Written by Guy Tolhurst, an SME champion, entrepreneur, and the founder of the Mindful Investor initiative.
One in four adults in the UK will experience a mental health challenge every single year, according to leading mental health charity Mind. And, after experiencing my own mental health challenges as a direct result of my high-pressured career, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the entrepreneurial community is even more susceptible to stress, anxiety and other mental health conditions.
As part of a research project I ran last year called 100 Stories of Growth, my team spoke to over 100 small business founders about their own experiences in launching and running a business. Sadly, more than a quarter admitted their mental or emotional wellbeing had been negatively impacted as a result. Even more worryingly, many had simply suffered in silence for fear of being judged by their teams or their investors.
So why are mental health issues so prevalent in a career path that’s hailed for its flexibility, creative scope and freedom?
A lonely road
Unless you have walked in a founder’s shoes, it’s easy to underestimate how lonely the road to success can be.
Whether you’re a one-person-band or have a team of 100 – ultimately, you are the key decision maker and are required to make choices every single day that will drive the success or failure of your company. Even for the most astute entrepreneur, the pressure to make the right call is at best challenging, and at worst paralysing.
Similarly, if you are lucky enough to have made hires and built a team around you, you suddenly find yourself responsible for other people who are relying on you for clear direction, guidance and professional development. Leading from the front is crucial, but it can also be exhausting – especially when you have to maintain a constant facade of composure and authority.
As an entrepreneur, your business is quite literally your life’s work and many founders make huge sacrifices to get their ideas off the ground. Whether it’s using your savings to invest in your dream, working part-time to pay the bills, or skipping your children’s sports days and missing anniversary dinners – it is an all-consuming world that demands constant attention.
From speaking with other entrepreneurs, I learned that one of the most common traits we share is an innate inability to switch off. The urge to reply to just one more email or make one more phone call is like an itch that needs to be scratched. And what’s worse is that even if you do manage to tear yourself away from the computer screen and get an early night, the worry and anxiety that you haven’t done enough is so overwhelming that your ‘down time’ is marred with dread.
The pressure to succeed
Success is the reason any entrepreneur starts out on their journey. Ultimately, the end goal is to grow something that will one day afford you a comfortable lifestyle, provide for your family, build up a nice rainy day fund or a future nest egg.
Of course, other factors come into play – like following your passion in life, starting something with a worthy purpose, or being in control of your own destiny. But ask any entrepreneur, and I can guarantee they’ll tell you success is ultimately what it boils down to.
But success can come at a cost. I have seen first-hand many entrepreneurs crumble under the pressure of meeting deadlines, making a profit and returning on investment.
In fact, investment is one of the key driving forces behind many founders’ anxieties. While in previous years accessing external capital was a real challenge, nowadays it is easier than it has ever been before – with a huge array of funding options for those looking to scale their business.
This is undoubtedly a good thing, but it does mean the runway to investment is a lot shorter than it used to be. Many founders are finding themselves responsible for huge sums of other people’s money without having built up the resilience, experience and support network they need to succeed.
Investor pressure to grow too quickly can undermine a founder’s confidence, leading to a breakdown or worse. That’s why it’s time for investors to take better care of their entrepreneurs, ensuring that they don’t treat businesses like slot machines.