Startup founders should introduce wellbeing activities and, importantly, normalise conversations around mental health and depression, before it becomes a problem, writes London-based consultant psychiatrist, Dr Leigh A Neal.
Working in an early-stage business can be extremely rewarding and stimulating. Successful entrepreneurs are often viewed as the rock stars of our time.
Many employees are drawn to the world of early-stage businesses. Every day is different, and the successes (and failures) accrue quickly, giving you a sense of rapid achievement.
But the glamour and excitement is only half the story. Startup life can also be exhausting, stressful and mentally draining.
I work with people dealing with mental health issues on a daily basis. Many of them don’t identify as struggling with depression or anxiety, but instead describe a vague sense of malaise or mental fatigue.
Thanks to the stresses and pressures of starting a business, entrepreneurs and early-stage business employees could be particularly susceptible. Researchers have found that a staggering 72 per cent of entrepreneurs are having mental health concerns.
When you think about it, that’s not particularly surprising. Work-related stress is the most common form of stress in the UK today. Working in a startup isn’t just a 9 to 5 job anymore, it’s much more all consuming than that. There may be large expanses of time in which finances are under strain and the future of the business looks uncertain. The pressure, particularly for the owners, can be immense.
To make it worse, technology has completely changed our work habits. These days, there’s no such thing as ‘leaving the office’.
Your work life has a dangerous habit of following wherever you go. According to a 2016 study from Deloitte, a third of British adults check their smartphone after going to bed at night. Even in our sleep, we’re still connected to all of the stresses and concerns of the day.
To add to the problems, some mental health specialists point out that entrepreneurs may be predisposed to mental health issues. They suggest that the specific characteristics that create great entrepreneurs (most importantly high creativity) are often accompanied by mental health concerns including depression, anxiety and ADHD.
But people don’t talk about mental health often. Entrepreneurs don’t sit around talking about their low moments, of their difficulty getting to sleep at night. When early-stage business founders end up in my office, many of them are talking about the down-sides of entrepreneurial life for the first time.
Startup life is sold as glamorous, so when the reality of 18-hour days, endless spreadsheets and dwindling finances hit, few are prepared.
Starting your own company can be lonely and isolating. It can also cause you to question your own sense of self-worth in the face of tough comparisons and high expectations.
One of my own clients runs a startup in Europe. He’s an incredibly successful business person and who has a great CV and a really impressive track record.
However, he wasn’t prepared for the pressures of startup life, and the loneliness of leading a small business combined with uncertainty (feelings which wasn’t used to) brought on acute depressive episodes. I am pleased to say that we have been able to get him back on track and I am sure that his business will thrive.
This example just goes to show that good mental health is a real asset for every aspect of your life. Too much focus on improving the bottom line at the cost of the health and wellbeing could be catastrophic for a new business.
Many businesses know this already – hence the rise in workplace wellbeing activities including yoga, meditation and even massage.
It’s not just a luxury. In many cases, it can be essential. Stress and anxiety at work have been labelled the ‘silent killers’.
In the US, stress costs businesses an estimated $300bn a year in health care and missed work. Unhappy workers are proven to be less productive by up to 10 per cent.
The same study found that 87 per cent of workers worldwide are “emotionally disconnected from their workplaces and less likely to be productive”. In fact, a study stress and physical activity were found to have had a larger effect on day-to-day productivity than diet, alcohol and cigarettes.
If you’re looking for long-term business success beyond the startup phase, you cannot afford to allow mental illness, exhaustion or burnout to become recurring problems in your workforce.
Pay attention to your mental wellbeing and that of your employees and act early. Set clear and defined ‘down hours’ when you do not expect anyone to be contactable or on email.
Introduce activities and normalise conversations around mental health. Allow employees to express how they feel and to speak up when they’re in need of a break.
If stress, anxiety or depression become longer-term problems for you or your business, look at higher level solutions. This doesn’t have to entail lengthy courses of antidepressant medication or time consuming psychological treatment.
Whatever method you choose, be sure to take action against mental health issues as soon as they occur. Tackling stress head on could save you and your business a huge amount of heartache (and money) in the long-term.
Dr Leigh A Neal is a consultant psychiatrist and founder of Smart TMS, a London clinic offering non-medication-based mental health treatments.
Theresa May partners with industry leaders to improve mental health in the workplace.
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