Are you looking after your mental health?

Small businesses and startups face unique factors that often make them vulnerable to struggle with  mental health and wellbeing.

It is not always a pleasant journey with fatigue, a weight of responsibility and financial pressure often par for the course. There is often no sick leave, and a high risk of failure hanging over you like a dark cloud.

A 2015 study between Stanford University, Berkeley University and the University of San Francisco, led by Psychologist Dr Michael A Freeman found 72% of entrepreneurs reported a number of mental health concerns. They were:

  • 30% more likely to have depression than other traditional careers
  • 29% more likely to have ADHD compared to other professions
  • 12% more likely to develop substance abuse/dependency
  • 11% more likely to develop bipolar disorder

These are sobering statistics, illustrating how critical it is for startups and SMEs to take the time to assess their mental health and wellbeing and be proactive in preserving it.

“Sometimes we put startups on this pedestal of flexibility and fun,” said Kate Cornell, CEO of LaunchVic at a recent SmartCompany event with RMIT Activator. “It’s hard,” she concedes.

In the first year of creating a startup you need to be very resilient and learn resilience,” says Cornell. “We see too many startups struggle with this.”

Dr Sarah Cotton, founder of Transitioning Well, says resilience is something business owners can learn.

“It’s a skill you can develop,” she says. “It’s a muscle that need to be developed within companies, and that is something that takes time.”

Long hours make switching off hard

Startups by their nature require a lot of focus and long hours – sometimes in isolation. Sleep, good eating and exercise often go out of the window. Inadequate sleep alone cost the Australian economy $66.3 billion in 2016-17, according to a report by the Sleep Health Foundation, which also found most adults need between seven and eight hours of sleep each day.  

Sometimes you can forget to take care of family or friends as work takes over with a less structured work system.  With little quality time and focus on these people – your support system – it can hurt your relationships.  All of this makes you vulnerable to burnout.

So what can you do?

First of all, it’s important to acknowledge that mental health challenges at times of great stress are normal, especially when you run your own business.  When under pressure, many of us experience sleep disruption, changes in appetite, changes in the way we communicate with others, difficulty switching off from work, and feeling emotionally out of sorts, drained or emotional. Tune in to those changes as they are your stress signs.

Nine small ways you can look after your mental health

  • Set an alarm to remind you to take breaks at work to give your eyes, body and brain lots of little mini breaks throughout the day to help you be as productive and creative as possible.
  • Delegate and outsource tasks wherever possible.
  • Take time off after a busy period to rest and manage your energy levels.
  • Create a circle of support – family, friends, peers, mentors and medical professionals if needed.
  • Set a time each day when work and tech ends.
  • Have a plan for if you are unable to work – who will do what and when. Where possible, ensure you have people trained and ready for this.
  • Have a return to work process for mental illness, and put measures in place returning to work in phases.
  • Plan for the stressful times of your business year. Identify your busier times at work, be proactive and create a list of actions or activities to do when you are feeling anxious or overwhelmed.
  • Look at failure as an opportunity to learn. Failure is inevitable in life – especially when you are a startup and doing things for the first time.  We need failure to help us learn how to succeed.

By Sharon Leadbetter, WayAhead Workplaces Co-ordinator, WayAhead – Mental Health Association NSW.

WayAhead Workplaces

WayAhead Workplaces is a network for any organisation that is interested in promoting employee health and wellbeing within their workplace. We are an organisational resource and support for those working in employee health and wellbeing – we help them to do their job. Members of our networks in Sydney and Brisbane are spread across education, health, law, government, emergency services, financial and community services sectors, but we welcome organisations of any size and type to the network – we do have small business members too. Our members work in human resources, OH&S, injury management, return to work and employee health and wellbeing and include psychologists and nurses. If you visit our website, feel free to also sign up to our free bi-monthly eNews. If you would like any further information about WayAhead Workplaces, please email

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