Entrepreneurs are often thought of as eternal optimists, always pushing forward in the face of all obstacles and ignoring the concerns of others about the future of their enterprises. But the reality may well be that entrepreneurs are more susceptible to depression, loss of motivation, suicidal thoughts and other related mental health issues than those in the general population.
That the life of an entrepreneur is stressful should come as no surprise. From dealing with suppliers, customers and employees to the fiscal concerns of staying in the black, meeting payrolls and even keeping the lights on, entrepreneurs deal with so many more factors than face employees. And while losing one’s job can create difficulties for an employee, losing one’s business often results in the loss of the entrepreneur’s home, vehicle, credit rating and, more importantly, sense of self worth.
In an excellent article in the September 2013 issue of Inc. Magazine, author Jessica Bruder refers to building a company as “psychologically brutal” and discusses “the price so many founders secretly pay”. Citing a number of studies and real-world examples, Bruder shows that the strong emotional states that propel a person into becoming an entrepreneur are closely related to the negative emotional states that become true mental health issues for business founders.
When you look at some of the commonly-touted ways of dealing with depression it’s not difficult to see some of the probable causality. Advice abounds that eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy bodyweight, exercising regularly, avoiding stressful situations and spending time with friends and family – your personal support group – are all a part of positive mental health practices.
By contrast, entrepreneurs tend to be fully invested in their startup venture, with little time or attention for anything else. Food is usually an afterthought, gobbled down quickly at their desk or in their vehicle en route to a meeting. Couple that with no time used to stay in shape and it’s easy to see why many add 10, 20 or 50 pounds of bodyfat as they build their business. Add that stress to the enormous amount of stress one experiences in running a business and not only do one’s nerves end up ‘shot’, but all that stress causes the body to release excessive cortisol.
Since cortisol causes the body to store fat and cannibalize muscle, the situation gets even worse. As self-confidence and self-image erode, many entrepreneurs react by throwing themselves more and more into their business pursuits with less and less quality time for family and friends, robbing themselves of the very support network that could help them most.
And all of that is before we add in the two greatest truisms of running your own business: everything takes longer than you planned and everything costs more than you expected. Insufficient capitalization and cashflow shortages are the biggest factors in most business failures, and that added stress is often enough to all but destroy the mental health of even the most resilient of entrepreneurs.
Compounding the problem is the common belief that one can’t show weakness or expose any cracks in the ‘success facade’ – the fear that customers will shy away and that the ‘sharks’ will circle and destroy your business if they sense any weakness. Before long the entrepreneur’s identity is so enmeshed with the business that they lose sight of where the business ends and they begin – survival of the business seems to be tied in with their own personal survival. They’ve become so emotionally invested in their business that they lay awake all night, tossing and turning as they worry about the possible impending downfall. Without realizing it they’ve become emotional cripples – so they continue to fight the good fight and put on a brave public face, all the while becoming more isolated and less productive.
In an earlier century, Samurai warriors balanced their violent pursuits with time spent painting, writing poetry and arranging flowers. Today’s business warrior class, the entrepreneurs, have lost that balance. As the battle heats up they shed extraneous activities to focus even more on their challenges, often losing all sense of perspective and of self.
The Warning Signs
Every situation is different, but there are some common warning signs to watch for if you’re an entrepreneur…
Have you experienced any unintentional but noticeable weight gain or loss? Are you 15 or 20 pounds heavier than this time last year, or 10 or 15 pounds lighter? Either can be a sign of depression, the effect of neglecting a healthy diet or even the harbinger of a more serious physical ailment.
Do you find yourself working more and more but achieving less and less? Have a number of ongoing projects with none getting finished? Are you finding yourself procrastinating more and more, even putting off calls you know you really should have already completed? Does there no longer seem to be any correlation between how much time you’re putting in and any concrete, measurable results?
And what about your personal relationships? Are you losing touch with your friends? Does your social circle, outside of business contacts, seem to be shrinking? Is your home environment no longer a harmonious sanctuary? Is your spouse more frequently bringing up feelings of rejection or abandonment? Are the bulk of your conversations about business or arguments about money instead of about each other, friends and family matters?
Most, if not all of these situations take time to reach that point – seldom do they suddenly rear their ugly heads overnight. The initial seeds are planted, then the stresses and strains of entrepreneurship water and fertilize them and help them grow to significant proportions. Don’t rely just on your own self-audit to see if these issues are affecting you; seek out the opinions of your friends and family and, if necessary, seek professional advice and help as well.
Some Possible Solutions
Whatever you do, don’t ignore these matters if you’re an entrepreneur. Avoid the common attitude that ‘Yeah, times are tough right now, but it will get better – it always does.’ In the aforementioned article Bruder mentions the suicides of Ilya Zhitomirskiy, the co-founder of Diaspora, and Jody Sherman, founder of Ecomom. While your own situation will hopefully never deteriorate to that point, it can still cause your life to be a living hell or at least fall far short of the life you truly deserve.
To start with, you have to protect your Number One Asset – your physical, mental and emotional health. No matter whether your business soars, succeeds or sinks, you will carry on. You’re of much less use to your enterprise if your capacity is in any way diminished, and you can achieve much less if you don’t have the necessary health, energy and mindset.
How much time are you investing in your business? While most entrepreneurs need to put in more than the employee’s standard 40-hour workweek, if you’re putting in more than 60 hours a week it’s time for a change or two. Decide which of your duties is giving you the least return for the time involved and take on a partner, hire an employee or outsource that portion to someone with true strengths in that area. If you are currently so busy you don’t have time to think, you also have no time to innovate or expand, so diverting some of the current business income to freeing up some time can lead you to greater revenues and greater profitability when done right. If your business can’t be successfully operated and grown in 60 hours a week you either need to make these changes or look for a different business to replace it.
What shape are you in, right now? Carrying an extra 15 or 20 pounds around your middle or on your hips & butt? You may not see how that affects your business, but that extra bodyfat makes your body work harder during everything you do, robbing you of energy you would find helpful in your entrepreneurial pursuits. Even being just 3% dehydrated can affect your mental functioning – how long since you last had a glass of water? And don’t forget that being out of shape is hurting your self-image and self-confidence as well… You know you function best when you’re brimming with energy and feeling self-confident, and much of that comes from good physical health and conditioning. Whether you lift weights, do cardio, attend yoga classes or regularly play squash, be sure you’re getting at least 3 hour-long fitness sessions in every week, and work towards getting in 5 sessions per week.
Right now is also the best time to patch things up at home and with friends and family. Surprise your spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend with an unscheduled date night. Take your kids to a football game, tennis match, live theater or the ballet. Call your parents and/or an old friend just to say ‘Hi – How are you?’. You may be surprised by how much of a lift that gives you, mentally and emotionally. We’re spiritual creatures, and reaching out and connecting with others, especially those we care about, is almost always uplifting.
Finally, use at least some of that new-found time to pursue other interests. Leave the television turned off and pick up a book or head out to a class. Not something connected to your business – choose a subject that has always held an interest for you but has been put off so far. It might be a hobby or it could be simply a mental pursuit, but it should be of enough interest to take you out of the ‘entrepreneurial headspace’ for an hour or two at a time.
In short, get back in touch with you and your life outside of your efforts as an entrepreneur. You are not your business and your business is not you. You will not be a better person because your business succeeds, neither will you be a worse person because your business fails. If your current business goes south, it’s the business that failed – not you!
Reclaim your soul and your life outside of your business and fight off that depression and those worries about personal failure. And when next you bounce into your business on a Monday morning with a spring in your step and a smile on your face you’ll remember why you chose to be an entrepreneur and be ready to do battle with the best of them!