Stress, Burnout, and Mental Illness: The Silent Killers of Entrepreneurs

Big data spurs on radical developments in the industry and business opportunity, tech hotbeds around the world bolster the ever-growing ranks of entrepreneurs, and small businesses are popping up all over America. There has arguably never been a better time for entrepreneurs in the past 20 years, and yet we see a darker side to an otherwise bright picture.

Entrepreneurs in 2020 are notoriously overworked. In fact, being overworked is often considered a point of pride. Sleep deprivation is worn in the office like a badge of honor–to the point where Co-workers might brag over lunch how many nights of sleep they have lost working on a project. These workplace trends corrode the health of the individual, and yet we see these trends proliferate because as professionals overwork themselves, they expect their coworkers to do the same–an expectation that can be all the more forceful in investors.

This means that entrepreneurs are perhaps most at-risk to experience the related consequences since entrepreneurs are the individuals who usually work under the assumption that “the more work they do, the better.”

Mental Illness and Entrepreneurship

Thus the following statistics on the prevalence of mental illness in entrepreneurs are startling but not surprising. The National Alliance of Mental Illness, one in five Americans experience a mental illness each year, representing a profound drain on the U.S. economy–even greater than the economic drain of physical illness–which is estimated to be around 200 billion in lost earnings alone annually.

This is a bleak reality all on its own, and yet the picture is even worse for entrepreneurs who suffer from mental illness at a higher rate than the national average.  According to a study by Michael Freeman, a psychiatrist, psychologist and former CEO who serves on the faculty of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, entrepreneurs are 50% more likely to report having a mental health condition, with some specific conditions being more prevalent among founders. Even more alarming is this finding–a whopping 72% of entrepreneurs surveyed self-reported mental health concerns.

And these figures only represent self-report of mental illness, meaning the true figure may be much larger. And if that is the case, then the reality is nothing short of terrifying. Here’s a rundown of specific mental illness rates within the entrepreneur population: 2X more likely to suffer from depression

  • 6X more likely to suffer from ADHD
  • 3X more likely to suffer from substance abuse
  • 10X more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder

What Are the Risk Factors?

With such alarming statistics, the first question to ask is how to prevent these outcomes, and prevention only occurs after the accurate identification of the underlying causes. According to Freeman’s study, these three are the primary risk factors associated with entrepreneurs and independent professionals that might lead to the negative outcomes of mental illness:

  • Isolation: One of the primary factors contributing to mental illness in entrepreneurs is isolation. Entrepreneurs and independent professionals may work from home or work remotely from a coffee shop or internet cafe. Point being that they often work alone, or even if they are working around people, they are not working with them in the same way a typical office worker might. Isolation is across the board one of the strongest contributors to either agitating pre-existing mental illness or presenting a new-onset.
  • Stress: This one is common sense. Entrepreneurs fly by the seat of their pants and take onto their shoulders all the various responsibilities of an entire business operation. Great responsibility translates to great pressure and pressure is a function of stress. All the research points to a reality where increases in stress equate to increased risks to both physical and mental health. This is why progressive companies like google invest heavily in stress reduction in order to raise productivity and performance metrics.
  • Predisposition: This is perhaps the most interesting factor highlighted in Freeman’s research. His research has shown that there may be a link between the familial history of mental illness and entrepreneurial drive. His research explains that the characteristics of entrepreneurs–the desire for control, creative ‘outside the lines’ thinking, and strong passions–are characteristics more present in mentally ill populations than control groups.

What follows is a question of causality. In other words, are these characteristics what drive entrepreneurs towards mental illness? Or are these predispositions of mental illness what drive individuals toward entrepreneurship? Much more research needs to be done before we know a comprehensive answer.

Mindful Navigation of a Threatening Landscape

One of the most burdensome impediments towards improving the outlook for entrepreneurs is the lack of actionable advice to glean from the above considerations. What most of our experts will say about this situation is that we need to reduce the workload of entrepreneurs. And yet if you discuss lessening the workload with entrepreneurs, 99% of them will respond with, “well, that would be nice” and the wave of a hand. Moreover, some of the most maladaptive habits in entrepreneurs are behaviors that the individuals are most stubbornly committed to.

Here’s a breakdown of some of the worst business habits and how to break them.

But how do we give actionable guidance to a population of chronically overworked professionals, who are so totally convinced by the notion that they must be working–as much as possible–at all times? Forbes came out with an article a few years ago outlining the devastating price of entrepreneurship for many individuals and their families, and the consideration therein was that any change will have to be slow and deliberate a reprogramming in equal measure to the slow programming that has been occurring in America since the industrial boom in the 1950s where American businesspeople came to believe any challenge could be overcome by hard work.

There is a renewed look at the philosophy of working smarter, not harder, which will produce the greatest results for entrepreneurs. Workplace statistics around the world illustrate that more free time, vacations, and weekends all contribute to greater workplace efficiency.

Moreover, we see this truth pursued vigorously by progressive companies all over the country–with meditation rooms, massage tables, and even nap areas becoming a more common sight at Fortune 500 companies. But these practices should not be limited to only the top-end American companies, these practices should be the minimum bar for any workplace in 2020. This may seem like an extreme position, but the statistics pointing to such extreme and widespread suffering in our country best and brightest demands an equally severe response.

Actionable Tips for Improving the Entrepreneurial Experience

While there is no quick-fix, thankfully we have tremendous resources for dealing with the individual factors contributing to the big picture of entrepreneurial suffering. Awareness of these issues is improving and with this awareness, we are seeing an increase in resources tooled to help entrepreneurs address the particular aspects of entrepreneurial life that might be most challenging to that individual. In fact, these resources are so expansive that an individual will likely be able to find a guide to remedying the unique challenges they face.

Here’s one such guide dedicated purely to the psychological experience of pursuing better concentration and focus at work.

After exploring the wealth of available guides and resources, here’s a quick rundown of the some of the best and most actionable tips for generally improving the entrepreneurial experience:

  • Address Physical Pain – Many entrepreneurs find themselves sitting for hours on end and as such many of them experience horrible back and neck pains. Physical distraction can be detrimental to workplace efficiency, and therefore can be a stress multiplier. Here’s a great guide for identifying, managing, and curing different types of pain.
  • Set Specific Times Where You Don’t Work Many entrepreneurs will protest this one and insist there is simply no way they can make themselves unavailable. Well, it is doable, but you have to prioritize it. If you do not set aside time for yourself, then how can you expect your employees or partners to respect your personal time and space? While it might appear to the contrary, that email or phone call can probably wait until morning. The simple fact being that if some sacrifices have to be made in order to grant you some personal time, then those sacrifices are mandatory.
  • Start Your Day with Meditation The research on the benefits of meditation for those experiencing elevated stress is undeniable. It has been shown to lessen anxiety and improve creativity, both of which are some of the most desirable results for any entrepreneur. In short, it works. Do it.
  • Physical Exercise – An entrepreneur’s world is fraught with mental stress, and one of the most tried and true methods for exercising the demons of mental turmoil is to expel energy in the physical spectrum. This practice is popular with the most successful entrepreneurs who have learned to create an outlet for all their pent up frustration and anxiety.
  • Get Enough Sleep – Look. Every entrepreneur probably has at least some level of superman syndrome–the idea that they are immune to some of the same weaknesses of the average human. As much as you may think you do not need seven or eight hours of sleep, you do. If you are high-functioning without sleep, imagine how much better you can perform with the correct amount of sleep.
  • Do Something Creative – When the only time you exercise your creativity is during your workday, you are unwittingly shutting off parts of your mental process that are crucial to creative thinking and analysis. By practicing your creativity outside of work, you are training your brain to think outside the box of your day to day routine, which can be a godsend for creative problem-solving.
  • Stay in Contact with Family and Friends – Talking regularly with your parents can improve levels of oxytocin, the molecule responsible for love and trust. This can help improve the mental fatigue that arises from business relationships being notoriously fickle beasts. Upkeeping friendships can be a great way to unwind stress and detach from the daily work grind, and moreover both of these strategies will contribute to lessening the impact of isolation in the entrepreneurial lifestyle–an important aspect of decreasing the risk of mental illness.

Conclusion

American entrepreneurs face a host of challenges in 2020. These challenges are responsible for claiming countless lives of America’s best and brightest, but the rising awareness of these challenges and the threat they represent is creating a new wave of well-informed entrepreneurs, who are willing to do what it takes to ensure their health and the health of their coworkers.

Like anything in the golden age of the internet however, entrepreneurs must be willing to take advantage of the resources and information made available to them online. Because doing so might just be the only effective strategy to counterbalance what has been an ever-increasing drift towards horrific outcomes in health for entrepreneurs. If you are an entrepreneur, or if your loved one is, then it is paramount that you help raise awareness of the severe consequence of overwork and burnout, because lives are truly on the line.

Mark Thomasson
Mark is a biz-dev hero at Invoicebus - a simple invoicing service that gets your invoices paid faster. He passionately blogs on topics that help small biz owners succeed in their business. He is also a lifelong learner who practices mindfulness and enjoys long walks in nature more than anything else.
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