“I have spent a fortune in setting up my online garment business. Earlier I was getting orders, but there’s hardly any growth from the last few months,” says Sushmita, owner of Sampoorna collections. “Besides that, it is a lonely road,” she adds. She is joined in her endeavour by her husband, M Biswas, who also works in a private office. “These are difficult times, and it is difficult to sustain.” He also echoed his wife’s fears of being lonely and how it impacted their peace and mental health.
It is said that “it’s lonely at the top”, but the fact is, as Sushmita mentions, “it can be very lonely on the way up but much worse at the bottom.” In COVID times, with working from home, online meetings, and no connection with the outside world, “it is like living in a bubble and is lonely.”
Human beings need associations. Author Johann Hari writes in his book – Lost Connections – “humans need tribes, like bees need hives”- and it would not be wrong to say that the cocktail of all things that happened in the last one year has made everyone, more so entrepreneurs, with their ventures suffering losses, susceptible to various mental health issues.
Just the Absence of Mental Health Problems is Not Enough
Mental health is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as not merely the absence of mental health problems but as a “state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and can make a contribution to her or his community.” During recent COVID times, entrepreneurs are facing challenges to sustain. They are unable to cope with the stress, and financial stress has subdued their excitement and courage. Their productivity has decreased, and often family relationships get impacted.
Dr Mridula Seth, author, development communications professional and mental health activist, says, “Life satisfaction is connected with our work, family and environment. And for entrepreneurs, it is connected with their work and self.” Her nephew is an entrepreneur and runs an online store.
As per the WHO definition of mental health, the community’s role becomes vital in tackling the rising mental health issues. A study by the University of San Francisco researcher Michael Freeman while dissecting the number of mental health issues, opines that the impact is more visible among the entrepreneurial community. The findings of the research are pretty shocking. The study points out that nearly 49% of entrepreneurs suffer from one form of mental health conditions in their lifetime. His research mentions that start-up founders are:
- Twice as likely to suffer from depression
- Six times more likely to suffer from ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)
- Three times more likely to suffer from substance abuse
- 10 times more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder
- Twice as likely to have a psychiatric hospitalization
- Twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts
Nearly 49% of entrepreneurs suffer from one form of mental health conditions in their lifetime
Job Satisfaction for Entrepreneurs: Is the formula different?
For entrepreneurs, job satisfaction is more closely related to satisfaction with life, family and self than it is for employees, reflecting the centrality of work in their life. Entrepreneur Shikhar Pabi began his entrepreneur journey in 2019. His company Purple Rabbit is into digital marketing and has an e-commerce portal. He says, “It is very challenging to be an entrepreneur. Yes, it does affect our mental health. There is uncertainty, and nowadays, investors are not coming forward. And to survive these difficult times, one needs to have inner strength and conviction.” To overcome obstacles and maintain a healthy mind, he motivates himself by seeing autobiographical films. “Motivational films help me to maintain sanity and give me strength to chase my goal.”
He emphasized that entrepreneurs face working conditions that are more challenging than those of salaried employees. “Being an entrepreneur means uncertainty, responsibility, and complexity. As an employee, one is sure of the salary at the end of the month. But as entrepreneurs, we have to generate income to support ourselves, employees as well as to think about the scalability of our projects.”
Often entrepreneurs are trained to ignore the qualitative needs of their well-being measured in meaningful relationships, satisfaction and happiness. As an entrepreneur, they believe in the traditional sermon – ‘no pain, no gain.’ They have internalized this advice from elders and believe that success can only be measured in quantitative returns. “What matters is how much we invest and the return it gives us,” says Rakhee Singhi, an entrepreneur based in Chennai. She runs a health and body fitness centre. She began her entrepreneurship journey immediately after college. It has often given her sleepless nights. “I began a boutique, experimented with many other projects, but today I am a health and body expert.”
Entrepreneurship satisfaction and happiness depend on return on investment and profit. There’s a constant tussle between quantitative returns and qualitative sustainability. And in this puzzle, many a time entrepreneurs crumble, their mental health deteriorates in the cutthroat competitiveness.
A dream career full of potholes
Rahul Sachdeva (name withheld on request) dreamt of being an entrepreneur from his school days. After college, he, along with his friend, began an IT firm. For the initial two years, they hardly had clients. The loan mounted. They picked up all sorts of work, and in front of the employees, they pretended. But their calm demeanour masked a secret. Alone, they would discuss their fears. Their ship was sinking deeper into the debt. Then came the boiling point when both of them reached the brink of financial collapse and nervous breakdown. Both of them saw their dreams crumbling. From employers, they became employees. “We were completely broken. Our mental health was bruised,” recalls Rahul. It was because of their understanding families that both of them were able to pay off the loans. This happened five years ago, and they have not forgotten their dream. They hope to restart their entrepreneur journey once normalcy returns.
Unlike them, not everyone who walks through darkness sees the sunshine. On 27 January 2013, well-known founder Jody Sherman, 47, of the e-commerce site Ecomom died by suicide. A few days later during the board meeting, a shocking financial fact was shared – the company was broke. Its liabilities were far greater than assets. Ecomom was shut down. The company that began with 28-people, managed to raise more than $12 million total – ran out of cash. And surprisingly no one at the company knew anything about it. Jody Sherman’s death sent shivers down the spine of the start-up community.
The definition of leadership has changed with the advent of social media. Expressing oneself in social media is no more a sign of frailty.
Globally, the business forums began to show concern for entrepreneurs’ mental health and the associated stigmatization of mental health issues. Unfortunately, even now mental health issues are discussed behind closed doors. Families are still labelled and often isolated. And entrepreneurs are part of this society and mindset. “All said and done, mental illness and mental health issues are still unacceptable to families and society,” says Dr Mridula Seth. In her book- Minding the Mind: A Volunteer’s Insights on Mental Health, she writes, “Media plays a pivotal role in the stigmatization of mental illness and therefore could also play a role in the de-stigmatization process.” According to her though awareness is essential, concrete steps are needed to minimize the mental health risks of entrepreneurs “who day after day are caught in the conundrum of quantity, quality and investment return.”
Despite the road to top being full of challenges and bumpy, many view entrepreneurship as glamorous, full of excitement, a dream career where one is one’s own boss. True. But the journey is full of potholes and often gives birth to fragile mental health. In this scenario, many young entrepreneurs feel that there should be healthy competition, and each should make other competitors less lonely. “Only this can make entrepreneurs less vulnerable to mental health issues,” agrees Shikhar Pabi.
How to Make Entrepreneurs Less vulnerable to Mental Health Issues
According to Rakhee Singhi, there is an urgent need to discuss each others’ problems. “There should be honesty and trust. To be honest about our stress, anxiety, depression, panic attacks, loneliness – about any emotion. We all are human, and we have our bad days, good days, and mood variations as a human. Competition does not matter. What matters is to care for someone else.”
According to her and many other young entrepreneurs, the definition of leadership has changed with the advent of social media. Expressing oneself in social media is no more a sign of frailty. It has dimmed the distance between entrepreneurs and employees. “By being honest on social media, one passes a message to employees that by being honest about my mental health, I respect their mental health status, too,” says Shikhar Pabi.
We talk about Inc 500 companies. We worship successful entrepreneurs. But we forget entrepreneurs like Sachdeva and Jody Sherman who couldn’t make it. We forget about their mental health. We forget that every entrepreneur who has made it big has spent sleepless nights fighting demons of mental health – alone. They keep searching for happiness, healthy return on investment and live fearing ‘what if’ everything crumbles.
Entrepreneurship is a long, narrow, challenging journey and often lonely. But being considerate about competitors and honest about one’s mental health passes a positive message to the employees. Dr Mridula Seth states, “Reaching out will create an entrepreneurs tribe and give assurance that one is not alone. Only such acts can create the difference in the lives and mental health of entrepreneurs.”