Mental Wellness in Startups

Start-up culture is unquestionably exciting. Hard, fast-paced, always looking to be one step ahead of the game and dedicated to the grind, the pressure for a start-up to succeed is so deeply embedded in tech culture it can be overwhelming at times.

A perfect example of this is that, at the time of writing this article, of the top posts on IG with the hashtag #startup two were giant stacks of $100 bills, and all but one were ‘motivational posts’ with an assortment of accompanying hashtags on the theme of “success” (#successquotes #successmore #successful #successtip are just some of the variations).

Having worked in the field for many years affords an insight that these motivational posts blazoned with smug images of successful entrepreneurs avoid mentioning: Mental wellness is the lifeblood of your start-up. Whether we’re talking about the importance of maintaining the wellbeing of a founder or dedicated employees, safeguarding mental health is an essential part of nurturing and growing a start-up. With the blood healthy and happy, the body of the start-up can thrive and eventually lead to the success all start-up visionaries dream of.

But neglect even one part of that body, and you could risk incurring collapse on both a personal and professional level.

So what can start-ups and founders do to ensure that all of their hard work isn’t coming at the costly price of their mental health?

Change the Start-up Culture and Narrative


The culture surrounding start-ups can be one that valorises the entrepreneur who sacrifices personal life, free time, and mental health to carry the burden of success, with eventual glory promised in return.

Founders and employees alike invest in their start-up, dedicate themselves to this gruelling uphill struggle, and blur the lines between company and individual so that company successes and failures become personal – and in a start-up, if you fail you carry on until you achieve success.

Such is the narrative and expectation. You learn from it. In the entrepreneurial world, there is no time for dwelling on these failures. Little is said about how to deal with the emotional and mental toll the start-up struggle entails, and the repercussions of measuring your personal worth against that of your company.


Neglecting your wellbeing in favour of the ‘grind’ could well sound the death knell for your start-up and can inflict irreparable damage on your own mental state whether you succeed or fail. Keeping in mind the distinction between company and individual is a good place to start when it comes to avoiding these tragic outcomes. Hard work doesn’t necessarily have to mean grinding yourself inexorably down to the bone and injecting your life-force into your start-up.

Dr Paul Hokemeyer, an expert in elite identity construct, hits the nail on the head asserting that “Given the extraordinary impact entrepreneurs have on our world economy, it’s critically important they operate in a state of optimum emotional and relational health. Unfortunately, in our current zeitgeist of founder burnout as a benchmark of entrepreneurial excellence, such has not been the case.”

Both you and your company have to be healthy in order to succeed and exhausting yourself emotionally and physically in order to appease a toxic culture is not sustainable. Better mental wellness begins with start-ups and entrepreneurs leaving behind the idea that your own personal value hangs on the success of your company, and that you need to commit every waking hour to keep things afloat.

There is a time for dealing with mental health issues, and that time should not be contingent on when it suits your business but when you need it.

Which follows into one of the most crucial aspects of supporting mental wellness in start-ups: destigmatisation.

Throw Taboos in the Trash (where they belong)

Even now in 2020, start-up reality doesn’t really permit open discussion of mental health issues. We may have seen in the past few years a growing trend about confronting the taboo in public areas, but this has seldom been reflected in the work-place environment, and unfortunately, entrepreneurs speaking out about their mental health problems is still very niche.

Rather than showing vulnerability, entrepreneurs frequently practice what social psychiatrists call impression management, influencing the perceptions of themselves in the public eye to something that doesn’t reveal the emotional turbulence within.

This false impression feeds and carefully cultivated external persona feeds into the stigma of mental health. Understandably, broaching the topic in such an unforgiving ecosystem as the start-up can be intimidating, but I cannot overstate the importance of overcoming this hurdle.

Perhaps use the upcoming “Time to Talk” day as an inlet to open up about mental wellness, but carry on the discussion. It does not do to pay lip service mental health issues when it feels appropriate whilst concealing our own troubles the rest of the time. It is just as important for founders to share their struggles as it is for employees to feel comfortable sharing their own.

Remember Mental Wellness affects everyone
University of California Professor Michael Freeman has led an in-depth study of the mental health of entrepreneurs, revealing that the reality of founders is often a lot more harrowing than we get the impression of. The study revealed some alarming results, such as that entrepreneurs are 50% more likely to report having a mental health condition. In fact, founders are:
•    2X more likely to suffer from depression
•    6X more likely to suffer from ADHD
•    3X more likely to suffer from substance abuse
•    10X more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder
•    2X more likely to have psychiatric hospitalisation
•    2X more likely to have suicidal thoughts

Freeman makes the astute observation that ‘Mental health is as essential for knowledge work in the 21st century as physical health was for physical labour in the past. Creativity, ingenuity, insight, brilliance, planning, analysis, and other executive functions are often the cognitive cornerstones of breakthrough value creation by entrepreneurs.’.

Founders need to start to value and treat their mental health as we are taught to treat our physical wellbeing and recognise that how their relationship to mental health not only affects the whole company but sets a benchmark for their employees.

In the UK, there is no legal difference between taking a mental health day or a physical health day off work, and yet employees are typically more comfortable taking a sick day than admitting they need some time to manage stress or depression.

In fact, the mental health charity Mind found that employees do not feel comfortable discussing mental health issues in the workplace, with more than one in five (21 per cent) agreeing that they had called in sick to avoid work when asked how workplace stress had affected them.

Perhaps even more alarming is a 2017 study by Business In The Community that found that only 13% of people feel able to disclose a mental health issue to their manager, and – shockingly – 15% of people who did were subject to disciplinary measures, demotion, or dismissal.

It is up to founders to ensure that their work environment isn’t hostile to the discussion of mental health. It is worth bearing in mind Zig Ziglar’s words of wisdom, that “You don’t build a business, you build people, then people build the business.”
Ensuring the mental wellness of the people who work for you should be an industry-standard regardless of the sector they work in.
Founders have a responsibility, not only to their company, but to themselves and their employees to think of mental health as they would physical, encourage a sustainable work/life balance, and leave behind the toxic start-up culture that has plagued us for years. Start by being open with yourself and others, and don’t let poor mental health be the reason that your start-up fails. Keep mental wellness a priority, and watch your own creativity, endurance, energy, and performance flourish.

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