Entrepreneurs and mental health

With this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week taking place from 13-19 May, Startups shines a light on the important issue of entrepreneurship and mental health…

The freedom to create your own routine, the ability to take on projects you really believe in, the opportunity to be in control of your professional development – these are just some of the reasons why becoming your own boss is one of the most thrilling adventures you’ll ever embark on.

Yet there are also the long hours, and the unpredictable work flows – not to mention the ‘sink or swim’ attitude – that can make running your own business one of the most stressful experiences to go through. So how do you manage your own mental health effectively as an entrepreneur, and lead a company at the same time?

This year, Mental Health Awareness Week takes place in the UK between 13-19 May, with a focus on body image. In light of this, we’ll be exploring the connection between entrepreneurs and mental health – as well as touching on body image – in relation to running your own business.

We’ll look at what the statistics say, and hear from small business owners and experts about their experiences. We’ll also examine some of the common ways in which founders’ mental health may be impacted, and offer tips on how to manage them.

In this article, we’ll cover:

  1. Mental health statistics
  2. Common causes
  3. Strategies and solutions

Readers are advised that this article contains references to potentially triggering material.


1. Mental health statistics

One in four adults experience mental illness, according to data published by NHS England.

This shows just how common mental health conditions can be. For example, in an eight-person team, two team members may have experienced mental illness.

Mental health issues accounted for 15.8 million sick days in 2016, according to data published by the Office of National Statistics (ONS).

However, self-employed people have a lower sickness absence rate than employees in general (1.4% for self-employed, 2.1% for employees). One reason for this difference could be that business owners feel less able to take sick leave, including that which is needed for mental health reasons.

Yet, between 1993 and 2017, the number of sick days taken by workers in the UK has dropped from 7.2 days in 1993 to 4.1 days in 2017.

So why is that? It could be due to improvements in healthcare, with more access to the treatment and knowledge needed to cure and prevent illness.

But it could also be due to a change in culture that makes it less acceptable to take sick leave. Or, people may feel like they have to use other types of leave entitlement instead of sick leave, as mental health can still be seen as a controversial topic.

In 2018, the NatWest Great British Entrepreneur Awards conducted its Mental Health in Entrepreneurship survey, with 100 entrepreneurs taking part. Here, we highlight some of the findings from the research:

  • 58% of those surveyed experienced mental health issues
  • The conditions included anxiety (21%), depression (19%) and stress (41%)
  • 55% of respondents said that running a business has had a negative impact on their mental health

Plus, according to recent research by Xero (a business and accounting software company), stress is a key issue for many small business owners. Of the 500 business owners involved in the company’s research, 17% reported that they had felt ‘highly stressed’ in the six months prior to the survey.

Claire Gamble, MD at Unhooked Communications, comments: “You have to have a lot of resilience running your own business, and looking after your mental health is paramount for this. Anxiety and depression are sadly all too common amongst business owners, and these feelings can start to manifest themselves in different ways, such as losing motivation, procrastinating, making risky decisions, and not looking after yourself. Even seemingly small niggles and low feelings can start to build up over time, so it’s important to identify them when they appear and try to resolve them.

“Routine, building a support network, and making time to see people face-to-face are important parts of looking after your health and wellbeing when you’re running a business.
When I first went self-employed, I’d often go days without seeing anyone else and I soon found myself feeling really down and losing motivation.

“In a recent survey for PR Unlocked, over a third (38%) of self-employed people who work from home regularly said they have days when they don’t speak to or meet other people during working hours, and 40% sometimes have days where they don’t see or speak to anyone else. Only 22% said they try to meet or speak to other people most days. Some people might think the idea of working at home alone all day sounds like bliss, but it can be really isolating, and have a negative impact on your mental health.

“For business owners, there’s often a temptation to work as hard as possible, or be chained to your desk for hours on end. You don’t need to hustle 24/7 – in fact, this sort of mentality is more likely to be counterproductive, and can lead to burnout.

“Take advantage of the fact that you have more control over your working hours than if you were employed. Plan your time so you can do focused work when you’re most productive, and take regular breaks to rest, eat healthily, exercise, and meet other people. If you genuinely have too much work to do, you need to start growing your team.”

What does mental health mean to you?

Martina Mercer is a freelance PR and marketing consultant, working with brands such as Willie’s Cacao, Tax Rebate Services, Lay-Z Spa, DSMRandDTaxCredits, and HealthClic. She says: “Mental health is incredibly important to me, as it encompasses my whole self. It dictates how I feel, how I react, how I cope in situations, and how I handle every single day. I have a love/ hate relationship with my mental health, and find it hard to separate the real me from the bipolar me. It defines me.

“On a good day, I am super creative and I feel indestructible. My ideas flow freely, and I jump for joy when experiencing small triumphs at work. However, the flip side is that on a bad day – which are few and far between now – I’m subdued and calm, often retreating from the world. I don’t like myself on bad days, as I annoy myself and feel I should be grateful for what I have. But others find it to be a refreshing change, as it’s when I slow down enough to listen and plan effectively. Both sides have their benefits and drawbacks.”

Dr Elena Touroni, consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, comments: “For me, being healthy mentally is about finding a sense of balance in both your mind and your body.

“This means ensuring I’m getting adequate sleep, maintaining a healthy work-life balance, attending to my personal relationships, and working towards my goals. But also, importantly, it’s about making sure I take the time out to do the things which give me a sense of well-being and enjoyment. Finding that balance is what it really means to practice self-care.”


2. Common causes

There are a number of ways in which your mental health can be affected as a founder of a startup. Here, we profile some of the main factors that could have an impact, and why.

Workload

When you’re first starting out, it’s likely you’ll need to put in a certain number of hours to get your business off the ground. However, too many long days and not enough time away from the office can take its toll.

Isolation

Becoming your own boss means stepping away from the routine of regular employment. And, unless you have a co-founder, this means going it alone. The pressure of being responsible for every decision can be intimidating.

Lack of support networks and structure

In addition to potentially being the only person in your company (especially in the beginning), you may find yourself without the day-to-day camaraderie of colleagues or the structure of an office – both of which can have an adverse effect when removed.

Positivity pressure

Many people dream of running their own businesses, yet not everyone takes that leap. So if you do, there can be a certain pressure to make it feel like you’re living the dream every single moment of the day – that everything’s going great, always. That could be in terms of how you act and talk about your business, as well as how you look and present yourself to the world.

Money and finance

Whether you’re funding your business yourself, have borrowed through loans, or received grants, how the numbers add up is one of the key concerns for any business. Therefore, worrying about how your business will stay afloat can be a significant stressor for many small business owners.

Identity

When you’re a startup founder, so much of who you are is tied up with what your business does. So if your business should come under threat, or it’s no longer a viable option, then you could feel the effects not only professionally, but personally too.

Failure

No one sets out thinking that their business will fail. But we have to be realistic – some businesses won’t be successful. While what it means to be a success is a topic for another discussion entirely, in this instance, when a business fails – for whatever reason – it can seem like the end of your world.

Networking culture

With many events and sessions for entrepreneurs often providing free drinks, when and how does indulging in a few social beverages become alcohol abuse?

Lack of discussion

While more can be done to promote positive mental health and create a dialogue around it more generally, when you look at entrepreneurs and mental health in particular, there seem to be even fewer opportunities for discussion.

For example, while researching for this article, there were a limited number of relatable search terms – suggesting that people are simply not searching online for information about this topic.

Plus, with cultural norms such as ‘bottling it up’ and ‘putting on a brave face’ still very much prevalent, we’re probably not yet at the stage where such matters of entrepreneurs’ mental health can be discussed freely.

Personality traits

How would you describe the stereotypical successful entrepreneur? Some common words might be ambitious, creative, eccentric, or solitary.

In turn, these words could also be applied to some elements of mental health conditions, and so continuing the concept of ‘genius in madness’.

These conditions could manifest themselves as anxiety, depression or stress, or another type of mental health issue.

Are there any myths about entrepreneurship and mental health that you’d like to bust?

Mercer states: “When I received my bipolar diagnosis, a lot of people said it made sense – that it explained my burning ambition, burning the candle at both ends, and my creativity. I was writing for Yahoo! at the time and wanted to share my story. Worryingly, I lost clients as soon as my story went viral. I hadn’t lost one client before that.

“There’s a myth that if someone has a mental health condition, or is bipolar, it means they’re crazy, they’re unreliable, they’re not a good choice. Whereas I credit my bipolar with fuelling my determination to succeed, my dogged desire to be the best in my field, and my zany creativity.

“In short, if I didn’t have a mental illness, I probably wouldn’t produce the results my clients love me for – it’s part of me. After all, a fact has just been released that 49% of entrepreneurs have a mental illness.”

Touroni adds: “[The myth] that it’s not possible to have both. It is! But you need to be very focused on maintaining the balance. It’s all about setting boundaries, and forming a secure base. You need to be as proactive about self-care as you are about your business – and that means saying “no” sometimes.

“We all have limits – and accompanying warning signs – and it’s important to tune in and recognise when it’s time to take a step back. Burnout doesn’t just happen – we’ve normally pushed our way through a lot of warning signs to get there.”


3. Strategies and solutions

So, we’ve outlined some of the main factors that can be detrimental to your mental health when running your own business. Next, we’ll provide some ideas about how to manage them.

It’s important to be aware when your mental health is being adversely affected. If it is – or to help prevent a negative impact – you could consider taking the following actions:

Take breaks

This refers to breaks throughout your working day, as well as taking holiday leave. Only 31% of entrepreneurs take full and regular lunch breaks, according to the Mental Health in Entrepreneurship survey.

Form a network

Whether that’s attending professional networking sessions, chatting with your other co-workers, or attending a Meetup or other informal gathering or event, it can be helpful to have other people around you who understand the demands of running your own business.

For example, consider running your business from a co-working – this will provide both a dedicated work area, and a readymade community of fellow freelancers and entrepreneurs.

Get regular sleep

In an effort to simply have more hours in the day, maintaining a regular sleep schedule with a sufficient amount of rest can often be one of the first things that falls by the wayside.

With thoughts racing around your head about the day that’s been, or what’s coming up, the inability to sleep can make matters seem even worse. Ensuring you’re getting enough sleep every night is vital.

Exercise

Looking after your mental health can also be connected to caring for your physical health. Exercise causes a reaction in your body which releases endorphins. These hormones help to make you feel more positive and energised, and so exercise is thought to help mild anxiety, depression and stress – as well as promote improved self-esteem.

Whether you want to go for a run by yourself to clear your head, or take part in a group class and meet like-minded people, there are a number of different ways to incorporate exercise into your life.

Work/life balance

Running your own business can be all-consuming, and it can be difficult to separate work and home. This is especially the case if you run a home-based business, or work with family members.

Therefore, creating a distinction between the two is key: ideally, have your home office in a separate part of your home, or set a time for stopping work-related talk.

Similarly, be sure to prioritise having dinner at home, or spending time with your children. Check out our guide on how to work from home for more top tips.

Take sick leave

Taking time off can be difficult, particularly if you’re self-employed, a sole trader, or work by yourself.

Although the symptoms of physical sickness may often be easier to spot than those of mental illness, if you’re not feeling 100% (whether that’s physically or mentally), be sure to take time off to allow yourself to get better. This means that when you do get back to your business, you’ll feel like your best self.

Self-help

If you recognise that you’re not feeling as great as you would like to, then it may be possible to help yourself.

You can read up on the subject, and find self-help books that can guide you through the process of addressing any issues you may be facing.

Similarly, online services and apps can be used to help alleviate the symptoms of stress and other conditions.

Get professional help

Just like with physical ill health, sometimes things get better by themselves – perhaps with some assistance by yourself.

But some illnesses require specialist knowledge, and it’s the same with mental health. If you feel like you’re not coping, or you’re not seeing the results you’d like to, reach out to a professional for expert advice and treatment to help you heal.

What advice would you offer to others/small business owners about supporting their mental health while running a business?

Mercer advises: “Owning your own business while managing your mental health is ideal. You can hopefully be flexible, and as you know yourself better than anyone else, you can adapt when you feel a bad day is coming. Many people feel embarrassed about their mental health, and wouldn’t dream of sharing this information with customers and clients – which is completely understandable.

“If you are struggling, it’s important to take breaks, and not to feel guilty for it – you’ll be twice as productive when you return, which will make up for any absence. On a bad day, find tasks that will not be too customer-facing, or will not require much decision-making, and take time for yourself. If you can’t do this when you’re your own boss, when can you?”

Touroni continues: “Running a business is one of the most stressful things you can do. Blurred work-life boundaries and the inevitable uncertainty that comes with starting a business can take their toll on our mental health.

“Unfortunately, many of the traits that might lead someone to become a successful entrepreneur are the same traits that might make them vulnerable to over-extending themselves and neglecting their mental health.

“My main advice would be to be honest about how you’re feeling. Are you struggling? That’s fine. Make sure you talk about it. Having solid support is really important – whether that’s in the form of a trusted friend, a family member, or a therapist. Someone with whom you can check-in with on a regular basis, talk about how you’re feeling, and ensure you’re not neglecting your own needs.”


Evidently, mental health is a key component of overall health and wellness. As a founder of a small business, you have a number of duties to your company: to lead, to set direction, and to take responsibility.

Yet at the same time, it’s important to remember your duties and responsibilities to yourself. This means ensuring that you’re in the best possible condition, including your mental well-being – both for your own health and for the success of your startup.

However, it can be difficult to say that you’re not well, especially when you don’t know what the reaction will be.

But a leader who is open and honest – particularly about any challenges that they’re facing – and who speaks out, even when it’s a scary thing to do, can be a real inspiration. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of a company that is led by someone with such compassion, both for themselves and for those around them?

Similarly, the more people who create a conversation about entrepreneurs and mental health, the more ordinary it will become.

For more information or for help and advice, you can speak to your GP. Or call a helpline – for example, the Samaritans offers a free 24/7 helpline, available on 116 123.