The COVID-19 environment is a stressful one for everyone. It’s understandable that for entrepreneurs, trying to keep everything up and running in a difficult economic situation, while also running a remote team and perhaps even throwing your roadmap out the window, things can get a little overwhelming.
But, if you want to run your business in the best way possible, you have to take care of your own mental health and wellbeing first. And that’s coming from a founder who learnt the hard way.
Last month, Linktree co-founder and chief Alex Zaccaria appeared on a Startup Victoria webinar, part of the organisation’s Startup Success Series, to talk about founder mental health and wellbeing,
In the webinar, Zaccaria is frank about his own struggles. In the early days of Linktree he was working every waking hour, and got to the point where he resented weekends — and even sleeping — as they took him away from working on the business.
Then, in 2018, the founder collapsed with two slipped disks and a torn disk in his spine. While it manifested in a physical problem, the doctors and physios he saw repeatedly put the accident down to stress.
In the webinar, Zaccaria explained how a forced period of rest made him remember how it felt to not feel stressed. Now, he’s super aware of the warning signs.
During the forced lockdown period of COVID-19, Linktree is one of the lucky startups to be maintaining growth. The business has just passed the milestone of 5 million users.
But the enforced social distancing measures, and the move to working from home, will still likely put pressure on founders and their teams alike. So for Zaccaria, it’s important to talk about the toll it could be taking.
“It is incredibly important to be talking about it, now more than ever, and for founders to recognise that it’s pretty easy to slip into just working all day every day, because the days are kind of blurring into each other now,” he says.
While he knows sometimes startup life demands an all-nighter, especially during periods of growth, he also notes that, in usual circumstances, there’s a separation between work and home, and a commute marking the beginning and end of each day — no matter how long that day may be.
COVID-19 means that separation has gone. And Zaccaria knows how easy it can be to become consumed.
“I think if I hadn’t had the experience of what I went through, to jog my memory, I probably would have continued down that path and ended up in not such a great place,” he admits.
“It’s really important for founders and business people, and anyone for that matter, to really recognise the potential issues that we may face in the way we’re working at the moment.”
Maintain a routine
Zaccaria has changed his working habits over the past couple of years, and become very much in tune with the stress signals his body sends. So he’s devised mechanisms to help him manage the COVID-19 period.
First and foremost, he makes sure he’s moving. He’s set up a standing desk at home, he explains, and has an alert on his watch telling him to go for a short walk every 30 minutes.
It’s also all about having a routine, he says. In his case, that means lots of walking.
“Getting up and going for a walk at the time that I would normally walk to work, so that feels like the normal commute,” he explains.
“Then returning back home and going to my desk really helps me set up for the day in the way I normally would,” he adds.
“At 6.30pm I make sure that I leave my office that I’ve spent all day in.
“I leave the house, even if it’s raining … and go for a walk and see some greenery.”
Maintaining the routine of a ‘normal’ workday also means the transition back to the office, whenever that might be, won’t be quite as painful, Zaccaria notes.
“That’s something we encourage our team to do as well,” he says.
Good mental health is good business
Finally, Zaccaria urges entrepreneurs to look after themselves before they look after the business. While it can feel like stepping away will make the whole enterprise collapse, that’s unlikely to happen.
“Business is always going to be there,” he says.
“Taking an hour or two out in the evening and not replying to an email that you think is important, that’s not going to be as detrimental to your business as you think it is.”
Sure, it’s good for your personal health, but, ultimately, taking care of yourself is taking care of your business too. Taking a step back to recalibrate can actually work wonders, Zaccaria says.
“When you recognise your focus is waiving … take some rest and return to your work at a time when you can actually focus,” he advises.
“You can actually be far more productive.”
Ultimately, as a founder, if you’re not healthy, you’re likely not operating at your best. And you can’t maximise the potential of your venture.
“Looking after yourself, and looking after your health is absolutely number one, so that you can always be there for your business, and continue growing it,” Zaccaria says.
You can watch Alex Zaccaria speaking with Judy Anderson on the Startup Victoria Startup Success Series webinar on founder mental health here.
If you or someone you know need to talk to someone, contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Headspace on 1800 650 890.