepreneurs stated that they suffer from mental health problems and 77% of founders state that running a business has negatively affected their mental health. This is nearly three times the average prevalence of mental health issues in the standard population. And yet it’s still something that’s hardly acknowledged within the entrepreneur community.
Whilst Elon Musk's advice of “Work hard, every waking hour” has allowed him to achieve fantastic things in business. I want to put forward a case that this isn’t the only way, and that balance, consistency, utilising support, and building healthy habits are a far more sustainable way to success and maintaining your mental health as a founder.
So how can you prioritise your mental health as a startup founder?
To be an effective business owner you need to take care of your health, both physically and mentally. So here are some of my tips and advice for prioritising your mental health and wellbeing:
Sometimes you need to disconnect to reconnect. Make sure you’re taking time each day to unwind from work, away from technology. Plan your time in advance and be intentional about your ‘on’ and ‘off’ times.
We’ve all been there, we finish work, scroll on Instagram and a work-related email comes through, “oh, I’ll just reply to that now”. Then back and forth, before you know it it’s bedtime, you’ve spent an extra few hours doing low-level work and you’ve neglected yourself, friends, family, and other things that are key to positive mental health.
DON’T DO IT! Try to switch off from technology for a couple of hours, leave your phone in another room, mute your business-related notifications, exercise or go for a walk and leave your phone at home. Numerous studies show that having regular breaks and taking time to switch off from work has a positive impact on both mental wellbeing and productivity!
The art of saying ‘No’
As much as it can be tempting to follow hustle culture advice, it’s not healthy. As an early-stage founder, you’ll have lots of people clambering for your time and attention - ‘once in a lifetime’ exciting marketing, investor and customer opportunities very rarely are, and can easily cause undue stress and derail the best-laid plans.
It is definitely an art rather than a science, and something I struggle with myself. But I’m always guided by the belief that it’s better to do one thing well, than ten things poorly. Be intentional about what you can realistically achieve each day, week, and month. Set goals. If the activity is going to move you closer to the goal do-it, if not, politely decline.
Prioritise what is most important to you and learn to say no. Consistent progress and good work over an extended period are what gives founders the slight edge. It’s a lot more enjoyable, sustainable, and beneficial for mental health than 6 months of hell-for-leather, sleepless nights, and being horrible to the people around you to hit targets.
Remember, those super urgent, stress-inducing, last-minute meetings can pretty much always be rescheduled - your motivation and willingness to continue on a project can’t.
Know the signs of burnout
Knowing the signs of burnout is an essential part of looking after your mental health and wellbeing. Identifying when you’re starting to feel burnt out can help you to understand what triggers those feelings and allow you to put tactics in place to combat burnout. So what are the signs? There’s a range of things that can indicate burn out but here are just a few to keep an eye out for:
- Feeling exhausted
You can read more about how to tackle burnout on our blog How to Beat Founder Burnout
Adopt healthy habits
Everybody’s definition of healthy is different, so don’t put additional pressure on yourself to wake up at 4 am every day for a 10k and a kale smoothie to have a “healthy” life. Try to adopt small healthy habits that are sustainable and fit around your existing commitments. This could include:
The above list is by no means exhaustive, but are all backed by research and proven to have a positive impact on your mental health. So don’t neglect them - they’re good for you, and your startup.
Lean on your circle
Running a startup can be lonely and isolating work. Even more so since the pandemic, with people spending less IRL time together. It is completely normal that you might be feeling isolated.
In particular, for solo founders, you might feel like you have to project an invincible confidence so that people don’t doubt you or your business. But having people around you who can empathise, support, bounce ideas, and listen to you vent is absolutely key to maintaining positive mental health.
Don’t underestimate this, isolation and loneliness can creep up on you and be absolutely overwhelming. Early on in your startup journey try and build a support network, this can be colleagues, a cofounder, friends, family, or a mixture of all. Many undervalue the importance of this, but it can be one of the biggest differentiators for success for your startup.
Oh, and don’t be afraid to reach out for support. If you want to talk about startups, I’m always happy to be a sounding board and lend an ear! firstname.lastname@example.org