I’m not a mental-health professional, but I do know that I shouldn’t need to be one to create an environment that puts a priority on mental health.
As a society, we’re finally starting to gain a better understanding of how persistent stress can lead to serious mental-health issues. Even so, the impact of stress on entrepreneurs and startup employees has only recently come to the forefront over the last three-to-five years. In some ways, it’s not unlike how we learned about the impact of CTE on NFL players. Behaviors and traits that were commonplace all along suddenly had causes attributed to them.
The good news is that kind of knowledge is half the battle. The bad news is we’re still not doing a lot about it — not proactively anyway.
The Tricky Problem of Stress in a Startup
All jobs come with stress, some more than others, some much, much more than others. No one should need to equate or compare the inherent stress that comes with the job title of entrepreneur to that of surgeon, firefighter, or air traffic controller.
What makes entrepreneurism unique is not only its lack of resources — early stage startups usually don’t carry the best health plans or work/life policies — but the undeniable fact that entrepreneurism is a lonely pursuit. Even at companies with 10 or 20 employees, most of the work is done by individuals, with individual responsibilities, demands, and stressors.
This makes it tough to even recognize when stress is pushing someone to the edge, let alone respond to that stress and alleviate it. So as leaders in our various startups, we need to be proactive about stress in our workplace before issues arise.
What Proactive Response Means in a Limited-Resource Environment
Stress issues can surface in different behaviors and stem from different causes. Unless you’re clinically trained to diagnose mental-health issues, being proactive about identifying and responding to their precursors can be a quagmire of indecision and misunderstanding.
So speaking strictly as someone who isn’t a mental-health professional but has run my fair share of companies and teams, being proactive about mental health means creating an approach that allows for:
- Self-identification of when stress becomes a problem.
- A well-lit path out of the environment.
- Options for self-driven or professional solutions.
The actions that I’ve found that most complement this approach are:
- Preventative maintenance on stressors.
- Establishing programs and constantly communicating their existence.
- Short-term, medium-term, and long-term policies for leave.
The Root of All Stress
We can’t make a startup any less stressful. When you’re expected to take next to nothing and turn that into something amazing, stress is part of the plan. But we can control how stress flows through our startup, and it starts with identifying the main culprits.
Here are the ones I’ve seen most often.
Chasing Goals: Everybody has goals, everybody loves goals, everybody wants to fulfill more goals. This is in our entrepreneurial make-up. That said, goals are a double-edged sword. When we chase them too hard, for too long, especially during those times when we see little to no progress, goals can kick us in the ass.
Understand that goals, milestones, quotas, whatever you choose to chase are marathons, not sprints. No matter how joyous the pursuit, overload and overwork can always result in a tilt.
Financial Factors: People want to be altruistic, loyal, and motivated by something other than money — until money becomes a problem.
Understand that when finances are tight, stress will double.
Personal Problems: Everyone has them, no one likes to talk about them, and sometimes personal issues weigh on people more than they realize. Furthermore, prying into someone’s personal life can be really awkward, and in some cases not super ethical.
Understand that everyone has a life outside of the company, and sometimes this life isn’t all aces. When things aren’t going well at home, they likely don’t want to have to talk about it.
A lot of preventative maintenance isn’t found in a program, it’s mostly personal. And by that I mean leadership has to understand the people they’re leading, what their own personal and professional growth goals are, and how they react to failure.
Preventative maintenance starts with logical and aligned goals. Ask each member of your team what they want out their job and their career, and tie their goals to the company’s goals. Everyone is different in this regard. Some people are motivated by money, others are motivated by credit for their contributions, others just want to be there when the rocket fires.
Then mitigate the stress of failure. The best coaches I’ve ever known — and I’m talking about the locker room and on-the-field coaches, not the executive and boardroom coaches — celebrate wins and ignore losses. They don’t punish failure, they punish lack of effort.
In startup, everything is magnified, so go out of your way to accentuate the positive and mitigate the negative. Celebrate each and every sale if it makes sense. And when something or someone fails, leadership doesn’t analyze it, leadership doesn’t lecture about it, leadership doesn’t call an all-hands meeting to figure out what’s next. Leadership fixes it. If you’re a leader in a startup, and you want to teach your team how to overcome failure, let them learn by watching.
On the personal side, the best way to avoid the awkward situation of having to ask “Is everything OK at home?” is to perpetually be asking “How is everything at home?” You don’t have to be everyone’s friend, you just have to care.
Then you can have as many formal programs and beer Fridays and team-building outings as you want. Doing those things without personal awareness is just a waste of time.
Programs Should Be Exit Ramps
When I was a younger fellow, the last person I wanted to share my problems with was my boss. The second-to-last person I wanted in my business was the head of HR. You want your employees to be able to raise their hand without everyone prying into why.
Mental wellness programs should be a part of any health plan. And even if your company doesn’t offer a health plan yet, pay for an a la carte mental wellness plan, even if it’s just an escape hatch for someone to talk to. They’re cheap, and they will pay dividends.
The next steps are all about de-stressing, and, unfortunately, de-stressing means getting out of the environment for a day, maybe a week, maybe a month. Weigh this against the potential damage that an overly stressed employee can do to their productivity and their team.
Giving them some time away is a much better alternative.
Because of my own planned schedule, the impact of COVID-19 to my business, and the timing of the quarantine in my area, I haven’t had a day off since Christmas (just over six months). Furthermore, even if I had given myself a day off, I would have spent it plodding around my house — maybe a quick trip to the backyard.
This is the perfect time to force people to take a day out of the environment. Then turn that into a program. Create a stress day. Once a quarter, or whatever your schedule permits, have a day where people just don’t show up. It could be because they need it, it could be because they want it, no questions asked, and encourage them to use it. Then have management make sure everyone takes that day.
There will be all sorts of reasons why this is a bad idea. Deadlines! Meetings! Chain of command! Every single reason is a source of stress, which is exactly why you’d do it.
Establish medium- and long-term solutions as well. For the medium-term, no one should go more than six months without a week’s break. For the long term, as someone moves up within the company, find the logical career transition points and give them some time away to come back and tackle their new responsibilities with a fresh perspective.
If your people really are your greatest asset, everything else can take a back seat to accommodate their mental health.
Why We’re at a Startup
Look, I’ll let you in on a secret. We’re not at a startup to meet quarterly results. We just aren’t. Investors can expect this, sales can push for it, but ultimately we’re in this for other reasons.
We love what we do. We don’t need to be told to do it eight hours a day, five days a week, plus the 20-100 percent extra time that all of us put in because that’s just what we do. We don’t need to be told when to show up; we need to be told when to leave.
The best entrepreneurs and startup employees aren’t in it for the money or the power or the fame. We’re in it for growth, personal and professional. That includes the good, the bad, successes, failures, mistakes, wins, losses, and everything in between.
What we really need is the space for all that to happen.