Mental health issues of startup founders need immediate attention
There is little talk about the mental health of startup founders. It is incumbent upon us to build a world where professional success and personal well-being are complementary
To cope with this situation in the startup ecosystem, we must resort to self-reflection, community and prioritizing mental health professionally. Talking about your problems, relating to your peers and fostering an environment of positivity and relief at your workplace can be instrumental to keeping mental illness at bay
The world of startups receives much applause and media attention and the general picture painted is one of progress and prosperity. However, countless troubles animate this seemingly celebratory domain behind the scenes. The cumulative effect of pressures to succeed, fear of failure, seeking venture capital funds, sorting out internal discords in the company and dealing with customers has never been easy to handle. Add the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic and economic contractions to the mix and the scenario becomes increasingly formidable for mental well-being. Yet, there is little talk about the mental health of startup founders, visionary entrepreneurs who take on mammoth tasks with ambitions to craft spectacular success stories.
Darlington Jose Hector in an article, suitably mentions that while the Indian startup ecosystem seems like a happy zone, "there is this ubiquitous elephant in the room - mental health - that no one really wants to talk about." The reasons can be obvious to glean - perhaps, talking about personal and professional struggles can breach the shimmery appeal of entrepreneurial endeavour. However, the struggles are real, whether they are talked about or not. Pesto's founder Ayush Jaiswal had noted in a conversation with Inc42, that recent times have been extremely difficult time and every entrepreneur is trying to figure out how to survive. "Founders had to introduce pay cuts and layoff employees, even when it's nobody's fault that the company's revenues are going down," he added. Apart from these troubles, startup founders also have a personal life and social circles to respond to, which might exert further duress on their mental stabilities.
Research shows that there is a major disparity between the extent of suffering startup founders deal with and remedial measures. In a study by Michael Freeman, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, it was found that 50 per cent of entrepreneurs are susceptible to a mental health condition. Some specific conditions are prevalent among startup founders, who are several times more likely to suffer from depression, ADHD, substance abuse, bipolar disorder, and suicidal thoughts. Yet, a meagre 25 per cent of startup CEOs surveyed in First Round's State of Startups 2019 report are currently working with executive coaches. Furthermore, the percentage working with therapists or psychiatrists is similarly low, with male founders at a tiny 15 per cent as opposed to 42 per cent for female founders.
This bleak terrain has to be redeemed urgently to not only accelerate entrepreneurial productivity but save several young aspirational individuals from getting enmeshed in a precarious mess. The joy of founding a company lies in having a vision, dreaming of accomplishment and succeeding through tremendous amounts of labour, perseverance and motivation. If this joy is organic and human, we must acknowledge our humanitarian impulses as well as our human limits. Success cannot be a short-term stringing of achieved goals, but has to be a long-term and sustainable commitment to growth and for the latter, good mental health is indispensably significant.
To cope with this situation in the startup ecosystem, we must resort to self-reflection, community and prioritizing mental health professionally. Talking about your problems, relating to your peers and fostering an environment of positivity and relief at your workplace can be instrumental to keeping mental illness at bay. Expert Maren Thomas Bannon, in a talk with Forbes remarks, "I recommend building a trusted support systems with fellow founders. Find founders who are at a similar stage, where you can share what's going on in your inner and outer world. Create a small group where you can share deeply and honestly, knowing that they are in a relatable situation. There is power in being able to share experiences and learning. Speaking with a counsellor or working with a coach - someone who is impartial – helps founders feel supported and have the space to freely explore how they're doing and what they're feeling."
Apart from founders taking respite in a peer group and seeking necessary help, they also need to make mental wellness a priority at their company, with budgetary allocations to make professional mental help available to everyone working. Creating a professional schedule with enough breathing windows and having an empathetic environment at work can humanize the otherwise cut-throat terrain and provide succour to one and all.
It is incumbent upon us to build a world where professional success and personal well-being are complementary. To this end, startup founders, individuals the world looks up to, for the spirit and courage to take on entrepreneurial missions must prioritize their mental health. It is time to shed the stigma and take concrete measures to abate the damage done by mental illness while striving for excellence and startup founders, through their unbroken grit can show the way.
(The author is Chief Impact Officer at Recykal Foundation)