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12.04.2021

Breaking the silence – mental health of startup founders

The societal stigma surrounding mental health is preventing people from seeking support; startup founders are particularly at high risk of suffering mental challenges. When we fail to take action early, the result can be devastating for the individual, the company and all stakeholders.

Featuring: Matus Maar of Talis Capital, Niklas Zilliacus of Oyama, Elina Arponen of Quicksave, Tomi Kaukinen of Licence to Fail, Dr. Gleb Tsipursky of Disaster Avoidance Experts

 

Chris Madden, Getty Images

 

My car is parked at the side of this long stretch of highway. I’m like a zombie in my navy blue suit and tie. A well-dressed corporate zombie. Snow is crushing beneath my feet, briefcase hanging off my arm. There’s a clearing in the forest. I lay down on my back, and gently place my briefcase on my chest. I close my eyes. And then… wolves! The wolves, they start tearing my body apart limb by limb! It’s over… I’m finally at peace.

Until I wake up, soaked in sweat. I feel like there’s a steel band clamped around my chest. I can hardly breathe. My heart, it’s pounding like I’m having a heart attack. Then my wife rolls over and says, “are you okay hun?” To which I say, “yea, I’m okay.” 

Have you ever had one of those nightmares, the kind that comes from being stressed out about work or life? The kind that you want to tell somebody about but you don’t. You see, business leaders, entrepreneurs and CEOs, sometimes we feel that way. But many of us, we don’t talk about the stresses, the anxiety flare-ups, the depression. No, we stay silent – living the stigma of mental health and carrying on like we’re okay, even when we’re not okay. 

You see, the difference between living the stigma of mental health and lifting that stigma – is silence.

– Tom Dutta, award-winning CEO |  TEDx

 

Although the past year has, on aggregate, proven the European startup ecosystem to be extremely resilient, it has posed extraordinary hardship to many companies and founders. Regardless of the fate of the startup, the pandemia circumstances have taken a toll on everyone involved. Naturally the captains of the ship have shouldered the greatest burden. According to Atomico’s State of European Tech report, founders listed “Maintaining mental wellbeing” as their biggest challenge over the last 12 months. Perhaps we are presented during this time of great pivots with the perfect opportunity to address the aching elephant in the soul room.

The reality is that many of us experience challenges with mental health at one point or another. According to the World Health Organization, one in four people will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives (1). In Finland, 51.5% of disability pensions are for mental health reasons costing the system about €11 billion each year. Yet roughly half of the people with mental challenges don’t get the help they need (2). Mental health is an epidemic which has been on a steady incline in the past decades and its prevalence has only accelerated during the covid pandemic – to what extent is yet to be seen. Whether the root cause is at the workplace or not, it is nearly impossible in today’s day and age to separate work and life entirely – for startup founders it’s impossible. For founders, mental and emotional stability is absolutely vital.

“Mental health is as essential for knowledge work in the 21st century as physical health was for physical labor in the past. Creativity, ingenuity, insight, brilliance, planning, analysis, and other executive functions are often the cognitive cornerstones of breakthrough value creation by entrepreneurs” – Michael Freeman, M.D.

 

Mental challenges bear down particularly on first-time founders

Founding and scaling a company is a high risk undertaking, which entails significant levels of pressure and stress. According to a study by Michael Freeman, entrepreneurs are 50 percent more likely than the general population to report having a mental health condition. Whether or not founders are predisposed to suffer from mental disorders is certainly up for debate; the same study showed entrepreneurs to be twice as likely to suffer from depression and six times more likely to be coping with ADHD for example (3). Depression, anxiety and mood disorders all undermine founder performance. They often contribute to burnout, co-founder conflict, toxic company culture, increased employee turnover, an inability to hire top talent, an inability to perform in important meetings and pitches, and poor decision making in general. Stigma leads to not addressing the early signs and thus doing more damage to themselves and their company, affecting all stakeholders. 

The pressures of growing a company weigh particularly heavily on first-time founders. Those who lack previous experience often don’t have proper mechanisms in place to deal with early signs of burnout for example. “We’ve all heard the rollercoaster comparison. You experience these quick ups and downs, and that can be happening in different parts of your company at the same time,” Elina Arponen, founder of Quicksave shares insights on the nature of the beast. Even the most seasoned entrepreneurs can suffer from mental challenges when scaling, especially when faced with the uncertainties of a situation like covid.

Mental health is stigmatised, thus we are lacking a proper discussion concerning mental health. “The topic is channeled into conversations about work-life balance or burnout, rather than treatable disorders. In the startup ecosystem we rarely use the proper medical terminology. This is a big problem because founders who may be suffering are less likely to seek professional help,” observes Dr. Gleb Tsipursky, founder of Disaster Avoidance Experts and best-selling author. Burnout is a fuzzy word and often hides treatable mental challenges such as fatigue, apathy and feelings of threat or failure. When addressed at the onset these burnout symptoms can be relieved, most often through holistic means. When not… well, the ship may sink. And a sinking ship means missed value creation for the economy, a greater burden on the healthcare system and potentially irreversible damage to a human being.

 

My own experience with startups is limited however, I draw comparisons to my professional sports career when digging into this topic. In these hyper-competitive environments, nothing but a cold, hard drive is associated with winners. So, who will you place your bets on? The only acceptable emotions are cheering for victory or crying for defeat, and either way the next action has to be smarter, better and faster. The only thing that mattered was my performance. The highs were worth all the blood, sweat and tears – that’s why we play the game. I am beginning to realize only now, about two years later, just how much I neglected my mental, emotional and even my physical wellbeing. Now, channeling my energies to the business world, I feel more balanced and capable than ever. Thanks in large part to three major changes: 1. The love and support of my partner. 2. Sharpening up my habits and routines. 3. Expressing my emotions. Founders, I cannot stress enough the importance of harmony in your mind, body, heart and soul – and harmony is completely subjective. 

 

The emotional investment of founders is crucial yet compromised when facing mental challenges

It’s common knowledge that founders invest inhumane amounts of time into building a product and company. However, the emotional investment is left largely unrecognised. Oftentimes there is a blurred line between work and life. Arponen points out that “the emotional investment can be really big, the company can even become like your identity. If the company is suffering, it’s like your core is suffering.” Founders love what they do; they put passion into their product and most often enjoy the liberty of working for themselves; this all accelerates the emotional bond to the work. 

Emotional investment is key for fundraising efforts. “The passion and commitment from founders is one of the key drivers for getting investment. It’s the founder’s job to be the visionary and anticipate what the company will look like in the next 1, 5 and 10 years. Losing the emotional investment could mean losing sight of the long-term vision,” emphasises Matus Maar, co-founder and Managing Partner of Talis Capital. When a person is struggling mentally, they fall into a survival mode, otherwise known as fight or flight. In this stressed state your brain is only focused on survival, hindering your judgement, decision making and ability to plan long term.

When we ignore the early signs and decide to push through the pain is when the real trouble starts. “Behavioural neuroscience tells us that emotions dictate 80% of what we do and decisions we make,” according to Dr. Tsipursky. When a founder or executive is not emotionally fit it leads to underperformance. In fact, the emotional and mental capacity of its leaders may be the most important resource for startups. 

Founders are expected to be the rock of the company, keeping everything together. “There is such a phenomenon as the ‘founder wall’, between the founder and employees. The founder takes all the stress on their shoulders to protect the company,” maintains Niklas Zilliacus, founder of the mental health platform Oyama. This mounting pressure puts founders and their company at risk. Critical tasks, such as fundraising, motivating the team and stepping up for important meetings become nearly impossible without enthusiasm and energy.

 

Thinkstock

 

Alienation and fear present barriers for founders to seek support

Negative stereotypes surrounding entrepreneurship add to the stigma about mental health. Society has a tendency to glorify overwork and promote the entrepreneurial lifestyle in toxic ways. Money doesn’t sleep and I’ll sleep when I’m dead, right? Or the classic, men don’t cry;  which is all too relevant considering female leaders are also expected to conform to masculine norms. “In founder circles it’s all about how much sisu or grit you have in facing challenges. So if you’re struggling with those it can be a struggle to talk to someone,” comments Arponen. According to Tomi Kaukinen, founder of License to Fail, “The stigma is weakness.” And our society, especially the business world, does not reward weakness.

There are barriers beyond stigma for founders to reach out for or seek support. The founder wall coupled with the all-encompassing nature of building a business, can result in alienation from typical support groups, namely friends and family. “Who are you going to talk to? As CEO, you are in many ways the loneliest person on the planet,” adds Kaukinen. This is a sentiment shared by many leaders and validates the old saying that ‘It’s lonely at the top’.

The biggest stakeholders in a company apart from its founders are the investors and board members. Given that the performance of the company is in their best interest it seems reasonable that they could provide needed support. An investor’s previous experiences building companies makes a founder’s challenges all the more relatable. So, why don’t founders seek support from their boardroom peers? In Maar’s view “there can be an issue of trust: a founder may, for instance, be wary of divulging mental health concerns to investors, as what they want to say is that everything is going well. The fear is that any admission of a problem will undermine the investor’s confidence in the business and its leader.”  According to Maar this is a groundless fear, “We’ve already invested in the company, we’re not going to uninvest!” The London-based VC firm is currently working on a mental health support programme for founders in their portfolio, and is also currently collecting insights from founders across Europe on the topic of founder mental health for a report they’re producing later this year (survey link below for anyone interested).

For board members this topic can be a bit tricky, which validates the fears of founders to divulge mental challenges, “When it comes to the fiduciary and legal duties you have to a company as a board member can extend well beyond the welfare of a founder, which can result in some pretty serious conflicts of interest: on the one hand, you want the best outcome for the founder that you invested in all those years ago, but ultimately this sometimes has to be overlooked by your obligation to the company,” adds Maar, who is increasingly looking to sit on less company boards for that reason.

Reasons why investors should consider offering mental health support:

  • Lift the stigma
  • Value-add for prospective companies
  • Managing existing portfolio
  • Social impact
  • ESG strategy, mental health and development is included in UN SDGs (4)

 

Challenging the stigma will benefit the entire ecosystem

The founders, the entrepreneurs, are the focal point of the startup ecosystem and play an important part in the global economy. They spark the creation of the vast majority of new jobs, pulling economies out of recession, introducing useful products and services and shaping our future. Therefore it is appropriate to understand their strengths and vulnerabilities, as well as provide them with ample support. Considering that the vast majority of successful exits are done on the 2nd, 3rd, 4th or even 5th try, it should be imperative for the ecosystem to maximize the probability of new starts by founders. Founders who burnout or fall into depression have a greater barrier for entry the next time. 

By lifting the stigma surrounding mental health and providing proper support, we could expect the following benefits:

  • Healthier founders and startup community
  • Less burnout and depression cases
  • Better performing founders and startups
  • Better working culture in startups
  • More top talent to startups
  • Decreased employee turnover
  • Increased new starts by founders
  • Increased value creation
  • Increased ROI for investors

No one is immune to mental health challenges and the stigma surrounding mental health is prevalent in workplaces of all industries. That being said, the startup ecosystem is best positioned to offer the most progressive and socially responsible workplaces, something the younger generations take greatly into consideration when job searching (5). 

 

Leading by example

The covid-19 pandemic has worsened many of the mental challenges faced by founders: business challenges, isolation from colleagues and an increasingly blurred line between work and life, to name a few. We may be presented with the perfect opportunity to shake the status quo and bring this issue upfront and center. It all starts with open discussion and sharing experiences. 

The Startup Foundation is committed to lifting the stigma and supporting our founders. We will be organizing a panel discussion regarding mental health for founders in the coming weeks. Stay tuned to social channels for more info.

The business leaders, founders, CEOs and investors have an important role to play in lifting the stigma around mental health. “When leaders fail to make their own mental health a priority, they undermine the importance of the mental health of the people they are leading” – Tom Dutta.

The topic of mental health extends beyond founders and it would be ingenuine not to look at the bigger picture. Our society evolves much slower than technology, and thus we have less awareness of mental health challenges than physical challenges, although our cognitive, social and emotional abilities are increasingly in higher demand. It’s easier to be empathetic towards someone with a broken leg than someone suffering depression – we should be empathetic towards both. While one may be sitting in a wheelchair, the other suffers silently. 

 

 

Written by Verneri Välimaa

LinkedIn , Twitter: @VerneriValimaa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Resources

European Founder Mental Health Report by Talis Capital and InsideOut 

Tips for founders by Elina Arponen

 

Sources:

  1. WHO Report
  2. MIELI – suomalaisten mielenterveys
  3. Are Entrepreneurs Touched with Fire
  4. UN SDG – Mental Health and Development
  5. Gen Z and mental health in workplace