An Anxious Truth: Stress and Depression in Startups

They’ve become household names: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg — and so many more. The entrepreneurs who made it big, who inspire others to try to do the same. 

We know entrepreneurship has inherent risks. Between 30 and 40 percent of startups end in investors losing most or all of their investment, according to research from Harvard Business School. And 70 to 80 percent of entrepreneurial ventures fail to meet the projected return on investment. 

But there are oft-overlooked personal risks for the entrepreneurs who pour blood, sweat, tears and so many hours into their companies — even the successful ones. Thirty percent of entrepreneurs reported a lifetime history of depression in a 2015 study from researchers led by Dr. Michael Freeman of the University of California San Francisco.

There have been some well-known entrepreneurs who have taken their own lives, prompting others to speak out in recent years. During National Suicide Prevention Month, we wanted to address this difficult topic — and steps that can help entrepreneurs cope with seemingly unending demands and elevated stress.

Entrepreneurs are more likely than other workers to be worried and stressed, according to research. Why is this demographic vulnerable to anxiety?

Until you’ve actually owned and run a business, you really have no idea how much it takes of you — both personally and professionally. Not only does everything you have depend upon whether or not you’re successful, you’re probably working so much longer and harder than you ever have before. That takes a toll on how well you care for yourself, and it also eliminates your free time and gives you little or no time to unwind with family and friends.

How can entrepreneurs maintain healthy relationships and personal lives while launching and growing their businesses?

Get sleep, eat properly, maintain a healthy exercise program, and set boundaries. It’s proven that down time will improve your creativity, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle will help you balance the stress that comes from being everything to everyone.

When you don’t have time for traditional “self care” like exercise, what are some ways entrepreneurs can stay healthy?

You can exercise at your desk. You can walk farther through the parking lot. You can bring a healthy lunch versus eating take-out at your desk every day. You can encourage healthy habits within your business. You can have meetings while you’re walking if you just decide to do it. When wellness becomes part of the fabric of the business and everyone is doing it, it becomes less of a chore.

What resources are available for entrepreneurs who are depressed or suicidal?

In serious situations, seek professional help immediately. Free and confidential help is available from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline through an online chat or by calling 1-800-273-8255.

If you’re simply looking to learn more about the situation and what has helped other entrepreneurs, a couple of Inc. articles include input from some who say talking about the problem is part of the solution. Click on these links to read The Psychological Price of Entrepreneurship or a personal story in the column Entrepreneurial Life Shouldn’t be This Way — Should It? by entrepreneur Brad Feld, co-founder of TechStars and managing director at Foundry Group. Here’s Feld’s blog, which includes his posts about mental health.

Take care of yourself - and let the light in.