How Entrepreneurs Can Take Care of Their Mental Health

Stress is inevitable in the startup world. There is stress to compete, produce, and perform. There is less “down” time and fewer opportunities for non-work activity. It is fast-paced, unforgiving, uncertain, competitive, and demanding, to name a few of the pressures. Entrepreneurs are not only expected to innovate, but also to manage, perform, and scale in this environment. It’s no wonder mental health is an issue for the start up community.

Fortunately, investors and founders are now realizing that emotional intelligence (EQ) is key to personal resilience and peak performance for sustainability and scale. It is also a fact that many founders are missing some fundamental stress management, communication, and interpersonal skills, which make up a big part of EQ. In a very recent study by Shawn Andrews (2018), both CEOs and millennials had the lowest EQ scores in the workplace, and the top performers in any position were those with the highest EQ.

EQ competencies are essential building blocks for top performance in life, work, and relationships. However, whether stress becomes disabling or builds resilience depends upon how you handle it, and there is good news.

The tools for building emotional intelligence can be learned! Just as creating a company required different skill sets (e.g. backend development, marketing, and HR), so does building your personal resilience and mental health.

Building personal resilience

Even though industry leaders consider physical health and fitness to be important to high performance and success, it is ironic that many founders neglect their own self care. In the race to start and scale up, normal patterns of eating, sleeping, and exercise are often interrupted. While the mind-body connection is acknowledged, few companies specifically address the social and emotional elements of well-being. This mindset and resulting pattern of behavior — to work harder, longer, and faster – come at a high cost and are not part of the solution.

Start with self care.

Good nutrition and regular routines for eating, sleeping, and physical exercise are things that you can re-establish right away. Locate where you carry stress in your body. You may target those spots and notice what you say to yourself. “Frustrating” may be reframed as “energizing” for example. “Disappointing” may become “challenging“ and feeling “powerless” can be translated as providing “choices.” Self talk guides feelings thoughts and behaviour. You are in charge of what you say to yourself, as well as to others!

You cannot work harder, so work smarter.

At work, intentionally schedule breaks and routinely plan interruptions for exercise, networking, reflection, and digital “unplugging.” By doing this, you are assuming more control over your very demanding environment. Pace to sustain, not sprint. These skills need practice to become habits.

You cannot create work life balance, so aim to create work-life flow.

Establish oases, relationships, and networks to mitigate the effects of high and persistent stress. For example, reach out and become involved in industry organizations such as BNI, YPO, YEC, Tech, or Vistage to provide opportunities for networking and support. Set and review boundaries which reflect your family, social, and community values and priorities.

You cannot reduce stress, but you can build a menu of strategies that mitigate it. Explore a range of popular activities and select some that are relaxing for you. They may include some of the following:

  • Meditation, yoga, exercise
  • Apps such as Calm and Headspace
  • Progressive relaxation techniques and mindfulness.
  • There is no one size fits all in the activity “re-set” department. Part of your personal resiliency toolkit is to find your own best fit.

Build your emotional intelligence

By intentionally and deliberately building your EQ repertoire, you position yourself to become the best that you can be. EQ skills include: people skills; communication; self confidence; understanding and knowing how to manage yourself and others; and using social and emotional information in the best way to make optimal choices; tolerate stress, weigh risks, and impulses; and have a positive attitude.

As innovators and disruptors, you are creative and industrious. You are quick to learn and possess laser-like focus. When you come to the table with an understanding of where you are, you are more able to have empathy for others, negotiate, and connect with colleagues, investors and customers. You are also more prepared to have difficult conversations.

Create the opportunity to strengthen your EQ and as a leader even with limited resources, bring emotional intelligence into the workplace. Read, take a seminar or introduce a coach, or psychologist to help build your personal resilience and reach your work, social, and relationship potential. A specialist can demonstrate and design communication modules, conflict resolution scenarios, and specific training for you, for your C-suite and managers. As organizations grow, they become even more dependent upon relationships, talent, and the ability to see the larger human context.

Look, listen, and respond. Recognize signs of difficulty coping with stress in yourself and in others. Take your head out of the proverbial sand – or keyboard — and recognize malaise or general fatigue, difficulty concentrating and distractibility, uncertainty in decision making, lowered productivity, withdrawal, lethargy, anxiety, making promises you cannot keep, to name a few.

Talk to someone who can help and seek an appropriate resource. Respond to someone who talks to you. Ramp up HR training to support mental health initiatives and identify risk. Consider the trend toward hiring in-house or “resident” coaches who have drop-in times at the office. Offer information and training to support skill transfer and mental health promotion.

Talk about what you are doing. Your ROI is worth it!

Lets Talk About Mental Health in the Tech Sector

Not only is Bell Canada’s stellar initiative, “Let’s Talk About Mental Health” a prompt to seek
help for mental health crises, it is a reminder to care for our mental health much as we do our
physical health all year round.

Today I want to address an underreported concern in the fast-growing Canadian Technology
Start Up sector – that is building our awareness of the unique stresses that our workplace
imposes upon our lives and what you need to do about it. Why is this important? You may not
realize that 41% of Canadians are at high risk for a mental health issue in their lifetime, 36% are
so stressed that it affects their daily lives and millenials are two times more likely to take stress
leave than any other age group.

First, this is not a question of reducing stress. It is an action to accept and acknowledge it and
become more resilient and prepared to face this sector’s unending stress.

Second, this is not a question of work-life balance, but work-life flow and taking deliberate action
to create and maintain important relationships at home, at work and in your wider network.

Third, this is not a question of working harder. It is taking intentional action to work differently,
with frequent breaks, unplugging and perhaps most importantly, making reflective, thinking,
creative time for yourself away from your usual work environment, every day.

Fourth, this is not a question of using the latest, greatest de-stressor techniques and apps that
everyone talks about. This is not one size fits all. It is about actively seeking and putting into
regular practice the specific techniques and strategies that work for you, be they mindfulness,
yoga, “calm”, “headspace” physical exercise, and/or your unique combination of activities and
implementing them regularly.

Fifth, if you are experiencing increased feelings of uncertainty in decision making, reduced
performance efficiency, malaise or general fatigue, overwhelming anxiety, anger, or impatience,
take action, and ask a professional for help. A psychologist, coach, social worker or spiritual
leader may point you in the direction of accessing timely and very appropriate resources.

Strength comes from self-awareness and being aware of your interpersonal and work
environment. That awareness may prompt you to take care of your mental health. Recently,
VC’s and Founders are realizing that key elements of emotional intelligence are crucial to
building capacity for peak performance, sustainability, and scaling up. Similarly, these elements
include real awareness of self and others, communication style, risk taking and impulse control,
decision making and stress inoculation to name just a few.

So, when we are prompted to Talk About Mental Health, remember, it is about us taking care of
our mental health in our fast moving, highly focused, creative technology environment.