Lifestyle changes may not be enough

LOUISE CHUNN

It shouldn’t be a surprise that there are problems with mental health in the startup world. The search for groundbreaking ideas, the push to be first to market, the sky-high stakes and the potential to make life-changing amounts of money: put them all together and it’s no wonder that people are feeling anxious or depressed about their entrepreneurial adventure. The oft-quoted statistic that nine out of 10 startups do not survive hangs like a sword over the neck of most startups – founders and staff alike.

But there is an additional factor. According to research by psychiatrist Michael Freeman of University of California San Francisco and psychologist Sheri Johnson of University of California Berkeley who conducted a survey of 240 entrepreneurs, people who enter the tech world are more likely to suffer from mental-health challenges in the first place. They found that 49 per cent of entrepreneurs surveyed reported at least one mental-health condition, such as ADHD, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety or substance- use conditions. And half of the entrepreneurs who had no mental-health conditions themselves came from families with a history of mental illness.

But for all the disadvantages of those mental-health conditions, there are advantages, too: creativity (ADHD), laser-like focus (Asperger’s), empathy (depression). The connection between high-risk work and mental-health problems almost defines the workplace motto: ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here but it helps.’

As a founder who has struggled with anxiety, I understand. My business came out of my own search for the right therapist. But I also know that there are many things that can help alleviate the pressure. Some are simple self-care: get enough sleep, don’t drink too much (alcohol or coffee), step outside every couple of hours, build some regular exercise into your schedule, try using a mindfulness app to relax or meditate. Tech businesses should ensure that their staff know and take these steps.

But lifestyle changes may not be enough. Talking about a problem to a professional therapist is a step taken by more and more people in the startup industry. A non-judgemental person can help enormously by just listening to the concerns that founders are unlikely to share with their team (for fear of them leaving). And, for staff, support can be great too as they face a lot of uncertainty themselves.

You can try your GP for a referral, although this can be slow and you have little choice in your therapist. Take a look at welldoing.org. We have hundreds of therapists in London (many of whom offer concessions to the low-waged) and our questionnaire can help match you with the best ones for you and your needs. But whatever you do, if you are in trouble, take action.

Louise Chunn is CEO of Welldoing, a UK-wide find-a-therapist directory. This piece appears in Courier Aug/Sep 2016.