Entrepreneurs’ mental health and stress management started to be more widely discussed amid the pandemic, but for many seasoned entrepreneurs, the topic is still taboo. Now that the world seems to be inching toward a new normal, some founders, investors and mental health experts find themselves asking whether we need to consider mental health moving forward if it wasn’t an issue before the pandemic.
We do. For one, it absolutely was an issue before the pandemic. Furthermore, what drives the mental health epidemic among entrepreneurs is their propensity to accept risk.
“Entrepreneurs bring in a lot of vulnerability into their jobs, and when combined with the risks they are required to take, the vulnerability can be exacerbated when those risks don’t work out,” said Michael Freeman, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine and founder of Econa. “And in most cases, it doesn’t work out, and so they are more vulnerable to feeling mental health symptoms and entering a downward spiral. The reverse is also true. When entrepreneurs are knocking it out of the park, they are vulnerable to a different set of mental health challenges.”
What drives the mental health epidemic among entrepreneurs is their propensity to accept risk.
So how do we address these issues and train entrepreneurs to sharpen and maintain their mental acuity, particularly when things get tough while fundraising?
It’s simple: prevention and awareness. In terms of prevention, Freeman said it comes down to destigmatizing entrepreneur mental health differences, celebrating entrepreneur mental health superpowers and adopting a downside-prevention lifestyle.
“With mental health, as is true with many things medical, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Freeman said. “For entrepreneurs who want to prevent mental health issues, they need to start by taking a lifestyle risk factor assessment.”
According to Freeman, there are five ways entrepreneurs can support their mental health. (If you or someone you know is feeling hopeless and depressed, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255.)
- Sleep. The most significant role of sleep is to help your brain power up and stay awake during the day. Allowing your mind and your body to recover can have a profound preventative effect. You can’t pitch if you can’t keep your eyes open.
- Exercise, and make sure you sweat. Entrepreneurs should get at least 45 minutes of exercise a day, including an intensity that makes you sweat twice a week. It not only has health benefits: It enhances executive functioning, meaning it improves your ability to focus and get things done. It also helps you regulate your emotions when you’re listening to a VC completely shred your idea so you don’t become despondent after a call. When you’re fundraising, your ability to think clearly can be the difference between getting a yes and a no.
- Get and keep friends that have nothing to do with business. Entrepreneurship is a lonely profession at times. Aside from work, you want to have a small but engaged circle of friends and loved ones, and be careful not to let your relationships devolve into the blur of work. Keep those relationships and allow them to support you when work gets rough.
- Eat well, and eat strategically. Many entrepreneurs live at or below the poverty line at some point in their journey, and when you’re under pressure with limited resources, eating junk and fast food is the wrong tradeoff to make because they aren’t good for cognitive functioning, among many other health consequences.
- Address mental health concerns in weeks, not months. When entrepreneurs don’t manage concerns quickly, they can turn into adverse outcomes. “If mental health symptoms are prolonged … it can lead to more severe mental health consequences,” Freeman said. “The adverse personal outcomes include anything from experiencing more serious mental health issues to disrupting social relationships and performance falloffs at work. The adverse business outcomes that may result include bankruptcy, losing employees, alienating strategic alliance partners and scaring away potential investors.”
Awareness begins by gaining an understanding of the factors that could exacerbate your stress levels and impact your ability to complete a successful raise, and then planning accordingly. Things that could raise your stress levels include everything from your pre-raise financial status and health history to gender, race, industry attitudes, institutional barriers and even citizenship.
“Entrepreneurs of color, immigrants and women are far more conscious of the glass ceiling,” Freeman said. “It can be a factor in your mental health while you’re raising. … People from groups that have been otherized in one way or another have different obstacles that are difficult to overcome overall, as well as from a mental health perspective.”
Kerry Schrader, the co-founder of SaaS platform Mixtroz, knows all too well how these things can impact you while fundraising. Although she and her daughter Ashlee Ammons did eventually raise more than a million dollars, the pressure of potentially being the next Black women to do so was overwhelming.
“We stopped holding onto the pressure of being the 37th and 38th Black women to raise over $1 million,” she said. “We got caught up thinking, if we’re not successful, then we will be the reason other Black women are not funded. Honestly, we decided to remove that additional layer of stress from our thinking and just focused on running a profitable business that people could get behind and hoping for the same grace the majority of our white male counterparts get upon failure: Another chance and more funding, which we knew was and still is not the norm.”
According to Schrader, there was little information available about how to manage their mental health while fundraising, leading her and her daughter to try a variety of methods before finding something that made sense.
Based on her experience, here are five more ways entrepreneurs can manage their mental health while fundraising.
- Find a counselor or therapist to help navigate your increased stress level. There’s a slow shift that has helped entrepreneurs reframe therapy from something that you do as a reaction to being overwhelmed to a preventative method that helps you thrive. “I leveraged BetterHelp to talk with someone while I raised,” Schrader said. “By communicating to a third party, I could say anything. Venting privately allowed me to reframe my conversations with investors more effectively. By having a qualified professional to speak to, I was able to shift my mindset from, ‘You’re doing me a big favor’ to ‘I have an exciting opportunity and I’m allowing you to invest early.’ Counseling helped a lot.”
- Give yourself an out. Goal-setting is a great way to keep things on track, but it can create an illusion that you’re not going to be successful if you’re not constantly moving toward a finite endpoint. “Initially, we started putting criteria for what actions we would take if we did not hit certain milestones,” Schrader said. “Instead of feeling like we could put ourselves in a position of failure, we had rules for when it would be time to end the business and go back to our careers. Having an agreed-upon ‘out’ with my co-founder … was great for my mental health. And here we are, years later, still in the game and mostly sane.”
- Leverage your team. You can’t go it alone. Be willing to rely on your team to move your startup forward and preserve your health. “Shortly after we closed our friends and family round, I was diagnosed with breast cancer,” Schrader said. “I was going to radiation, surgery and treatments while I was raising. I was pitching from the hospital bed. But when you’re fundraising, it never stops. That’s when my daughter decided it was time to commit full time. As a family, we realized we needed to lean on each other if we were going to be successful long term.”
- Remain flexible with your plans. When you’re just starting, you focus too much on set plans. But when you dig into the backstories of prominent entrepreneurs, you’ll find that they pivoted as needed and learned on the go. “There were times during our raise when we had to be able to cope with weekly, daily and even hourly changes to our plan,” Schrader said. “I describe it as buying a plane, learning to fly the plane and then looking for a hangar to refuel all at the same time. You can try to organize all you want, but I don’t know how much planning you can do.”
- Be intentional about the type of stress you’re willing to deal with for money. When you’re fundraising, the obvious goal is to secure a check. But some entrepreneurs agree to untenable terms in order to receive capital. It’s important to know your limits before you walk into the room. “When someone thinks they have the upper hand they will try to see how much stuff they can push you for. Don’t forget your why. … When you know what you can take without losing yourself, stand your ground,” Schrader said. “And remember, even as an entrepreneur, declining is always an option, specifically if the decision to decline protects your sanity.”
If you or someone you know is feeling hopeless and depressed, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255.