"Burnout is the workplace injury of the 21st century" according to Alexa Meyer, co-founder of mental health gym Coa.
Without a shadow of a doubt, being a founder is hard. Often, you've given up a salaried job for an idea. Alongside trying to build something people will love and figuring out product market fit, you have commitments like rent or a mortgage to pay, dependencies like a partner or children, an early team who need monthly salaries...Founder life doesn't have much stability. So being resilient and able to tolerate discomfort is key — here are some helpful thoughts to get you prioritising your mental health:
This post was inspired by a discussion at Founder Summit 2021 that took place between Kevin McArdle, founder of Sureswift Capital, and Alexa Meyer, co-founder of Coa.
Acknowledge the need to protect yourself.
You are your company's main asset. If you go down in the early days, there's rarely anyone there to take the reins. Proactively working on mental health, as you do your physical health, will prepare you for and protect you from the long journey of running a company. It will also make you a more consistent leader, without the extreme highs and extreme lows. Psychologist Dr Emily Anhalt, the other co-founder of Coa says, “strong companies take shape when emotionally fit founders are sitting at the top.”
Identify your susceptibility to burning out.
What are your early warning signs of burnout? Is it late night/early morning phone scrolling? Is it the constant Slack checking? Do you become more introverted or overly energetic? Does insomnia hit or do you over sleep? Recognising patterns is the first step to solving them.
Find tools that work for you.
It's easy to get swept up and overwhelmed by the self care movement. Bubble baths and candles work for some but your tools may be therapy, journalling, meditations, a no screen hour or weekend, yoga, swims, runs... identify what brings you calm and what helps you reset. This will be your arsenal against burnout. Use them often — not just when you're struggling. Schedule them. Download apps that help. Get into a routine.
Make mental health part of your company culture.
Create a shared language within your company around mental health. Onboard your team on terms and definitions that give articulation to situations that may arise. Set an understanding that it’s OK to not be OK — this also gives you as a founder permission to not be OK too. Create boundaries at work and make it clear that the expectation is for the team to do the same. This keeps everyone accountable to each other.
Provide your team with resources.
Give them somewhere to start or turn to when needed — especially for those that have not engaged with mental health practices before. You can engage external coaches and services, have recommended therapists, provide subscriptions to mental health focused apps (meditation apps, texting therapy), have books available...Make mental health a normal part of your one to one conversations. All of this will help you and your team have tools to navigate tough conversations and life moments. It also gives you, as a founder, somewhere to point people to if you're not equipped to deal with a situation. It also helps with retention as people feel cared for. Finally, it provides a more resilient workforce which is key to building a successful company.
It's worth noting here though, a team's mental health is not a founder's responsibility. But creating healthy and safe working conditions is.