Why startups and entrepreneurs must reassess mental health

This article is written by Erin Blaskie, Director of Marketing at L-SPARK, Canada’s largest Software as a Service accelerator. Twitter/Instagram: @ErinBlaskie

Nearly half of entrepreneurs experience low mood or feel mentally tired at least once a week. Three in five feel depressed at least once a week. These statistics, released in June from the Canadian Mental Health Association, are more than numbers – they paint the picture of a working culture that is not sustainable. More importantly, the numbers illustrate the need for mental health to be front-and-centre when it comes to startups.

The truth is that we founders, as well as our incredible mental health organizations, need to find better ways to support entrepreneurs who are in crisis due to stress, anxiety and overwhelm. The ecosystem as a whole needs to find a way to reduce the stigma so that entrepreneurs don’t feel silenced. Let’s take a deeper dive as to exactly how we, as a community, can do it.

Mental health in startups

The world of startups is admittedly competitive. Every startup in every sector is working toward their vision and successful products. The problem with that, and startup culture in general, is the lack of hard and fast rules which apply to working hours. Smartphones further feed into the idea that there is no time to switch off and that longer weekly hours result in better outcomes.

Research suggests that working long hours can be detrimental to productivity and overall health. This is furthered by the Canadian Mental Health Association’s report who say that one in five entrepreneurs feel satisfied with their mental health less than once a week. Among the general population, eight per cent of Canadians perceive their mental health as poor or fair.

“We want this report to start an open conversation and shift the popular view of entrepreneurs from ‘tireless innovator’ or ‘lone visionary’ to one that allows them to show their vulnerability and ask for help when needed,” says Fardous Hosseiny, interim National CEO and National Director, Research and Public Policy, CMHA. “There needs to be more discussion about entrepreneur mental health and more attention paid to it by entrepreneur networks and organizations.”

The warning signs 

As an entrepreneur, you wrap a lot of your identity around being a founder. The company you run, being productive, creating solutions for customers, shipping a product – these are all things that become the fabric of what makes you, you. In the June study, it notes: “Both popular and academic discussions tend to favour a romantic view of entrepreneurs as heroes, visionaries and pioneers, leaving little room for discussions around their vulnerability.”

The truth is that we live in a society that values fortitude and optimism and business owners must have both in abundance. We have been taught that the weak do not rise to the top and as a result, we have become extremely well-versed in ‘impression management.’ We stuff our vulnerabilities down under the sheets knowing full well that there is only one place for them — hidden and out of sight.”

The silence we maintain around struggle, especially as an entrepreneur, needs to be lifted. We need to speak out. This does not ensure long-term health nor long-term success – and the startup ecosystem in Canada and around the world needs to address the institutional problems that continue to endanger mental health.

What we must do 

The good news is that this is not a lost cause. In fact, a few small changes can actually go a long way when it comes to supporting positive mental health in startups.

If you work in an innovation hub of any kind, there are multiple initiatives to consider. Creating peer groups so that founders can chat one-on-one with other founders is one way, arming your mentors and team with resources that can be referred to is another. Then there the potential to encourage your founders to practice self-care and disconnect and asking your community to share their own stories on your blog or social media, if they feel comfortable to do so.

There is no one answer when it comes to creating and refining the support system for entrepreneurs, but it is helpful to see organizations like Canadian Mental Health Association researching this topic, producing these reports and starting the conversation. We, as a community, must be grateful that this is finally being discussed and work to ensure actionable change does occur.

The best way forward is to make your voice heard and help others – because you just never know when a single conversation will save someone’s life.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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