In this era of speaking about mental health checks and wellness positivity, what impact does entrepreneurship have on mental health? It's a well-known adage that ‘it's lonely at the top’ but launching a start-up and running a business is highly addictive. Sleepless nights, bad habits, and culture shocks all become par for the course and out the other side is a really lonely place.
The dictionary definition of addiction is ‘the fact or condition of being addicted to a particular substance, thing, or activity.’ Running a business is just like crack; you stay for the highs but need a radical coping mechanism to deal with the lows.
Seven years ago I started my first business. I had a business partner, two investors and no experience. I was eager and driven and brazen. I was comfortable with risk, I thrived with the constant stimulation and I embraced the unknown. Little did I know I’d lose myself along the way.
We spent the first year of running the business working every weekend. We stood up friends for dinner, our relationships suffered, and we stopped investing in ourselves, each time leaning on the excuse of the business. We made every mistake in the book. You soon learn to divorce the personal from the professional, you work on your business plans, your funding sources, your unique market positioning. And what do you forget? Yourself. Always yourself.
Cult is now six years old, but mental wellbeing didn’t headline our board meetings until about three years ago. In those crucial years the business was taking everything from us - all of our energy - leaving us like husks of our former selves, passively attending to friendships and well-meaning family relationships. I often joked the business was my first baby, with my son being my second.
What was I thinking?
It's no joke; entrepreneurship is addictive. It’s akin, I believe, to a substance abuse problem - rip-roaring highs and gut-wrenching lows.
Embracing the unknown
According to a recent poll by mental health charity Mind, the most stressful thoughts in people’s minds relate to work. One in three people (34%) say their work life was either very or quite stressful, more so than debt or financial problems (30%) or health (17%). For this reason, it makes ethical sense that employers should shoulder some of the responsibility of taking care of their people and reducing their stress levels.
If you’re struggling with mental health, it doesn't often have an obvious tell. Yet when you’re not coping negative mental health shows in your work, your relationships with colleagues, it impacts your creativity and leaves you indecisive and fragile… not the attributes you need to sustain a dynamic business. It's very hard to deliver your best when you’re feeling your worst.
You can’t know people’s internal battles, unless you stop and ask - there must be an authentic safe space for them to communicate, release and reset. When you’re at the top, the only person who can do that for you, is you.
So I broke my addiction. I set boundaries for my life, I focused on my strengths, I celebrated the power of ‘no’ and slowly learned who I was again.
I had to go out on a limb to invest in my mental health wellness. The entrepreneurial mindset is about an inherent need to improve your skill set and to try and try again. Focusing on your personal mental health can feel counterintuitive to growth, internal change is often glacially slow and takes a while to manifest on the outside, but it’s an essential part of maturing as an entrepreneur. It takes bravery to expose yourself and speak your truth - but it is fundamental to being a great creative, an inspiring leader, a loving partner and a patient mum.
As with any real change, you have to lead by example.
So talking about mental health made the board meeting agenda. My business partner and I started to speak about it with each other, our management team and our agency folk. We educated ourselves as a collective. We introduced wellness policies, soft and hard mental health initiatives and really focused on changing our business to promote and support positive mental health for our team. As an employer, we needed to invest in the ‘unknown’ part of the people we’d hired, in order to get the best out of them, long-term. We looked internally, at our behaviours, our practices and what we needed - as people - to function as our best selves.
We haven’t yet nailed it, but we are working on our patterns of behaviour towards the addiction of business leadership. We attend weekly EA meetings, with a party of two (us founders) and we use that time to align and plan and break free of the highs and the lows. It's a bit bloody empowering. Our team is happier, our productivity is up and we deliver better creative work, as a collective. We are all more mentally health aware - especially when we look out for one another.