Running a business is a tough job. If you’re an entrepreneur, you already know the pressure of wearing all the hats, all the time. Juggling pleasing customers, managing staff, keeping an eye out for upcoming trends, mastering your marketing and a whole lot more can leave you operating on your last shred of mental and physical energy. But that’s just the entrepreneurial life, right? The hustle is what makes it all happen.
Or so you’ve been told. The problem is, running on all cylinders 24/7 isn’t good for your body or your mental health. And as the leader of your company, that also means that it isn’t good for your business. As the captain of the ship, everything is resting on your shoulders, so if you’re not rested, that’s a recipe for disaster – both for you and your business.
If you’re an entrepreneur, you’ve got to put your own oxygen mask first before you can take care of your customers, your employees, and your business. It’s time to take your mental health seriously.
72% of entrepreneur struggle with mental illness
According to a 2015 study at UC Berkeley, 72% of entrepreneurs reported struggling with their mental health. The most common diagnoses among entrepreneurs were depression (30%), ADHD (29%), substance abuse (12%) and bipolar disorder (11%). All in all, this study found that entrepreneurs are 50% more likely to report struggling with mental health than the general population.
In addition, the suicide risk for entrepreneurs is real. Shouldering the pressures of running a business can seem to be too much. Even huge names like Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, with the kind of success every entrepreneur dreams of achieving, have lost their lives to suicide, depriving the world of their own unique brands of creative genius.
The connection between entrepreneurship and mental health struggles
Entrepreneurs are a special breed of people. Creative, exciting, charismatic, and endlessly curious, people who open their own businesses tend to be more fast-paced and forward-thinking than others.
There’s an old stereotype that creative people are a little bit crazy, and that’s the root of their genius. Even though we don’t use words like “crazy” anymore to describe mental illness, there is a scientific connection between creativity and slightly different brain chemistry.
Entrepreneurs are more likely to have that differentiation in brain chemistry, and then their symptoms are exacerbated by the highs and lows and pressure of running a business. That’s a perfect storm for entrepreneurs to struggle with depression, anxiety, symptoms of bipolar disorder, etc.
Entrepreneurship tends to happen at the same time as … everything else
The average age of a successful startup founder is 45. What else is going on at around age 45? Everything. Marriage. Kids. Family responsibilities. Caring for aging parents. Carrying a mortgage. There’s a lot of entrepreneurs have on their shoulders at this age besides running a business. In fact, it’s all these other responsibilities that often lead people to go out on their own and start a business – to have more freedom to direct their own lives and the futures of their families.
But this invariably leads to conflict. There’s a saying, “Entrepreneurs are willing to work 80 hours a week to avoid working 40.” Many times, that’s true. But those 80-hour weeks take time away from marriages, kids, parents, and of course, self-care. The conflict between personal and professional responsibilities only adds to the sense of stress and guilt that can lead to entrepreneur burnout and an increase in mental illness symptoms.
Fake it till you make it
The “fake it till you make it” maxim in entrepreneurial culture implies that there’s no room for weakness in the C-suite. “Coffee is for closers” might be the most famous line from a movie you’ve never seen, but have you ever heard or uttered that line yourself, as motivation to yourself or someone else? When was the last time you heard “Never let them see you sweat?” The entrepreneurial world is chock full of “motivation” quotes like these. And while they might get you pumped up for a client meeting or a sales call, they’re devastatingly topic when taken too far.
The truth is, being an entrepreneur can be absolutely brutal. Pretending that it does not only make the problem worse.
When pandemic nurses burn out, we get it. We sympathize with them. The same goes for teachers and firefighters and parents of little kids. So why is it that we continuously hold ourselves and our fellow entrepreneurs to this impossible standard, expecting ourselves to achieve superhero feats without stressing out about it?
The pressure value needs to be released by talking about entrepreneurial mental health openly, honestly, and without judgment. It’s not only OK but healthy and productive to admit when you’re struggling, but too often in entrepreneurial culture, it’s not acceptable. That needs to change.
What to do if you’re an entrepreneur struggling with your mental health
If you’re an entrepreneur and you’re struggling with feelings of depression, anxiety, ADHD, overwhelm, or something else, the very first thing you should do is give yourself a break. Despite what every inspirational speaker or business book tells you, you are NOT capable of everything. You’re a human being. And human beings run out of energy, actually need to sleep, get sad, get upset and need people to lean on. If you’re feeling like you can’t shoulder everything, that’s because you’re human. And that’s OK.
The second thing you should do is find a therapist. Entrepreneurs and big names in the business all have coaches, but forget that their minds are just as integral to their business success as their business savvy. Your brain is what’s running your business. Investing in it is an investment in your professional success, too.
And third, remember that you are more than your business. Being successful feels great. It’s such a boost to the ego and the self-image. But circumstances outside your control can snatch your success away through no fault of your own. Recently, a lot of people found that out during the Covid pandemic. The same thing happened during the Great Depression. Don’t artificially tie your entire sense of self-worth to your business. If your business fails, you are still the same creative, forward-thinking, charismatic person you’ve always been. And you can always start another business.