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If you believe social media, every entrepreneur is out there killing it, taking exciting risks and relentlessly pursuing their goals.
Unfortunately, people are rarely so eager to show off the darker part: The uncertainty, the anxiety, the self-doubt. It’s not that it isn’t there. The truth is that mental health issues abound in startup culture: According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 72% of entrepreneurs are directly or indirectly affected by mental health issues, compared to 48% of non-entrepreneurs.
There are several likely reasons why entrepreneurs grapple with mental health: Running a company is consuming, often lonely work, and failure is common. Compounding the problem is that in our quest to project competency and perfection, we’re often reluctant to be open about our struggles, which only makes things worse.
Building a startup isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon. In order to make it to the finish line, you’ve got to take care of your mental health. Here’s how.
Related: 8 Self-Care Tips From Wildly Successful Entrepreneurs
The importance of sleep
Torturing yourself with a lack of sleep is often seen as a badge of honor in the startup world. After all, Tim Cook and Marissa Mayer famously clock only three to four hours per night—why shouldn’t everyone else?
Counterpoint: Jeff Bezos is a strong advocate of eight hours of shut-eye every day. Also, Mayer missed an important dinner with chief executives in 2014 thanks to a nap that ran too long—which she took after being awake for 20 hours. That’s not a dig on Mayer, it’s a reminder of how indispensable sleep really is.
Even if you’re physically awake when you’re supposed to be, sleep deprivation can severely compromise your performance. Psychologist and author Dr. Kimberly Ann Lemke suggests maximizing sleep by keeping track of your activities during the day, making sure you’re getting enough sunlight and being as physically and mentally active as possible. At night, take stock of your surroundings and identify things that may interfere with your ability to get a quality night’s rest.
For her own seminars, Lemke asks her clients to consider a good nighttime ritual for a child, then see how it measures up to what they do for themselves.
“It is amazing how they look at me and then laugh because they are aware of how poor our nighttime rituals are as adults,” she says. “If a child’s bedtime is 8:00 PM, no one would have the child stay active until 7:59 PM and then instruct the child to go to sleep by 8:00 PM. As adults, however, we are working on our computers, paying bills or managing some aspect of our lives right up we must go to sleep.”
Instead, she suggests making a conscious effort to relax before bed, either by taking a walk, breathing deeply, reading, or whatever else calms you down and gets you into a peaceful state of mind.
Related: Self-Care for Small Business Owners and Entrepreneurs
Form — and keep — connections
Startup culture is isolating. Its all-encompassing nature makes it easy to prioritize work over family and friends, which in turn leads to more isolation. Covid-19 has made fostering those relationships difficult, exacerbating the problem.
But as humans, we need connections. Psychiatrist and former entrepreneur Michael A. Freeman, who co-authored the NIMH study, recommends against letting your support network wither. “Don’t let your business squeeze out your connections with human beings,” he advises. If you find yourself becoming depressed, friends and family can be powerful weapons.
In our industry, we’re particularly prone to projecting a “fake it ‘til you make it” attitude. Social media can be damaging exactly because it conveys the false idea that everyone around us is doing great, all the time.
The truth is that everyone—no matter how successful—has bad days. Rather than suppressing those feelings and pretending that they don’t exist, we need to be honest about what we’re experiencing, whether it’s anxiety, depression or burnout.
As leaders, it’s important to create space for conversations that allow colleagues to talk about how they’re feeling. At my company, JotForm, I’ve been open with my employees about the ways in which I’ve struggled to cope with the pandemic. This culture of openness allows conversations that can facilitate connection, and let everyone know that they’re not alone.
Gratitude and well-being are strongly correlated. Research has shown that those who report feeling and expressing gratitude enjoy greater levels of positive emotions like happiness, optimism and joy; negative emotions like anger, depression and shame are diminished.
While some studies have found that certain practices, like keeping a gratitude journal, have limited psychological benefits, the same is not true for genuinely expressing gratitude to those around you.
Showing appreciation actually has a powerful ripple effect, writes GoodThink co-founder and CEO Shawn Achor in his book, Big Potential: How Transforming the Pursuit of Success Raises Our Achievement, Happiness and Well-Being.
“Praise creates what I call a ‘virtuous cycle’—the more you give, the more you enhance your own supply,” he writes. When delivered effectively, praise conditions the brain to function at a higher level, which means the more praise we give, the better the recipient will perform. “The research I’ve been doing over the past five years shows that the more you can authentically shine praise on everyone in your ecosystem, the more your potential, individually and collectively, rises.”
As founders, the gratitude we express to our employees can have a profound effect on their mental wellbeing, as well as our own. A simple thank you, for instance, will not only make your employees feel recognized and appreciated, but will boost your happiness levels, too.
It’s also important to celebrate not just big wins, but recognize less obvious accomplishments and contributions, especially among those who make a clear effort to recognize others.
“Sometimes projects fail, despite a team’s heroic efforts,” Suzanne Vickberg, a social-personality psychologist, wrote in an article for LinkedIn summarizing the results of a survey on how employees prefer to receive recognition. “Not everyone’s role is closely tied to identifiable successes. Some peoples’ contributions are impactful, but less visible.” Of the survey’s 16,000 participants, many shared that they appreciate acknowledgement of “the effort they put in, their knowledge and expertise, and their commitment to living the organization’s core values.”
When we lift each other up, we create an environment that allows us to be the best version of ourselves. It makes us better as employees, better as entrepreneurs, and most importantly, better as people.
Related: 10 Self-Care Gifts for Everyone on Your List — Including You
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