By Matthew Cushen
You’re running your own small business, raising and running out of cash, dealing with customers, building a team, growing before a competitor grabs the market. There’s never enough time in the day, and it can be difficult to turn off.
During all this activity, do you have the chance to take a step back from what you are doing and consider your own mental health and wellbeing?
You wouldn’t be alone, and it wouldn’t be weak to admit, if you are feeling anxious, sleep deprived, out of shape or, more seriously, depressed.
There is growing evidence that entrepreneurs are more vulnerable to mental illness than the general population.
I’ll leave you to Google the science for which I’m unqualified to interpret, but it seems compelling. Less compelling to me is the emerging hypothesis from many of the boffins that the personality that attracts someone to take risks, get creative, be their own boss and run their own business is more predisposed to mental health issues than those in steady employment.
The four challenges that cause mental health issues
Whatever the causes and numbers, any entrepreneur would do well to recognise they have some unique stresses and strains and, occasionally step back and consider how these are impacting their mental or physical health.
Or maybe your health is fine, but you’re not having as much fun running your own business as you should be, or you imagined it to be. These are four challenges that I have experienced at various times:
One of the attractions for many entrepreneurs is independence. So it can be frustrating to find that you might have escaped the nine to five but are instead on it 24/7. At the beck and call of customers, each of which can feel like it could be your last, and your team, who could easily be more nervous about their actions within a nascent business where the risks are higher, and therefore more inclined to check their decisions with the person whose neck is on the line.
I was surprised to discover (painfully, as I’ve never been very good at it) that delegation and empowering others is even more important in a small start-up team than when leading a large corporate department.
The stiff upper lip
During much of this activity is the need to give off the right impression. Usually this is about creating or accentuating the positive, having it all together and not exhibiting weakness or vulnerability. If this is dissonant from your true feelings, this show can create feelings of shame and disconnection and lead to depression.
It’s essential to have one or a group of people where the truth can all hang out and watch for signs of depression. Whether that’s a spouse, a member of the team or a group of true friends (the genuine and supportive ones, not the ones not so secretly envious and quite happy to see your business fail).
I’ve tried to build a business as a sole founder and, no surprise, it was lonely. Not lonely physically, I had a team, customers, suppliers – loads of people around. But no-one that shares the ‘buck stops here’ responsibility for employing others, creating a return on investors’ cash and has reputation on the line.
Even anticipating this and creating a role and some equity for a true sparring partner, it didn’t create the equality needed. So, as well as augmenting skills and effort, a co-founder is a huge benefit to mental health and wellbeing.
Not to say that doesn’t create its own challenges, like any close relationship, there are bound to be ups and downs, fallings out and making up. So open, honest communication is essential. This is particularly true before getting into partnership together, to ensure that the big ambitions and attitudes are in line. If, for example, attitudes to risk or effort are not aligned, this will cause huge stresses as the business grows.
The self-worth tangle
Building a business can (and at some time should) become all consuming. Then it is all too easy for self-worth to become tied into a company’s success and lose sight of the bigger picture – what else in your life is important and how you are important to others.
In the worst cases an entrepreneur pulls back from loved ones or other sources of meaning such as travel, self-development, play and physical health. Over time, I’ve worked out that being physically fit has an exponential impact on my mood.
So when work gets out of hand, re-prioritising exercise is my quickest route back into balance. Some time to reflect and ask the question ‘do I like who I see in the mirror?’ will throw up some gaps that can be filled to achieve a better balance and sense of fulfilment.