Mental health of entrepreneurs – Why don’t we talk about it openly?
Updated: Dec 8, 2020
Earlier this year, Lenny Mendonca, a former Senior Partner at the prestigious consulting firm McKinsey & Company, suddenly resigned as Chief Economic and Business Advisor to California Governor Gavin Newsom. During that time, he was working around the clock coordinating the State’s coronavirus response. To many, it was surprising that Lenny would leave this position when a lot of work had just gotten started.
A few months later, Lenny revealed that he had faced a period of severe depression and anxiety and had to take time off for self-care. Against the counsel of his friends and colleagues, Lenny decided to share his experience publicly. He said, “Far too often, people suffer these illnesses with shame and without support.”
Why is it so hard for business leaders to share their mental health challenges openly? Why should mental illness be different from other forms of illness, like diabetes or cancer?
That’s because, just like Lenny said, there is a sense of shame associated with mental illness. For some reason, society expects its leaders, including entrepreneurs, to be invincible. When we talk about entrepreneurs, we think of them as being “tenacious” and “tough”. We probably don’t think too much about their emotional needs. For sure, entrepreneurs have to be tough to overcome all odds to succeed in building their businesses. Not only do they need to be tough for themselves, they also need to be tough for their employees. When things don’t go well, they are the ones others count on for solutions. During difficult times, when everyone else is feeling down, they are expected to be cheerful and optimistic. Many people see entrepreneurs as examples of people with mental resilience, but they may not see the struggles they go through to build a successful enterprise.
As a result of these societal expectations or a collective willingness to “ignore the pain”, many entrepreneurs subconsciously build an “armor” to appear invincible, at least for self-protection.
But nobody is invincible. Entrepreneurs face lots of pressures, have many fears and can make mistakes. Navigating competitive markets and executing plans carry inherent risks every day. The job itself is very stressful, and doing it day in and day out can take a toll on anyone. If entrepreneurs have to suppress their fears, or “fake it”, stresses will build up. Gradually, stress will snowball into a much bigger health problem.
That’s why mental health issues affect entrepreneurs more often than others. According to the American Psychiatric Association, 1 in 6 people experience depression in their lifetime. However, a staggering 30% of entrepreneurs experience depression in their lives. Society puts a lot of pressure on entrepreneurs to succeed. Entrepreneurs work hard and put in long hours over many years before their businesses reach a scale that allows them to hire enough staff to help manage the business. Being the top person in the company, they sit in the corner office, with no one to confide their own anxieties or fears. As leaders, entrepreneurs take care of their people, but who takes care of them?
Over the past 10 months, the pandemic lock down has presented additional challenges to many entrepreneurs. In a July 2020 survey of 2,000 US workers conducted by Metlife, about 30% of employees said they were experiencing burnout, and 66% said they felt symptoms of burnout. Entrepreneurs are leaders in their companies. While they are taking steps to ensure the mental well-being of their employees, they could be facing burnout themselves.
Lenny Mendonca was brave to have openly shared his own experience with mental illness. There was a larger purpose behind his courage. He wanted to remove the stigma behind mental illness. He urged leaders to ensure that people can find care and support for mental health challenges without negatively impacting their professional growth. As a society, we are not there yet, but I hope we will get there soon.
Other brave leaders have also been raising awareness of mental health problems occurring in the competitive business environment. Arianna Huffington, the co-founder of the Huffington Post, has been consistently advocating the importance of a good night’s sleep. She once collapsed in her Los Angeles office after two years of working 18 hour days to build her business. That incident changed her life, and she has since been devoting time to advocating self-care for busy leaders. Since 2019, the Harvard Business Review has been hosting a weekly podcast “The Anxious Achiever”, providing a space for entrepreneurs and business leaders to share their stories of anxiety and depression. Mora Aarons-Mele, the show’s host, is not shy about her own anxiety, and has encouraged many others to open up about their struggles.
The challenge facing entrepreneurs is real, and it’s never going to go away. As a former entrepreneur, I hope we can all be aware of the mental health challenges they encounter. More importantly, we should do our part to create an open and supportive community in which fellow entrepreneurs can thrive in. It takes courage to be vulnerable. I know we all have it in us, so let’s be brave.
“Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.” -- Brené Brown
Written by Jackie Luo, TCV Partner