Mental health & wellbeing, People & Human Resources, Startup Advice

How to take your mental health into your own hands and build a better business

Dominic Powell /

Julie Haslam

The Downtime Agenda founder Julie Haslam. Source: Supplied

For business owners and entrepreneurs, a thought for your mental wellbeing can often be left by the wayside, lost amongst the roller coaster highs and lows of building an exciting venture.

But common mental health issues like stress and anxiety can form during both these highs and lows, and for some people, these go unrecognised until it’s too late.

When was the last time you focused on yourself instead of your business? Taking time out of your schedule to reflect on your mental wellbeing can go a long way in forming a strong and resilient company.

SmartCompany spoke to entrepreneurs and business owners who have struggled with mental health issues and decided to take it upon themselves to not only help themselves, but help others too.

A wake-up call

Having forged a career in the fast-paced corporate world of advertising and marketing for years, Julie Haslam knows what it is like to have “worked herself into the ground”; a few years ago Haslam found herself taking three months off work due to a stress-related illness.

“In that time, I worked out how I was operating was not beneficial for me or the business. I got a lot of clarity in those three months about how important it is to devote both time to our business and to ourselves,” Haslam told SmartCompany.

Today Haslam runs The Downtime Agenda, an online store and blog focused on encouraging business owners to take time for themselves to benefit both the people they work with and their business. The website offers an array of wholesome products and experiences, including yoga classes, gardening kits, and incense, all designed to help individuals take time out.

Stuart Taylor, founder of business coaching firm Springfox, has a similar story to Haslam’s. Working in the corporate space for many years, Taylor operated on adrenaline, regularly pulling 14-hour days and spending time away from his family.

But that changed in 2001 when he was forced to step away from work when he was diagnosed with a grade-three brain tumour.

“I was working in global corporates that were culturally set up to drive people pretty hard. It was all about outcomes and deliverables, and less about nurturing and supporting people,” Taylor told SmartCompany.

“It was a case of play hard, play hard, play hard, then collapse.

“I took my diagnosis as an opportunity to step back and have a bigger look at how I was approaching life. It’s not until you encounter a big adversity can you achieve greater clarity.”

Taylor beat cancer and returned to work with a “totally changed” outlook on both his life and his work. He took this opportunity to start The Resilience Institute, known as Springfox in Australia, to pass his learnings onto other businesses.

Stuart Taylor Springfox

Springfox founder Stuart Taylor. Source: Supplied

Are entrepreneurs more susceptible to mental health issues?

Jay Spence, clinical psychologist and founder of business-focused mental wellbeing platform Uprise, believes mental health issues are so commonly seen in the startup and business space due to the typical personality traits of entrepreneurs. Despite this, he says these issues are “generally overlooked” by many young businesses.

“The personality of an entrepreneur is such that they will strive towards success, but this is also their Achilles heel. Entrepreneurs are often highly optimistic, but as stress kicks in, the line between optimism and delusion gets finer,” Spence told SmartCompany.

“Entrepreneurs also enjoy pushing themselves to meet goals and they often measure their self-esteem as an attainment of that goal, and they equate the success of their business with their personal success.”

Taylor agrees, saying a switch in focus away from perfectionism in the entrepreneurial space is needed. Many business owners feel like “failure is not an option”, he says.

“Perfectionism often fits the persona of a small business owner, but it is one of the natural enemies of resilience,” he says.

A study of 242 self-proclaimed American entrepreneurs in 2015 found that mental health concerns were present across 72% of the respondents. Compared to a sample of everyday Americans, the entrepreneurs were found to be 30% more likely to have depression and 27% reported anxiety concerns.

“The findings of this study are important because they suggest an underlying relationship between entrepreneurship and many of the affective, cognitive, and behavioral differences associated with mental health conditions,” the paper said.

Although Spence has been endeavouring to educate businesses on both their personal mental health and the mental health of their workers, he notes an increase in “mental literacy” is sorely needed for many in the SME and startup space.

“Most entrepreneurs wouldn’t even realise they’re depressed or anxious because they internalise it so much. If you’re waking up at three in the morning and worrying about your company that’s not normal; it’s a mental health issue,” Spence says.

Three ways to take your mental wellbeing into your own hands

Having shed her corporate skin, Haslam runs the Downtime Agenda solo, which has brought with it a new set of factors that could affect her mental wellbeing.

“Business owners have to always be on, and I find if you’re not careful, your business can take over your life and consume you,” she says.

“What I personally struggle with these days is loneliness, as I’m running the business on my own and I have no one to share the wins and losses with.”

Haslam says she’s also struggled with a lack of mentorship for her business, having coming from the corporate space where superiors were readily available for feedback or motivation.

1. Block out time for just you

In solving these problems, Haslam took to it in a true business owner fashion, choosing to block out time in her day “just like you would for a meeting” to focus on her wellbeing. She recommends fellow entrepreneurs take time to do “whatever works for you”.

“I like to meditate, but you could go for a walk or anything like that. Whatever works for you as an individual,” she says.

“Whatever you do, put yourself first. It’s like putting your oxygen mask on first on a plane, you have to help yourself before anyone around you can benefit.”

Haslam also makes time to check-in with herself on a quarterly basis — much like a quarterly performance review except it is on “how I’m going as a person”.

Taylor echoes these sentiments, recommending entrepreneurs build a “solid and integral daily practice” into their business that is focused on making both themselves and their venture thrive.

2. Get educated

Taylor also recommends business owners educate themselves on the telltale signs of mental health issues such as stress and anxiety. Mood changes, an inability to sleep, or difficulty focusing should be red flags for entrepreneurs under the pump.

For Taylor, it’s about entrepreneurs changing the way they think about their ventures, claiming stress is “the image you create in your brain of the future”.

“That’s where the stress response comes from, and it all unfolds from there. What I learned from my own journey and creating this business is how to get better at disputing that future forecast and staying in the present and getting on with the job,” he says.

Mental health organisation beyondblue offers a number of documents on its website that further outlining the common signs and symptoms of mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. Spence recommends entrepreneurs familiarise themselves with these symptoms, and says support website mindspot.org.au is an important resource for any business owners feeling they may be starting to see the early warning signs of mental health issues.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Finally, Spence says one of the most important things entrepreneurs can do is seek help and guidance from family, friends, or colleagues, as they will find more often than not, others have had similar experiences.

“This is often the hardest step, as people will wait months or even years whilst making up all these scenarios about being rejected or ignored. If you reach out a colleague or to someone close to you, chances are they will have experienced the same thing,” he says.

“It’s time we changed the way we talk about mental health from something that happens to someone else to something that happens to all of us. It’s time for people to be ready and vulnerable enough to admit their own struggles rather than covering them up and admitting they’re fine.

“Just because there’s a high today doesn’t mean there won’t be a low tomorrow, and someone going through that low needs the right empathy and support.”

If you or someone you know is living with mental health issues, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636. 

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Dominic Powell

Dominic Powell is a journalist at SmartCompany and a tech and music geek. When he’s not writing, you can find him reading or browsing record shops.

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