Why founders must lead the way in mental health

- October 25, 2018 3 MIN READ
mental health

Research published by Harvard Business School found that 65 percent of startups that fail do so due to ineffective management from the founders, not product or marketing problems. Further, that a founder’s ability to lead their business is a critical success factor that determines the fate of their startup.

Personally, I have found one of the biggest backwards steps we take as founders is often around our own personal health and well-being. We hurl ourselves headfirst into highly stressful environments and situations where the risks can be great, the rewards immense and the sacrifices often personal.

As a GP, I see these pressures resulting in poorer outcomes in terms of emotional health with higher rates of depression and anxiety in founders. This includes high risks of physical issues related to poor nutrition and exercises such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

In the report, Startup Founder Research 2018, KPMG found that average hours worked by founders of Australian startups is 64 per week. Although not as scary as our Silicon Valley counterparts ­ who average 80 hours per week ­ it is still way too high to be sustainable and avoid burnout.

The importance of the mental and physical health of founders and entrepreneurs has not had a lot of traction until now, but if Australia is to have the innovation-led economy we often hear about this has to change.

Innovation and entrepreneurship are seen as the saviours of Australia’s digital future. While the financial and resources aspects of a business enjoy strong support both from Government and the wider business community, the human side of entrepreneurship is frequently neglected, the KPMG report found.

Stress in itself is not harmful, but how we do (or don’t) deal with it can be. Stress goes hand in hand with anxiety and depression. People think often think of depression as being sad, but what they don’t realise is that common symptoms can also include difficulty concentrating, low energy levels and poor motivation. Any of these can profoundly impact a founder’s ability to perform within their business.

We often look after our businesses at the detriment of ourselves, particularly while growing and scaling. Am I a less healthy person as a result of being a founder? My unfortunate answer is yes.

Having interests outside of being a founder are extremely important. I often cite my work as a GP as a key way for me to deal with stress as I find that treating patients and spending time in clinical practice provides me with the best way to switch gears and focus on something completely different. It allows me the opportunity a few times a month to focus on something outside of work that is both humbling and grounding and often provides me with the perspective in life I need.

The emotional and physical health of the founder also impacts hugely on the workplace of the company they have created.

In research published by Beyond Blue, it was found that when mental health is valued by leaders, and appropriate resources are available in the workplace, there are real benefits to business. In workplaces that employees consider mentally healthy, self-reported absenteeism as a result of experiencing mental ill-health almost halves.

It also reported that while creating a mentally healthy workplace is everyone’s responsibility, mental health is a leadership issue, and change must start at the top. Business owners and organisational leaders play a critical role in driving policies and practices that promote mental health in the workplace. They have the capacity to positively influence workplace culture, management practices and the experience of employees.

Several founders of tech startups in Australia have stepped down from CEO roles, citing mental health issues. Earlier this year, Matt Berriman, 33, the founder of Unlockd, stepped aside as its chief executive to deal with his bipolar disorder. And possibly the most prominent example of an Australian businessperson quitting due to mental health issues is that of James Packer, who resigned as director of Crown Resorts in March of this year.

In extreme cases, depression has unfortunately led to suicide: Austen Heinz, founder and CEO of Cambrian Genomics and Jody Sherman, a Las Vegas entrepreneur, are some examples.

With October being mental health month, it’s an opportune time to sharpen our focus and realise that as a founder the buck stops with you. You are often the one ultimately responsible for delivering on expectations and promises made by your business whether it be to your investors, your customers or your staff.

Vu Tran is the cofounder and head of growth at GO1.com, the world’s largest onboarding, compliance and professional development platform.

Last year more than 150,000 people in Australia contacted beyondblue about their concerns – both big and small – and you can too. All calls and chats are one-on-one with a trained mental health professional, and completely confidential. If you or someone you know is experiencing mental health issues you can contact beyondblue on 1300 22 4636 24 hours / 7 days a week.