How Startup Founders Can Prioritize Their Mental Health

Cherry Rose Tan, General Partner at Renew VC and an Entrepreneur-In-Residence at Schulich School of Business shares her perspectives on founder mental health.

Curated by
: Stefan Palios in partnership with MindFrame Connect

Nearly two-thirds (62%) of Canadian entrepreneurs feel depressed at least once per week.

This statistic, unfortunately, doesn’t shock most entrepreneurs. The difficulty of building businesses cannot be understated, regardless of the support and funding available. If anything, a deluge of support and advice could lead to advisor whiplash, which could further contribute to feelings of confusion and being lost on the path.

But there are ways forward.

Cherry Rose Tan, General Partner at Renew VC and an Entrepreneur-In-Residence at Schulich School of Business at York University shared her insights learned from years as a founder and mental health advocate.

What founders are up against

It’s easy to compare a high-stress job to being an entrepreneur and think they are roughly equal. However, that’s not the case: While only 8% of the general Canadian population reports their mental health as “poor or fair,” 21% of entrepreneurs report they don’t even feel good about their mental health once per week, let alone on a regular basis.

Further, Entrepreneurs need to actively worry about issues employees don’t like cash flow and recruiting talent, for instance, both of which add significant stress. Nearly seven in ten (67%) entrepreneurs were stressed about their business’ cash flow. In the same study, over one-third (36%) also experienced stress about finding the right talent for their company.

This all leads to a feeling of exhaustion—60% report feeling tired, low, or having low energy. And nearly half (46%) of entrepreneurs say mental health issues impact their ability to deliver at work. And, unfortunately, the same study found this is more likely to happen for early-stage entrepreneurs who face more pressure to grow into escape velocity, particularly if VC-funded.

What founders can do to maintain and improve mental health

For founders struggling with exhaustion or mental health issues impacting your ability to deliver at work, you aren’t alone. Here are four frameworks other entrepreneurs have found helpful.

1. Give yourself permission to have feelings

One thing Tan noticed in her research on founder mental health is that many entrepreneurs simply never gave themselves permission to have feelings. They fell into the hustle mentality trap that everything had to be about the business and having a bad day was somehow their fault, rather than something that happens to everyone.

The issue with this, said Tan, is that the experience of a founder is traumatic with a lot of highs and lows. When you bottle up every emotion and only focus on the next piece of work, that can explode in a moment when you were least expecting it.

“The way we might respond might not be our highest expression is a leader,” said Tan.

Tan added the way forward isn’t to get mad at yourself for exploding—it’s to allow yourself to have feelings in the first place. And it’s ok if you aren’t that good at it in the beginning.

“We're also going to be talking and going into the realm of feelings or actually being with those things. I also feel like that's a learned skill,” said Tan.

2. Prioritize yourself even when it’s hard

Marie Chevrier, the founder of the product sampling company Sampler, realized one day she was completely burnt out. She shared the story on her LinkedIn, noting she finally realized what was going on when she would come home crying at the end of every long work day.

Here are some ways Marie prioritized herself to regain her sense of self:

1. She started working four days per week rather than five
. That didn’t mean totally off, but she didn’t go into the office or do substantive work.

“I was available for important messages and emails but one day a week I stayed in pyjamas, took naps, and read,” Chevrier wrote in her LinkedIn post. “Important note: I read fiction not business books.”

2. She sought additional perspective. She mentioned in her post that she already had a vacation planned, so she committed to truly being on vacation rather than popping into work virtually.

“I found a way to let myself be fully there. Immersed myself in a new place, new food, and a new culture,” Chevrier wrote.

3. She realized burnout has nothing to do with passion
. Like many entrepreneurs, she loves her company, her customers, and her team. But she also realized she could still burn out even if she loved the work.

“Loving what you do as much as many of us do, can seriously impact your health if you don’t check in with yourself and stay balanced,” Chevrier wrote.

3. Plan for the worst case

Ok, you think something bad is going to happen? Name it, plan for mitigations, see if there are alternatives, then put a plan in place.

This is the advice Jason Courtepatte, an Edmonton-based entrepreneur, shared during a Futurpreneur virtual workshop on founder mental health.

“I was surprised at how logical the steps were – you do this and that, you recover, you move on, you start again,” Courtepatte said on the panel. “Once I looked it in the face, that actually gave me the courage to face it and move on.”

4. Find community support

Jesse Rodgers has been an entrepreneur coach and accelerator executive for over 15 years in Kitchener. When he’s worked with founders who are struggling, his first piece of advice is to find community.

“We do need to work on our sense of community,” Rodgers wrote in an op-ed published in BetaKit. “... Find spaces where you build relationships with other humans, in meatspace or the metaverse.”

An important caveat to all these frameworks and tactics is you do not need to tackle these problems by yourself. You can work with your team on any of them and you should feel empowered to seek professional guidance from a therapist or other licensed professional.

You aren’t alone

On top of looking into the statistic about mental health, Tan also spoke with over 50 founders, investors, and other tech ecosystem leaders to better understand their challenges.

She said a common theme emerged—everyone felt completely alone in their struggles.

Tan’s ending note is that you should never have to feel alone if you’re struggling with mental health challenges as a founder. Not only are there supports available, but a lot of other individuals might also privately be dealing with something they don’t share outward. But when you reach out and talk to them, like Tan did, the walls often come down.

“I know it sounds cheesy, but it is very true and I mean it sincerely is for founders to really know that they're not alone,” said Tan.

Share this Resource

Want incredible results from your mentorship program?
Then download our comprehensive list of best practices.

We draw these best practices from the first-hand experience of program managers like you and our own expertise. This white paper is a comprehensive guide that will be your roadmap to building a world-class mentoring program.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Want to improve your mentorship skills?
Subscribe to our newsletter and stay up to date on the latest frameworks, tools, and more.
Thank you for subscribing!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form. Please Try again