How these 30 Australian business founders look after their own mental health
Australian business owners are living through one of the most challenging times they will ever face right now, and while many are rightly focused on business survival, their own health is just as important.
That’s why, on R U OK? Day, we’ve asked a group of Australian business owners and entrepreneurs to share the practical things they do each and every day to look after their mental health and wellbeing.
While what works for someone else won’t necessarily work for you, seeing how other business owners look after their own health may give you some ideas for healthy habits to incorporate into your own routines.
Here’s what they had to say.
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Janey Martino, chair and co-founder of Smiling Mind and portfolio advisor at 15xventures
The best thing I believe we can do for our mental health is focus on what makes us feel good and brings us joy. This means that, although I have a fairly regular morning regime, I don’t stick to it if I am not ‘feeling it’. Nothing feels good when it is forced. Giving myself the ability to be flexible and not too rigid about doing things the same every day flows into the rest of my life — meaning I cope better with things that don’t go to plan and trusting my intuition.
One of my must dos is meditation. Even if its not a part of my 5am wake up regime, I make sure a minimum of 10 minutes happens at some point in my day.
Other things on my daily go to list (but might not be every day) are:
- Run or walk with dogs/ strength work (basically, move the bod);
- Gratitude list;
- Lemon juice in water + Chinese herbs (taste bad, do good things);
- Daily affirmation cards; and
- Cold shower (part or all).
I’m also a regular VIP customer of:
- Chinese medicine doctor;
- Chiropractor; and
Smiling Mind co-founder and chair Janey Martino. Source: supplied.
Ben Young, founder and CEO of frank green
I believe in focusing on the fundamentals of a healthy body and healthy mind. For me, that means making sure I’m eating well, drinking plenty of water, and getting as much sleep as possible.
To keep my mind clear, I like to write lists. These can vary from important tasks to ideas and initiatives to help drive frank green forward. It’s simple but effective.
I also think it’s important to build and nurture a strong network of mentors and friends that you can talk to and share ideas with.
Fiona Hardie, co-founder and director of Hardie Grant
I start every day with yoga. Not only does it set me up for the day, but it alerts me to how I am feeling — am I easily able to focus or am I distracted? Am I feeling heavy or light? I observe my mind, body and breath to let me know.
The intention of my morning practice is to balance my energy for the day ahead, as well as warm and open up my body. My daily practice includes asana (postures), pranayama (breath practices) and vedic chanting. My favourite part is chanting. The sound sends vibrations through your whole system.
If ever I’m feeling unsettled, I’ll do yoga. It centres me and reassures me that I have the tools to manage my emotions and find my strength inside.
Adam Schwab, co-founder and CEO of Luxury Escapes
It’s a lot tougher when you’re dealing with strict government restrictions but I try to exercise every day, usually in the morning before the kids get up. In normal times, I’d try to mix it up between running, gym, Apple Plus HIIT and golf, but more recently, it’s just been running or Apple Plus (and walking for an hour or two while doing phone calls).
There are also lots of studies that show a link between sleep and happiness, and while it’s tough, I try to get close to seven hours sleep (and never less than six). I don’t drink alcohol, coffee or soft drinks, but I do eat too much sugar — so I’m trying to skip artificial sugar every second day (sadly, often unsuccessfully).
Michelle Akhidenor, founder and CEO of The Peers Project
During the last 18 months, a strong focus of mine has been on doing whatever is necessary to look after the mental wellbeing of myself and my team.
For me, it’s involved implementing a daily 45 minute walk during lunchtime, pilates before work and most recently, deep breathing exercises on the regular.
As a team, it’s been facilitating regular Zoom check in’s where we hold space for one another and share how we’re feeling and coping with the present situation. It’s always been extremely important to me to work on cultivating an authentic, open and connected work environment especially over the last 18 months, so that we all feel comfortable and safe to bring our true selves to work everyday.
John Murphy, CEO of Azupay
I have been in the workforce for over 40 years and, with the exception of the last year, all my time has been spent in offices and large organisations. In fact I had a rule that I never worked from home and when my two daughters were growing up they would come into the office with me on weekends if I had things I had to do that couldn’t wait. That helped me keep a good balance.
I have been fortunate to have been able to call on close friends for advice and support when I have needed it. I have never had an issue in talking about my mental and physical health and I think being open about how you feel is key.
Working from home has brought its own set of challenges for me. I have tried to maintain a routine that is similar to my “office life” and I’ve been reasonably successful in doing that. I started doing pilates about a year ago and it has been great for me both in terms of my physical health (flexibility etc) and also in spending a couple of hours a week in a very different environment (pilates studio), which I find invigorating. I really enjoy the conversations with my instructor Amy and look forward to my regular sessions with her. I don’t feel guilty spending time on my own wellbeing. In fact I think it’s essential.
Marlane Fraser-Smith, co-founder at Vesper Bistro & Bar
Working in hospitality, creativity is a big part of what Duncan and I do. In our down time, we like to create projects around our business, life and travel aspirations to keep us inspired and moving forward. We’re also passionate about ongoing learning and take part in short courses to further develop our personal and professional skills.
I like to counterbalance the fast-paced nature of working in hospitality with slower practices at home. With later trading hours, I have the luxury of slower mornings. I like to wake up without an alarm and carve out moments of joy like sitting in the sun while eating breakfast.
I also enjoy listening to podcasts and practicing meditation. There are great apps out there with thousands of meditations from guided sessions to those with music and inspirational dialogue. It’s a resource I can call on whenever I need it.
Duncan is a passionate golfer and while he is unable to physically go out and play at the moment, he enjoys playing virtual golf with his friends. It helps him disconnect and de-stress.
Athan Didaskalou and Richard Li, co-founders of July
There are a couple of simple things we do to keep ourselves motivated and in the right head space while getting through tough periods in lockdown, most of it revolves around staying active and not always in front of a screen.
We don’t Zoom, at all, unless absolutely necessary. Instead, we put headphones in and do walk-and-talk meetings. This gets the blood moving, the mind active, and you don’t get that on-camera fatigue day in and out. The walk-and-talk is the entrepreneurs best friend, and you’d be surprised how welcomed it is when suggested to the other person on the phone.
The other thing is we try and stay active. Fitness plays an important role in supplying you energy both physically and mentally, we both try and go for regular runs and walks as a way to refresh and stay on top of life. It’s a small way to control the things you can impact directly, and gives you the power to tackle whatever the day brings.
Georgina Cavanagh, co-founder of Carlotta + Gee
Ever since starting Carlotta + Gee, which I run with my business partner Carlotta, looking after myself has been so important to ensure I have the energy for each day. Even more so now with COVID situation. I used to work in a very frantic environment (agencies) and I never felt in control of my day. Now for my mental health, I ensure I am organised and tick off a few small things each day rather than thinking too far ahead. They say the small wins result in big ones!
My must do each day is to get my morning coffee at my local, a short walk, reflecting on what makes me happy and each night try to catch the beauty and appreciate the sunset. If you have had a good night’s sleep, I find the day seems to be that much more enjoyable — try sleeping with the window slightly open for fresh air which helps.
When I feel not in control I try to take a step back, go for a run and find it will often pass — I try not to react straight away. Phoning a good friend always puts me in a good mood. If all else fails, baking a banana bread brings me joy!
Duncan Hilder, co-Founder of The Plant Runner
I’ve dealt with varying degrees of stress, anxiety and depression over the past 10 years and becoming a business owner has not made managing my mental health any easier.
For me, being open and talking about my mental health is so important — even if it’s just talking to a partner, friend or a psychologist. I love the quote from Chris Rock who said: “Seeing a psych is like having a personal trainer for your mind. No one blinks an eye when someone spends two hours in the gym on leg day, so why should it be any different for your head?”
It can be hard to ‘clock off’ from your own business, but it’s so important to make time for yourself. Recognising signs that things aren’t ideal and acting on them are key. I make sure I have regular physical activity and I practice mindfulness exercises as often as I can (five minutes in the ‘plant room’ will do wonders!). But I can honestly say the biggest positive impact I’ve made was getting off social media and turning my phone off at 7pm every night.
Dominic Hooghuis, co-founder of The Plant Runner
Owning and operating your own business can be overwhelming and unpredictable. Maintaining a good work life balance, being able to switch off and not take business home with you is paramount to overall wellbeing.
I find great solace in having multiple outlets from work, enjoying hobbies such as baking cakes and gardening with my family. My two young sons love to get outside among the green, so we do a lot of hedge trimming and planting vegetables together. The garden has a wonderful way of helping me de-stress and recalibrate. It’s so important to have things you look forward to outside of a professional environment.
Communication is also key. I always try to keep an open dialogue with my co-founder Duncan as well as my family and friends. By providing a safe space free of judgement, all parties can get the most out of each other and their situation.
Kara Cooper, founder of Mount Vic and Me
Stress is exhausting and I find most days I don’t stop to find time for myself as I juggle a growing business and homeschooling in lockdown.
My number one tip for managing stress and mental health?
Stop what you are doing and get outside — even for just 30 mins in the sun. Vitamin D, get your hands dirty planting anything in the soil and get the chance to connect with nature. We have chickens and I find them so restful to sit and watch. The way they move through the garden, dust bath and chat quietly to each other. They make great companions while weeding.
Josh White, founder and CEO of Neon Treehouse
In my experience, it is vital to learn what helps you reset, relax and overcome stress, not just long-term but also in your daily routine. For me, it’s eating well and exercising, which may sound very cliche but it’s true.
I need some form of exercise to keep myself fresh and focused every day. I’m someone who chases the sun and the surf, so any chance to get outside daily and breathe fresh air is important. Taking the time to walk on the beach with my dog each week is also a key part of my reset.
Something else I crave for keeping a positive mental state, or picking myself up when I am struggling, is to do something new. Breaking the routine is just as important as sticking to it. From bigger circuit breakers like travel (when it’s possible), to trying a new hobby or attempting to learn a new language, it breaks up the ‘every day’.
I also try to carve out time for my passions, such as taking time to experience the arts. Art in all of its forms is a way to view the world differently and see how other perspectives translate. This could range from media and light shows to murals, galleries and exhibitions.
Finally, but maybe most importantly, I talk to friends, family and the team. Being connected to the community is more important than anything when it comes to mental health. Family time is equally valuable to alone time, and continuing to foster my valued friendships and relationships is extremely important to me.
Sian Murray, co-founder of Pleasant State
Making sure my mental and physical health is a priority has always been really important to me. Before starting Pleasant State, I lived by this idea that “I work to live, I don’t live to work”. However, starting a business so aligned with who I am and what I truly care about has changed my perception on this.
Pleasant State has become part of me as a person so recognising when it’s too much and learning to switch off has become increasingly difficult.
That being said, there are a number of things both Ami and I do to make time for ourselves and focus on our mental health. I think creating things to look forward to is one of them, whether it’s a weekend away camping, a nice dinner with my partner or a family Zoom call. Making time for the little things that I enjoy most will often leave me more inspired and motivated when I turn my attention back to work. I also like to start my day with the sun and an early morning surf. There is nothing better than kicking off the day completely immersed in nature. When there’s no surf or if I have a bit of extra time I love to follow it up with yoga and meditation.
For the last few years I’ve also been playing AFL with the local women’s team. It’s a big commitment, training two nights a week and games on Saturdays, but it’s a great challenge outside of work that constantly puts me out of my comfort zone. Plus, surrounding myself with a bunch of inspiring women that aren’t afraid to lay a strong tackle on you is pretty entertaining.
I think it also helps to be really honest with how you’re feeling among your team. Ami and I aren’t afraid to let each other know if we’re struggling with anything. We believe in open communication and then giving each other and the team the space to work through it, whether it means they need a late start or even a day off, understanding that we’re all human and that we all work through things differently means that our team is happier and more productive in the long run.
Jonathan Chiu, co-founder of Minor Figures
I follow tried and tested ways to look after my health and wellbeing. I try to get adequate sleep, exercise each day, eat healthily and meditate. Making these habits rather than one-offs helps, but I also don’t kick myself if a few slip off the schedule from time to time.
Spending time with my kids, family and friends and focusing on others also gets me out of my own head.
Liz Linforth, co-founder of Conscious Cribs
Our interior design company, Conscious Cribs, focuses on designing spaces that have a positive impact on our client’s wellbeing, but as a co-founder and a new mum, I often find myself straying away from the very principles we promote and teach.
For this reason, carving out time in my day to re-centre is crucial in balancing life and my mental health. I do this by planning my day around the question ‘who do I want to be’ rather than ‘what do I want to get done’. A calmer, more present and focused person is always my answer and so taking 15 minutes each day for deep breathing or even a nap on the sofa is always a priority.
I also have a strong belief that living in a clutter free space means having a clutter free mind. Psychology has shown that when our eyes rest on a calming, clutter free environment our minds are also relaxed. The bedroom is a great room to start with as a good night’s sleep is fundamental to improving our mental wellbeing. Having adequate storage and organising our belongings brings order to chaos and calms the nervous system.
Marcus Crook, co-founder of HoMie
Every morning I get up and either go for a run along the Merry Creek or take my greyhound Willow for a walk. The sunshine and fresh air really helps me clear my mind, reset and get ready for the day. I’ve found breaking my day up into meetings and emails in the morning then something creative in the afternoon keeps me fresh during these times.
Regular check-ins with team members are super important for me. I usually thrive working with people in-person to discuss ideas and brainstorm thoughts so I’ve made a conscious effort to have regular catch ups and book meetings. As a team we have implemented Wednesday and Friday afternoon activities which have been incredibly fun. It has also brought the team together and kept everyone motivated.
Making sure you take a day off here and there is super important. It can be hard at times when you feel like you’re going to miss so much work, but in the long run you’re far more productive when you are firing on all cylinders.
Nick Pearce, co-founder of HoMie
Before I even begin to think about work, most mornings I complete some form of exercise whether that be a gym class or run or walk with my dog Sadie and son Jack to get the positive endorphins going. I then like to grab a nice big coffee on the way back home from any one of my favourite cafes. Only then do I give myself permission to begin work.
Of course, I throw in a rest day or two, but even a light walk around the block is a must for me on that “off day” as that is my time to feel good about myself and prepare for the day ahead. Eating well with the occasional (and necessary) reward is also a must for me.
In terms of the bigger picture, I like to have a holiday or two scheduled throughout the year as something to work towards. After all, it’s more important to work to live as opposed to living to work. I’m a huge believer that time off is just as important as time on.
Finally, more phone calls and less emails when working! This creates less room for misunderstandings and I can get two done in the time that it takes me to craft an “eloquent” email.
Daniel Jones, founder of Archies Footwear
I always start my day with a decent breakfast — normally green smoothie — and I always try to have a salad for lunch. When I know I’ll be on the phone for a while, I try to get out for a walk, taking the meeting on the move. I try to exercise and get some fresh air at least five times per week. That is normally cycling or running, and I also enjoy having a sauna a couple of times per week.
When I am getting stressed or having difficulty sleeping, meditating always seems to help. My biggest downfall is working far too late which affects my sleep — I need to get more disciplined with that. Plus I am much more productive the next day when I’m not tired!
Tim Fung, co-founder and chief of Airtasker
Looking after our mental wellbeing is so important — if we don’t look after ourselves, we can’t be effective in our jobs or life in general. For me, this means going out for a run every morning and taking walks with my dog Harvey (a seven-year-old Labradoodle).
He’s really bored during lockdowns so makes lots of appearances on my team calls and has even made a couple of TV appearances! I also like to relax watching old school 90s movies like Point Break, Coming to America and Back to the Future — it’s a way to tune out and escape.
Rest and sleeping is also so important for mental health. Last year I read Why We Sleep and it totally shifted my perspective on the importance of recharging our brains.
Across Airtasker, looking after our team’s wellbeing is super important. It’s obviously been really tough for many of us over the past few months and everyone is experiencing lockdowns differently so we’re trying our best to make work and life just a little better.
We’ve started with having recharge days where our whole team takes a day off and everyone has to be offline and take a break from work. We also just kicked off ‘Kit Kat chit chats’ across the company. We also do team check-ins, we make therapy and counselling sessions freely available through Indigo, have Friday hangouts, personal training sessions and regularly send surprise care packages to our team members (sending a team member smelly cheese is our fave thing to do at the moment!).
We also really try to live our core value of #PeopleMatter and it feels like every Airtasker team member is always looking out for the wellbeing of their fellow team mates. That’s probably the most important bit of wellbeing — looking out for each other.
Naomi Simson, founder, Red Balloon
My three tips on mental health for business owners
- No point blaming anyone – it is unhealthy. We are in ‘it’ and together we will get out of ‘it’;
- Try to have a laugh. Humour helps, and life will go on; and
- Look to the components of emotional resilience — here is a three step frame work to assist:
Alex Badran, co-founder of Spriggy
Learning how to switch off and slow down has been key for me over the past few years. It’s all too easy to feel on-call 24/7 as a founder and it takes an active discipline to build habits that allow you to disconnect. In practice the little things add up, such as sleeping with your phone in another room and muting notifications on your apps, and building a bank of habits such as these has been effective in helping me learn to switch off.
Our physical health has an enormous impact on our mental health too, which is something that is easy to neglect as you build a business. In lockdown, I’ve been committed to getting out and about each day and have walked over 15,000 steps a day since the lockdown began, which has been great for my mental health.
On the team front, it’s important that we communicate openly and honestly on the importance of mental health as we’re eager to foster a culture where people feel supported when they choose to put their mental health first. That’s much easier to do when the founders create the space for important conversations and when managers actively encourage their team to prioritise their health and wellbeing. We recognise it’s been a tough time for everyone in lockdown and are doing a company-wide “tools down” day on Friday to help the team disconnect over what’s been a stressful few weeks.
In terms of the day-to-day at Spriggy, we try to focus on what we can control. We invest in the things that bring us together like virtual events, new tech that makes remote working more personal, and activity competitions that provide social ways for us to take a break from our computers.
Alex Zaccaria, co-founder and chief, Linktree
COVID has been tough for everyone and really challenged work life balance with so many of us working and living in the same space. With all our days and weeks blending together, it’s really important to take the time to switch off entirely, whether it’s going for a run, meditating or spending time in nature, playing a video game or watching your favourite TV show. I personally enjoy going for a run or a walk whenever I can to switch off and destress.
During COVID, we’ve introduced a number of initiatives to help our team focus on maintaining a healthy work life balance. From additional mental health days so employees can have more time to recuperate and unwind to daily virtual stretching and meditation sessions so our teams can ease into the start of each day.
We’ve also introduced a meeting free block between 12pm to 2pm daily, to give everyone a chance to get outside and take a break. Tomorrow we’re giving our team in Australia their 2nd company wide day off and on Friday their time the US team will have one too.
Maintaining a healthy work life balance really does help keep your mental health in check and is something we all prioritise at Linktree.
Other lockdown initiatives we’ve introduced include:
- Meal plans for parents: Feeling overextended doesn’t end during work hours, so Linktree is offering parents a week of meal plans to help ease the stress;
- Walking map: Encouraged employees to add themselves onto a team map in case they would like to reach out to someone else within 10km for a walk;
- Uprise: All employees have access to programs, coaching and therapy through the platform; and
- Virtual activities: Bringing the team together online to stay connected, play games, and have watch parties.
Mia Fileman, founder, Campaign Del Mar
Because I’m in lockdown in NSW — and I have two kids that I have to homeschool — I don’t view lockdown as a competitive sport. There are no winners in this. It’s not about keeping all the balls in the air, it’s about deliberately dropping some.
I have a remote team, it’s really about allowing them to manage their time and to do what they need to do without being that overbearing mum. Memes are life.
I’m a yogi. I love yoga, specifically for the creativity benefits of it.
I find doing inversions — headstands, shoulder stands, handstands — are great for the creative process.
I’m doing a 6am yoga class with fellow female entrepreneurs, Monday to Friday. A few minutes before we start we ask how everyone is going, checking in, and then another check in afterwards.
It’s about accountability and support because we all run businesses.
Julian Elliott co-founder and chief executive officer of Covidence
I always get a lot of energy from my team, so I have benefited from focusing on how I bring my best problem-solving and creativity to the challenge of helping everyone be in the best place they can be through an incredibly challenging time. That focus helps my internal sense of wellbeing, but also flows around and is shared back with me.
We are very involved in the COVID-19 response, helping the world create the best possible evidence for the decisions that are going to get us through this. There is good evidence that making an active and positive contribution to a challenge or stressor is a great way to improve your mental health. So seeing the difference we are making has really helped me and my team.
And finally, a lot of benefit comes from generosity — being generous with yourself and with others. That gives you space to refresh after the harder times and builds an environment where we can effectively support each other.
Jane Kilkenny, founder, Fitness Energy
Exercise is my number-one go-to for mental health.
I use it for relaxation as well, different types of exercise for different purposes. High-intensity interval training when I want to deal with stress, and more gentle exercise when I need to relax.
The number one thing is prioritising the exercise, because of the benefits that you get.
Time is not a valid excuse, you always have time to be on your phone or watch TV. In my profession, I’ve heard the I don’t have time excuse for 30 years.
You have to make it your priority. It’s physical health and mental health combined.
Getting outdoors, whether it’s a sunny or cloudy day, being out in the fresh air, and nature (if you can) is the best thing for mental health.
I’m lucky enough to live on the outskirts of Melbourne in green space, which is very therapeutic.
I also like to read and read a lot of books.
Lyndon Galea, founder and chief of Eat Up
The work-life balance is really important and I’m definitely still figuring out what that balance is for me.
I think it’s important to set a precedent of not being ‘on’ after work, I don’t want other members of my team thinking they should be answering calls at 10pm because they’ve seen me do it.
So, at Eat Up, we try to be 100% on and 100% off. Once I’ve finished work for the day I have a rule not to answer emails.
I love running and seeing friends for socially distanced walks, it’s really important for me to have designated non-work time, so these routines and rituals help me schedule that.
I enjoy listening to audiobooks during the long drives I do for Eat Up deliveries, and this year I started having cold showers every morning. I’ve really noticed a difference in how I feel during the day from those, but it did take a bit of getting used to (and it’s probably not for everyone). I find that it wakes my body up and makes me feel invigorated for the day ahead.
Samantha Manning, founder, Monday Distillery
It’s isolating being entrepreneurial, you’re in your head a lot. I had to adopt techniques to get out of my head, and into action.
Creating routines and boundaries for work time and family time, even if you can’t have your usual routine is really important.
You should build a network to communicate with like-minded people, and stay engaged with everything going on in lockdown.
I was always for coffee catch ups, having coffee and talking business.
Looking at those relationships now, it’s a lot more talking on the phone and less talking business — how are you going, how are you coping — then the work goals you’re trying to tick off and achieve.
Being an entrepreneur is like signing up for a personal development course I never knew I would embark on. You spend a lot of time analysing yourself. I try to be mindful as much as I can.
I annoy my family when they’re feeling flat and I ask them three things they’re thankful for.
If you’re not one that can meditate or have a fitness regime, asking yourself what you’re grateful for can bring back some mindfulness and gratitude into your day.
Jason Atkins, co-founder of Cake Equity
Positive mental health is critical for founder success.
I’ve been working on my mental health for years to promote creativity and calmness and help me be a positive influence in the world. It’s not a one-off thing, but a discipline, and a process that never stops.
In innovation, mental health stems from being very self aware, and purpose driven. Being aware of your strengths and weaknesses, and being connected to your purpose and your mission creates incredible resilience and shelters you from many mental health roadblocks, like self-doubt, confusion, and anxiety.
I try to do things that make me feel awesome every day, including meditation, eating well, fitness training, spending time with my family, socialising, and surfing, and of course working hard on my mission at Cake.
It doesn’t always work however, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that people may need to see a counsellor or professional psychologist.
During 2020 when the pandemic hit I became very anxious, and through obtaining expert support I was able to quickly bounce back by getting my daily habits right, and being aware and adjusting some aspects of my mindset that were not empowering me. From this, I was able to think more clearly and help get Cake through a very tough time and lead our team forward with a smile on my face.
If you or someone you know is at risk of harm, call Lifeline now on: 13 11 14.
You call also contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636; Headspace on 1800 650 890; or The Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.
Or, contact Beyond Blue’s COVID-19 support line on 1800 512 348.