Entrepreneurs beware: Behind the label of tireless visionaries can lurk mental exhaustion and depression
A sudden bout of intense insomnia was the first sign that Megan te Boekhorst’s mental health was declining after she launched her first communications business in 2018.
“I went two full nights without sleep,” she says. “And that became a constant problem. It had its benefits because I got a lot of work done, but I had to ask myself how good the work actually was.”
Te Boekhorst, 28, has suffered through intermittent periods of insomnia and high anxiety ever since. The most recent incidents occurred after her February 2019 launch of One in Five Apparel; a clothing line venture aimed at generating conversations around mental health issues.
As referenced in her company name, one in five Canadians personally experience a mental health problem or illness in any given year and the number may be higher among entrepreneurs, according to recent research by the Canadian Mental Health Association and Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC).
Of the 500 small and mid-sized business owners surveyed, 21 per cent said they were unsatisfied with their mental health, compared with just 8 per cent of the general population in Canada. In addition, almost two-thirds of business owners felt depressed at least once a week, and almost half said mental health issues interfered with their ability to work.
Part of the problem, says Annie Marsolais, chief marketing officer for the BDC, is the popular view of entrepreneurs as “tireless visionaries” who push past obstacles without getting down.
“You’re taking a leap of faith in something you’re building — that’s a lot of anxiety and a lot of pressure,” one CEO told the BDC. Yet, entrepreneurs can be reluctant to show vulnerability because (in the words of another respondent) “it’s not compatible with the image that you want to project.”
Some segments of the entrepreneurial population — like women and those in early-stage companies — “are even more likely to report mental health conditions,” according to Marsolais. That may well be related to the long hours associated with launching a startup business, scarce cash flow and sometimes the overwhelming sense of responsibility.
“Entrepreneurs have their entire organization on their shoulders, including their employees and their families,” says Marsolais. “It’s a lot of weight to carry.”
As te Boekhorst can attest, exercise, healthy eating and regular sleep often fall by the wayside as entrepreneurs struggle to get their businesses off the ground. “My exercise is carrying boxes of clothing,” she says.
Perhaps even more pertinent, many early-stage founders have to pay out of pocket for counselling and support, perhaps accounting for the BDC/CMHA findings that fewer than one in five are likely to seek professional help.
“When you go out on your own, you don’t have any extended health care benefits,” te Boekhorst says. “A lot of the discussions I’ve had with my doctors about my mental care are about what they can do for me that is covered by OHIP (Ontario Health Insurance Plan).”
As part of its mandate to support entrepreneurs, the BDC is currently pulling together a list of accessible, affordable and anonymous tools to help entrepreneurs manage their mental health. But for now te Boekhorst, who has suffered from an eating disorder and depression, mostly relies on more natural methods of controlling stress and anxiety.
She shuts off her computer and other devices at night to help cope with insomnia and sometimes uses essential oils and yoga or breathing exercises before bed to help with sleeping.
But she contends, “I would not get through this without my support system of like-minded entrepreneurs. I know I can always turn to them to talk through my struggles, which is a huge help, and they can bring fresh perspective and insight to what I’m facing.”
That’s crucial, says Marsolais, who hopes the BDC/CMHA research will dispel some of the taboos around talking about mental health and encourage entrepreneurs to open up and seek help if necessary. “Entrepreneurs are human beings first and foremost, and they are not immune to mental health issues,” she says.
Te Boekhorst concurs. “The more entrepreneurs open up about the fact that it’s not all sunshine and rainbows all the time,” she says, “the more they will understand it’s okay to take care of ‘me’. Ultimately how else can you take care of your business?”