Startup Advice

“This is what I need. I’m burnt out and I’m tired”: How these high-profile founders look after their mental health

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien /

R U OK?

Canva founders Cliff Obrecht, Melanie Perkins and Cameron Adams. Source: Supplied.

In startupland, everyone’s hustling, crushing it, living off noodles and never sleeping. But, of course, none of this is healthy for the body or mind. Often, it’s not even true.

Today is R U OK? Day. It’s a day where we’re encouraged to check in on our colleagues, friends and families, to have a conversation, listen to any concerns they have and get any mental health or wellbeing concerns out in the open and shaken free of stigma.

Founding a business is hard. And when you’re pouring everything you have — mentally, emotionally and financially — into a venture, there’s going to be a weight on your shoulders.

A 2015 report found 72% of startup founders self-reported as having mental health concerns. When compared to a comparison group, entrepreneurs were 30% more likely to report a history of depression, 29% more likely to report ADHD, 12% more likely to say they had a substance abuse condition, and 11% more likely to report having a bipolar diagnosis.

But, good management of your own mental health can create a culture of good mental health throughout your organisation. And, opening up about it can help other founders know their feelings are valid, and create their own healthy culture. And the cycle continues.

Speaking to StartupSmart, Aubrey Blanche, head of diversity and belonging at Atlassian says one of the most important things you can do as a founder is “to be open about the challenges and the strains that leadership while working in a startup puts on you”.

Atlassian co-founders Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar “really humanise themselves” in a way that gives others within the business permission to talk about these things.

The Aussie unicorn and much-heralded startup success story listed on the New York Stock Exchange back in 2015.

The plan at the time, Blanche recalls, was for Cannon-Brookes and Farquhar to ring the bell in New York, then travel to Austin and San Francisco to celebrate with those teams, before flying to Sydney to celebrate with the team there as well.

“On the morning of the IPO, Mike Cannon-Brookes published an internal blog … that basically was apologising,” she explains.

Cannon-Brookes said in the blog he had decided to stay in New York with his family, instead of making the trip to Austin and San Francisco.

“He was really open,” Blanche recalls.

He explained he had been on a roadshow for weeks, he hadn’t slept or seen his family, and he was exhausted.

“It was very clear that he felt bad,” she adds.

“He said: ‘This is what I need. I’m burnt out and I’m tired.’”

This was “such an incredible show of leadership”, Blanche says.

“If it’s okay for the CEO to say they’re exhausted and need personal time, that resonates through the whole organisation.”

Now, Atlassian staff have access to an internal blogging network, where they share stories of talk burnout, addiction, even post-traumatic stress disorder and sexual assault, and the way they deal with those things.

Counselling services are also available for all employees.

“The most powerful thing that leaders can do is normalise speaking about your experience, because often people don’t seek help or get the support they need because they feel shame or stigma about struggling with mental health,” Blanche says.

Most people will struggle with their mental health at some point in their lives, she adds.

“What we actually need is for the people around us to take care and be thoughtful about it.”

So, we asked some of Australia’s most influential founders how they manage their own mental health, and encourage their workforce to do the same.

Cyan Ta’eed, co-founder of Envato and Milkshake, and founder of Hey Tiger

My family has been touched by mental health issues so it’s always been something I’m conscious of, but there’s nothing like experiencing something firsthand to give you context.

I thought I understood what depression was like, but after my first son was born I experienced post-natal depression for a few months. It wasn’t until people asked me if I was okay that I realised I wasn’t — that I recognised what I was feeling was depression.

At Envato, we’ve worked hard to cultivate 100% flexible work. For the members of our team who have ongoing mental health differences that make it hard to get to work sometimes, being able to work from home whenever they feel they need to makes a meaningful difference.

At the same time, a sense of community and knowing your team cares about you and will check in on your is so important, so it’s very much a balance. We also have an internal committee at Envato committed to supporting mental health difference; it’s a team-led initiative and I’m continually impressed by their commitment and vision.

As a leader, as I’ve gotten older I’ve realised how important self-care and being kind to yourself really is. I think a lot of startup founders are very ambitious and no achievement is ever ‘enough’, but the standards you set for yourself and your team with that mindset can be really damaging. These days I try to be present and content in the process, trust my team to execute to their strengths and recognise when I need to rest.

Cameron Adams, co-founder of Canva

There are definitely times in a startup where things can get incredibly stressful; you just can’t help it. Having two great co-founders who can share the burden has always been invaluable, as well as a fantastic partner at home who listens and acts as a pressure release valve. Having these open and honest communication channels are vitally important. I couldn’t imagine doing it all on my own.

We also try and create an environment here at Canva where people can have open conversations with their peers, their mentors and their coaches (people who are specifically trained in supporting our staff). If someone feels like they need further help, we also have a free external counselling service that they can use.

We’ve also tried to de-stigmatise mental health difficulties by inviting the team to share their own experience (whether personal or as a caretaker), and I think this has had a really positive effect on how mental health and wellbeing is perceived, and the options that our team have for treating it.

Lucy Liu, co-founder of Airwallex

The best advice I can offer to anyone considering launching a startup is to make sure it’s about something you’re truly passionate about.

Being a startup founder is incredibly consuming, especially in the early years. On paper, it can be hard to distinguish when work ends and your personal life begins. But if you’re working on a product or a service that you really care about and believe is making a difference, work and life become holistic.

Airwallex is committed to fostering a company culture that celebrates passion and individual empowerment. Whether you’re a co-founder or a wider member of the team, it remains true that if you really care about what you do and can see your input making a difference. This is extremely rewarding and we do our best to create a workplace that cultivates this.

Flexible and remote working have played a huge role in helping me to juggle my many responsibilities. This freedom is not a privilege just for the executive team but across the full staff. We know our team is dedicated and committed and so we have no qualms in introducing ways that help them to manage their personal and professional commitments.

Airwallex is delighted to be supporting R U Ok? Day. Themed cupcakes from Cupcake Central have been ordered for the team, and across the day, we’ll be encouraging everyone to share a chat over a cupcake and coffee in the office. Our day on Thursday will begin with the R U Okay? Day slideshow, which details how to identify the warning signs that someone is not okay, and start a supportive conversation on our dashboards in the office.

We will also be launching a new wellbeing-dedicated Slack channel as a space for the team to share resources, articles, activities and ideas which support physical and mental wellbeing, for example, inviting colleagues to join a lunchtime walk, yoga class or meditation app.

Eric Wilson, co-founder and chief at Xinja

The reality is, I have no work-life balance at all in terms of the hours I work. You have to be very conscious of keeping your mental resilience up during that.

There are two things that I remind myself and my team.

First, the idea of an entrepreneur is usually some skinny 25-year-old, running through a pine forest in their Nikes. That’s just not the reality. Your average successful founder is 45 years old, and we all screw up regularly.

Sometimes, you just don’t really know what you’re doing. Accepting that mindset is, I think, incredibly important to being viable under this kind of pressure.

The second thing is being OK to show vulnerability. Just being able to say: ‘I don’t know. I have no idea if this is going to work.’

It’s about being able to defer to someone much smarter, or better at a specific thing. The ability not to have to pretend you know everything, and that you’re always the one in charge and the right guy at the right time.

I think that is very powerful for an entrepreneur’s mindset — to stay focused and work with your team and be vulnerable with them is incredibly important.

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.

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Stephanie Palmer-Derrien

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien is the editor at StartupSmart. You can contact her at [email protected].