In the age of the Silicon Valley tech explosion, entrepreneurs are the new modern-day superheroes. Elon Musk, the boss of Tesla and the idol of technology enthusiasts the world over, reportedly works up to 100 hours a week, while in the late Steve Jobs’ biography, it was noted that current Apple boss Tim Cook wakes up and begins answering emails at 3:45AM each morning.
But the ‘hero entrepreneur’ culture that figures like Musk and Jobs have cultivated means putting in an insane number of hours in order to make a business fly is not only expected of those in the startup grind, it’s glorified.
Humans tend to forget about the numerous failures and focus on the success stories. But the true cost of this intense pressure is beginning to emerge. A survey of 242 entrepreneurs by the University of California found 49 percent identified as having a mental health condition. A whopping 30 percent said they were depressed – far more than the overall national average in the US.
As well as this, Silicon Valley has been rocked by a string of high-profile suicides of executives and founders in recent years. Paypal executive Eric Salvatierra was known for pulling all night stints at work, and his work ethic was held up as inspiration for many. What was unbeknown to most was Salvatierra’s undiagnosed bipolar disorder and manic episodes that allowed him to work such long hours. Sadly, he lost the fight with mental illness and took his own life in 2012.
Although Silicon Valley is seen as the spiritual homeland of this entrepreneurship culture, it's spread throughout the world. When co-working provider BizDojo asked the New Zealand founder community what could be done to help those in it succeed, 20 percent of the responses that came back were around mental health and needing psychological support. As well as this, 95 percent of respondents believed being an entrepreneur had affected their mental health.
When asked for more specifics around their mental health concerns, 79 percent of respondents experienced some degree of stress, 76 percent felt overwhelmed, 71 percent experienced anxiety, 40 percent said they were depressed and 13 percent said they were severely depressed.
The findings were significant, considering the environment it was occurring in: New Zealand already has some of the worst rates for suicide in the OECD. But perhaps the most concerning statistic of all was the fact that over 50 percent of those surveyed did not seek help when facing these mental health issues.
“Whether it’s founders, startups or human beings in general, we have this aversion in New Zealand of saying things are going wrong until it’s gone too wrong,” BizDojo co-founder Nick Shewring says.
“It’s not that I don’t think the health system wants to help, it’s just, for some reason, it’s so entrenched in our psyche. We also have this culture in New Zealand where failure or a mistake is met with real criticism.”
Take the nation’s reaction to when the All Blacks lose a rugby match, he says. Suddenly, it’s the end of the world and heads should roll.
“If you look at how we view failure within our sports arena, it ripples across everything else. It’s like, we will support you when you’re winning, but when you’re not winning, don’t talk to us about it because we don’t want to hear about it."
Shewring speaks from experience. In 2016, he grappled with anxiety and depression while scaling up BizDojo. He says the long hours and intense pressure he heaped on himself burnt him out to such a point he very nearly became another suicide statistic.
“You reach a psychological tipping point where you go, ‘right, I’m going to dive off the side of this building’, which I very nearly did."
“I think I did what a lot of people have done in that situation – I felt fear, an overwhelmed sense of failure. Images of my daughter, my family and my staff popped into my head, and then I thought about the pressure and the stress I’d put myself under and thought, ‘It’s just money. No one’s life is in danger other than my own.’ How I was processing it was irrational. In that moment, I climbed back in over the balcony, had a big cry, left my business partners a message in the middle of the night and said, ‘I’ve hit a wall, I really need to take time out.’”
After that moment, Shewring implemented some dramatic changes, including taking a holiday for the first time in six years. He also sought professional help, while making some key lifestyle changes in his diet and exercise regime. A year on, he says he hasn’t cured himself of depression and anxiety, but he’s now equipped with the right tools to manage it.
“We’re working through an incredibly high-pressure state in our business now – probably way harder than it was in 2016 – yet I’m dealing with it in a far better way than I could before because I’m giving myself the breathing room to work through it.”
He recently wrote a column titled ‘A hard path: Are we failing our founders on mental health?’ that shared his experience. The response was overwhelming, he says, but it’s left him with concerns about whether or not New Zealand companies are equipped to deal with mental health issues.
“Since I put that piece out there, I’m very positive people are now talking about this, but I’m also nervous, because are there enough resources?” he says. “I don’t have the answers, all I have is my own personal experience and I think ‘Well, if more of us can talk about this, there are people out there with some of the answers’. As a community, we’ve got to look at how to face it.”
BizDojo is leading by example and has since rolled out wellness programmes across its centres that incorporate yoga classes, health and nutrition strategies. But he says one of the most valuable activities the company has started doing is sessions on dealing with stress, where workers from the top down (Shewring and co-founder Jonah Merchant get involved) are encouraged to share what they’re feeling.
“It’s giving people a sense of permission that it’s okay to share and it’s also okay to ask for help,” Shewring says.
“We’re at an interesting point in humanity where we seem to be way more open to at least starting to have this dialogue around work-life balance and giving a fuck about each other. Inherently, I think human beings just want to look after each other. I think we just need more opportunities for that to be okay and to be a bit more accepting of each other.”