Entrepreneurs are experiencing their own epidemic: poor mental health.

By Wendy Brookhouse

Dec 14
Michael DeVenney

Business owners work hard and we have the memes to prove it.

“Entrepreneurs are willing to work 80 hours a week to avoid working 40 hours a week.”

Funny because it’s true?

Putting in more and more hours, chasing an enormous number of great ideas, and wearing all the hats definitely takes its toll on our health.

Here’s an interesting thought, though: while overworking may cause terribly high stress-levels, it can also be an entrepreneur’s go-to remedy for issues that already exist. 

How many business owners use their work as a distraction, helping them avoid facing other, harder issues?

I had this aha moment during my conversation with Michael Devenney, Founder of WorkInsights and The Mindset Project. 

Michael told me about a time he had tried to distract himself from the pressures of work… by adding more work. 

“I had had depression and anxiety issues for years,  but mental health was something that was really not talked about 20 years ago… and I think to a great extent we probably didn't really understand what it was. So what I tried to do is just work longer hours and work harder. We opened up another business. When I started the consulting company it was almost an answer to: I was feeling so much stress and pressure I needed something to go to. So I added more hours to what I was already doing, and there's only so many years you can do that before it really starts to have an effect.”

Not surprisingly the combination of hours, pressure and depression came to a head. Michael closed the consulting business and took a couple of months to  address what was really going on. 

That’s when The Mindset Project was born.

“The Mindset Project was to find out, was it just me, or is this something a lot of other people go through? I went into The Mindset Project to really understand entrepreneurs and mental health and how it affects their decision making.”

A key part of The Mindset Project is a foundational survey on the pressures entrepreneurs feel, and how they handle it. It's the largest study ever done in the world on entrepreneurs and mental health. And the results are startling.

67% of entrepreneurs face mental illness

“We had 437 entrepreneurs take an hour out of their time to complete the survey, and what came through loud and clear was...this was something that was prevalent and that people were not dealing with. 67% of all entrepreneurs will have some form of mental illness during their working years. So 2/3 of us will experience this and more than a third will not deal with it.”

67% is a shocking number! I mean, I know my entrepreneurial clients work very hard to build positive, meaningful, sustainable businesses. They strive to lead on their own terms, show up with a generous spirit, build-in flexibility, autonomy and creativity, and ultimately help people solve a problem. Why is this making us miserable?

“The biggest challenge that entrepreneurs and business owners face is that we live our life in the gap… we measure ourselves to where we think we should be, not to where we've come from.”

Michael had fallen prey to this in his past businesses. He put relentless pressure on himself and his team to keep achieving.

“I know the first time, the team was so happy we hit $100 million dollars in assets. And instead of celebrating, my comment to everybody was, ‘well, it's not gonna matter until we hit 200’. And so that quickly deflated everybody around me and my focus was never on what I'd actually achieved, it was always on what had to be done. There is always more for me that had to be done.”

Does this sound a little familiar, fellow business owners? That no matter what you achieve, there’s always more to do, farther to go?

Obviously constantly focussing on what you haven’t done yet is incredibly stressful. So I was surprised to hear that Michael’s work with organizations doesn’t revolve around eliminating workplace stress. 

“I recently thought that if we could reduce stress, that would change the way entrepreneurs work. (But if) you don't have stress, you don't have a meaningful life. Stress is a natural part of life and it's more about how we respond to it than whether we have it or not. We hope we have stress in life. Otherwise we're not doing anything with it.”

So the ideal working environment isn’t one that’s stress-free (phew!), it’s actually one that allows us to cope in healthy ways with all the stressors we’re going to inevitably experience when we live a significant, meaningful life. 

What makes a healthy workplace?

His current company, WorkInsights, collects data to identify what’s standing in the way of getting employees onside, engaged and working together to deliver on company goals. They measure, analyse and provide insights to help organizations improve the work environment.  

Some of the metrics of a healthy work environment are:

  • Psychological safety: do you feel that you can say what you think without any retribution?

  •  Purpose: do people understand the big things we, as a company, do?

  • Alignment: are they committed to the purpose? 

  • Culture: how well do people work together?

  • Resilience: How ready are people for change?

It’s something to keep in mind: that even though we may not be responsible for our employees’ and team members’ mental health, we can and should feel a sense of responsibility to address it.

“Companies are now facing the fact that this isn't an individual problem; this is an organizational problem. Most of people's challenges (with) mental health are rooted in childhood, but they're usually triggered by work. So organizations can do one of the greatest things possible to help people, which is to raise awareness of what mental illness is, what it isn't, and to reduce that stigma.”

It starts with us, fellow business owners: setting the example, providing a role model,  showing interest and sharing vulnerability.

“The one thing that companies can do to make a difference is for leaders first to open up. Everyone says, ‘well we've got these wellness programs … we've done all these things’. Great. But until you talk, until you admit that and be vulnerable, other people are not going to feel that they can be.”

We all have our moments! It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Be present. Be grateful. Take your eyes off the prize now and then, and encourage your team, your leadership, and yourself, to celebrate how far you’ve come.

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