Why entrepreneurs need to focus on their mental health and wellbeing

It's widely accepted that starting a venture from scratch can be risky, exhilarating and exhausting all at the same time. The challenges that face entrepreneurs are well documented, from raising capital, inconsistent income, establishing a brand, a customer base, the long hours - the list goes on. Entrepreneurs are often well-schooled on this side of entrepreneurial life. But what about the mental side of the business? After all, behind every start-up idea is a human being.

An editorial piece in NZ Entrepreneur magazine earlier this year said it best "We must never forget that entrepreneurship is first and foremost an endeavour of the human spirit and an endeavour of innovation, technology and capital second."

As conversations on mental health and wellbeing have become more prominent in wider society, so has the conversation started in the start-up ecosystem, from founders to angel investors.

When we look at the health and wellbeing of founders, there are several forces at play. We know that passion is at the core of every entrepreneur. Arguably it's one of the key ingredients for a successful start-up. While passion can be an influential driving force to get a project going, it can also push people into working too many hours and focusing too much time and attention on the project at hand. Without the appropriate tools, support networks and fortitude, can be the force that tips entrepreneurs over the edge. Add to that the outside forces at work in a start-up; investor meetings and feedback, people scrutinising every aspect of your business, rejections, failed ideas the list goes on.

​Case study: When you hit rock bottom

Mental and physical health and wellbeing have always been important to one anonymous entrepreneur. While no stranger to start-ups, with two business ideas under his belt, his third idea has been the one that's really got him excited but also proved to be his biggest test.

"Entrepreneurship and start-ups can be a vehicle for helping people and making a change in the world. I never set out to be an entrepreneur, but here I am."

After spending the formative years of the business researching, his next step was funding. This is where things started to get stressful. It's a daunting and brutal step that many founders aren't mentally prepared for.

"Before these people hand over their money and invest, they will scrutinise every aspect of your business. It's part of the process, but it can feel like you're taking a lot of punches. You and your company are one and the same when you're new to it, so you take it all personally."

As he progressed through the various stages of start-up life and that initial stress started to compound, he began to notice signs that things were slipping regarding his health and wellbeing. He was pouring every spare minute into the business and forgoing his usual gym sessions, started flagging on catch-ups with his friends, and dishes piling up. Friends and family quickly began to notice the change too.

"When I started to get overwhelmed, there were some clear signs looking back. Small at first, but all things that signalled, I was starting to neglect myself in favour of my business. It was quite a negative spiral of anxiety and depression that followed."

During this time, the business was stalling. Progression with getting his business and message out there was non-existent.

Once he realised what was going on, which can be difficult to admit or realise at the time, he approached it like he would a problem with his business. He made changes. He changed his living situation, took some time off the business, and returned to his roots of establishing health and wellbeing.

"I realised that without my personal health and wellbeing, mental and physical, there would be no company. You can't build off a foundation that's not there. I took myself off to a retreat and started to establish some routines and practises that I could incorporate into my every day to ensure I  was putting myself first and refilling my cup."

These things included ensuring good sleep, nutrition, journaling, spiritual practices and practicing self-compassion. When he started creating more balance in his life and putting practices in place that supported his health and wellness, everything for his business started to come together.

"It was amazing what happened in my external world when I started focusing on nurturing my internal world. The hardest part now is maintaining it all. When things get stressful, health and wellbeing are always the first things to go, so for me, it's been about making a conscious effort each day to prioritise those things."

During this time, one of the things he found difficult to navigate was managing relationships with mentors and investors. He felt it was difficult to have really honest conversations with them because of their financial interest in the business.

"I had a mentor that also decided to invest, which was great. But when I started getting overwhelmed and struggling, I felt I couldn't admit that and have that honest conversation because this person had invested money in me and my business and I didn't want to be viewed as a bad investment. It became difficult, and I think I really started to see the benefit of having independent mentors. That's not to say they weren't compassionate and understanding. They were, but it makes that conversation a bit more difficult."

Looking back at his experiences now, he says there are a few key things he's encouraged other founders to be aware of: 

  1. Be aware of where you are at with stress and anxiety levels.
  2. Establish practices and routines that fill your cup each day. 
  3. Remember that your self-worth is not tied to your company – find your own sense of value outside of your work and business.

Kiwi's are good at setting the bar high for themselves. Kiwi entrepreneurs even more so. While having open conversations is a big part of the solution, it's also about the practical side. This is where investors, mentors and the like have a responsibility to ensure the founders they work with are well equipped. 

With the right knowledge, tools and support needed to navigate entrepreneurial life; those people surrounding entrepreneurs can help ensure the success of the founder and the business they support.

From encouraging founders to re-energise themselves and engage in activities that fill their cups to providing practical support and advice, there are many opportunities for founders and investors to help founders in this space.

This could be in the form of looking at co-founding, if appropriate, right through to bringing good governance and awareness of health and wellbeing. Having a pulse check and simple mechanisms in place to get feedback from the wider team to get a clear idea of the challenges ahead – remember start-ups are a team game, and it's not always the founder who will bet he first to see these challenges or notice that they themselves need some support.

Having walked beside a number of founders in their business journeys, we've become very aware of our founders' needs in the health and wellbeing space. We acknowledge that we have a real responsibility to provide a more formal dimension to this, provide more tools, resources and structure around health and wellbeing for the founders we work with, and continue to encourage conversations on the industry.

Our cohort groups and mentors provide a valuable resource for founders to chat with others going through the same experiences, bounce ideas off and simply talk about things.

While a founder has many complexities and challenges, it's important to remember that business is a long game. Pace yourself, put in place good support systems, practise open communication and remember to celebrate all the small wins along the way.