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Mental health in startups

I’ve been deliberating for over a month now whether or not to write a post about mental health struggles in startups, but I’ve struggled to put together anything coherent. I’ve struggled to come to a conclusion or make any salient points. In fact, I’ve struggled to write anything at all.

In this post, I’m not going to come to any conclusions, provide any analysis and I probably won’t make a salient point. But to sum it up in one sentence:

“In the last year I’ve struggled with stress, anxiety, panic attacks and sleepless nights”.

In September 2012, I dropped out of University to start my first company. Over the course of three and a half years the team and I went onto two accelerator programs, raised $1m, whilst building a product used by 130 websites reaching 50m users every month.

I can only compare starting a company to falling in love. You are totally and utterly consumed by your startup, you put everything into it, it’s your life and everything moves extremely quickly. You can invest so heavily into it that you inadvertently block out the other things in your life too. This could be your friends, family, relationships, social life, health or wellbeing. Your company means that much to you.

You’re under immense pressure, from the outside and from the inside. Externally, you’re under pressure from shareholders, employees, customers, and the friends and family who don’t understand what you’re doing. Then internally, you put huge pressure on yourself to succeed. You compare yourself to the rockstar CEOs in TechCrunch articles. You feel like you’re not shipping code fast enough, you’re not working hard enough or you’re not growing quickly enough.

Not only that, but you’re startup is your identity, it is who you are. You can’t meet anyone without pitching it, you don’t stop thinking about it and your entire life revolves around it. They say business isn’t personal — but it is — your personal life and startup are intrinsically linked.

I didn’t realise how consumed by it I had been until I came out of it, and it was during the process of winding the company down when I was hit with severe stress, anxiety and panic attacks.

It took me a long time (too long) to figure out that this wasn’t right, accept it and talk about it. Thankfully, most of the above has now subsided, but I know deep down, that they will always be there. Plus I know i’ll always be involved in these types of early stage companies. That’s not to say I’m looking for sympathy, I’m not at all, these are my issues and I’ll deal with them.

I feel like this has to be said; because I know there are other people struggling mentally too.

I feel like this has to be said; because I’m not ashamed and nobody else should be.

I feel like this has to be said; because I know that it is being said; in your head, in whispers, in notepads and only to very close friends and family.

People do not talk about mental health enough, that’s a fact. And I believe startup culture is exacerbating this problem, by encouraging people to work themselves into the ground, ’sleep faster’ and move quicker. We might be happy to wear a plaster on our heads for a cut, but we won’t tell people about how we’re burning ourselves out. It’s wrong and something needs to change.

Consequently, we need to remove this stigma around mental health and educate ourselves on what it really means, it shouldn’t conjure up images of white gowns and straight jackets in our heads. Our lack of understanding and our inability to put a label on what you may be experiencing, is making experiencing it even harder.

Mental health should have as much publicity as our physical health does, potentially even more. Our minds are more important than our biceps.

So, let’s start by talking about it, that can be the first step. The spirit of collaboration, community and transparency is so strong in technology and entrepreneurship that I don’t see why it can’t transcend to this subject too.

If you believe that we should talk about mental health more then please like and share this post. We’ll go from there and who knows what might happen.

James