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Are we failing our founders on mental health?

Entrepreneurship is well known for having a culture of grinding towards success, but at what cost? BizDojo co-founder Nick Shewring shares his personal experience with the toll starting a business took on his mental health, as well as what the wider founder community had to say about their experiences. 

I didn’t see that much celebrated Dustin Moskovitz talk until very recently. You know the one where he talks about burn-out, work-life balance and the blog post he wrote to the same effect. Not because I wasn’t interested, I mean - I am always interested to hear tales of startup from other founders, people like me that have been there. But more because at the time that was happening, my life was really busy.

I was heads down in growth mode - we had a new director on board with us at BizDojo and Wellington was scaling. The business model was changing in Auckland, along with our relationship with our partners at GridAKL - ATEED, and Jonah (my co-founder) and I were heads down in strategy, fundraising for a new venture and frankly - trying to keep our shit in order as our team grew from 7 to 10, to 15 to where it is today at 40 across BizDojo and Colo.

I juggle my life as a founder with being a dad and a partner, a leader to our team, and a friend to my co-founder Jonah. And last year, around the same time that Dustin was sharing how he found work-life balance to the audience at Startup Grind, talking about the danger in romanticising the grind, the perils of burn-out and more, I was fully in it.

A call for action around founders mental health

Many of you know that recently Jonah and I asked the ecosystem what we could all do better to support New Zealand founders to succeed. The result was a bunch of conversations, meetings and messages with people sharing their perspective, their stories and ideas. Behind the scenes, Jonah and I have been working to firm up next steps, and naturally, the first thing we did was dig deeper into what people had told us.

20 percent of all the responses we received revolved around mental health, and psychological support for founders - a figure that backs up what we hear time and time again from our own community. These facts, of course, should not be all that surprising - building a business is extremely stressful and all-consuming.

Our figures are joined by similar numbers abroad, according to the Gallup Wellbeing Index, 45 percent of entrepreneurs report being stressed. While in another survey of 242 entrepreneurs, 30 percent identified as depressed.

These figures, to put it bluntly, are incredibly worrying. But are more worrisome still when you place founder mental health within the context of New Zealand's well-known issues with depression that leave us with some of the highest rates of suicide in the OECD. While our mental health providers are calling for people to reach out, many founders brave-face their way through their problems, while working endlessly.

A culture of grind and "success"

If this all sounds oddly personal, it is. Because for Jonah and I, founder's emotional struggles are not only stats on paper, but instead something we have both experienced. It is also something which we have seen our communities of entrepreneurs grapple with first hand.

For me, the grind of the startup world, of founder pressure and endless stress left me battle worn. And in 2016 I very nearly became another suicide statistic.

The combination of personal problems with business pressure and exhaustion from spinning up a growth business nearly killed me. I often wonder now what my path would have been if I had heard that Dustin Muskovitz talk - If I had made the time to come up for breath, had the ability to measure success in a more realistic sense, or been more honest with my co-founder Jonah about my emotional state.

Helping founders in trouble: an experiment

At the beginning of 2017 in conjunction with Mental Health Awareness week, we ran our own mental health focused activity for a week. Hot on the heels of my situation, and looking for ways to see what the take-up and outcomes were from concentrating on the health of our founder community.

Across our Dojo's we put in place quiet spaces, created meditation moments, introduced yoga classes and put together sessions on everything from mindfulness to healthy eating and everything in between. We also ran sessions on stress, where founders (including myself) shared stories openly and honestly.

The outcomes were meaningful. From residents reaching out for help, increased conversation about founder issues, or simple thanks from our community for putting in place calming music, a colouring corner or a slow movie event.

We have been using the findings and feedback from that week to put in place an ongoing wellness focus within our spaces, and the programs, consulting and events side of what we do, with the belief that founder success is tied to founder resilience. And resilience can only be built on openness, community and better created and targeted support.

Opening up conversations brings opportunity for huge impacts

There have been a few U.S focussed founder mental health articles doing the rounds recently such as this one. But for Jonah and I, the conversation has to be drawn into a local context rapidly.

The government is in the process of consulting with the public on its Draft Suicide Prevention Strategy, running consultation meetings around the country and taking written submissions from the public until the 12th of June 2017.

We cannot help but think we're being provided with a catalyst for the ecosystem to face the challenge of supporting our founder's mental health head on. Here we have an opportunity to surface issues AND solutions that could have a real impact on our founder community and beyond for years to come.

At the same time, we need to look at the changes we can put in place in the here and now, that allow us to embrace a culture for startups and founders in this country that values wellness as much as it values tenacity and grind.

In 2016, that guy I keep mentioning - Dustin Muskovitz - said “when I started working in the valley... I succumbed to the pressure that a lot of entrepreneurs feel… to work extremely hard… and I think there is a culture of one upmanship especially for people in their early 20s… I sorta fell into that and burnt myself out” a lot of people say “that is what it takes to be successful, but actually I feel we are successful in spite of it”. Dustin adds when looking back he can now see the “grind” was impacting on his ability to make the right decisions and create the outcomes that he, and his team needed.

And here the crux of the issue really stands.

Not only does a focus on wellness, tracking of founder mental health, and the creation of a culture of support, community and openness enable founders to live happier and healthier lives. It will, in fact, create stronger businesses and economic outcomes.

Because of this, we cannot understand why founder health isn’t at the forefront of conversations about founder, and startup success in New Zealand.

Get involved

As we build out our founder wellness programme, we are keen to talk to the wider community around founder resilience, wellness and success. How have you been affected? What support do you feel the ecosystem is lacking? And what can organisations like BizDojo, Callaghan and beyond do to help our founder community. We have created an anonymous survey online, and the responses will be used to help frame our next steps.

To get the conversation started, we are live-streaming this Mental Health Awareness & the Startup Community: Live Chat with Brad Field event at all of our BizDojo locations across the country on the 26th of May. Come into your local BizDojo, have a conversation with our team, or drop your anonymous feedback about founder mental health and wellness into our feedback loop at the live-stream.

Where to get help:

  • Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
  • Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
  • Youthline: 0800 376 633
  • Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
  • Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
  • Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
  • Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
  • Samaritans 0800 726 666
  • If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

This was republished from Shewring's LinkedIn