Startup culture and mental health
A conversation with Victoria Trepp, Chief Psychologist at Mindler
Hello, everyone! I hope you all had a joyful Christmas and a great start to 2022.
This time of the year, we tend to reflect on the past and make plans for the future.
We are often naive to the notion that growth comes at a cost, whether it's personal resolutions or strategic planning. But growth is always a delicate balancing act full of compromises, trade-offs, and collaterals. So, for my first post of the year, I'd like to discuss an aspect of growth that is all too frequently overlooked: mental health.
Since I'm not an expert, I invited a licensed psychologist to answer some questions. We covered mental health issues affecting startup founders, as well as how to build a healthy culture and new year resolutions, myths, and trends.
Victoria Trepp is a clinical psychologist who works as the Chief Psychologist at Mindler. Mindler is an online psychologist service with more than 300 psychologists in Sweden, the UK, France, and the Netherlands.
E: Several studies have shown that entrepreneurs are more likely to suffer from mental health issues than the general population. In your experience, what are the main factors that make startup founders more vulnerable to these problems?
V: It is probably a question of both personality/traits, but also the stressful context and situations that entrepreneurs constantly have to operate in.
Entrepreneurs are often high in energy, creative, restless, and driven both by extreme willpower and to some extent - frustration. These traits, together with the responsibility of building a company from nothing to success, are hard. Many don't make it. Many entrepreneurs are working around the clock (at least mentally) and have difficulties winding down and getting the recovery which is crucial for both physical and mental well-being. Being creative, having lots of energy and willpower are great traits to have in order to make it as an entrepreneur. But they are also traits that can wear a person down if you let it gallop at full speed without rest and time for recreation. In order to function optimally and stay healthy in the long run, it is crucial to pause and do something else (than work) on a regular basis. To a higher degree than others, this might be something that entrepreneurs postpone to later.
The responsibility that comes with being an entrepreneur, towards staff but also towards investors, are usually a high-stress factor - making realistic roadmaps, keeping deadlines, house holding the economy, showing growth...just to name a few. Sometimes commitments to staff and investors go on a collision course, which contributes to increased stress.
As an entrepreneur, you need to have a huge tolerance for uncertainty. As humans, we seek to predict, understand and seek control. In the loss of control, we feel anxious and afraid and start worrying. Feelings of not being able to cope with uncertainty can eventually lead to feeling depressed.
Entrepreneurs at times have to work with people who are not as passionate and wholeheartedly dedicated to the business as themselves. That can be a factor of irritation that lead to frustration and tension. Early on in a start-up, I think it is especially crucial to have passionate people who really believe in the business in order to help build the company.
E: Building a startup is definitely a rollercoaster experience for all involved. As leaders, what indicators should founders look for to ensure team members are well? What tools can be used to measure emotional well-being?
V: In my opinion, the best tools we have are our eyes and ears.
As a leader, make it a daily habit to observe those around you (this should be part of the leader's job description). Do your coworkers come to eat lunch? Do they seek eye contact and smile? What does the coffee machine talk sound like? Is someone working more often from home than usual, and what could that be a symptom of? Is someone changing their usual behavior, what might be the reason for that?
If you suspect that someone is not feeling well, don´t wait and see! Ask for a 5-minute talk and bring up your concerns. The person in question will almost certainly appreciate you asking. If something is bothering the person in question, make time as soon as possible to talk it through more thoroughly, don´t wait until the next performance review. But also respect the person who does not want to talk, maybe he or she is just not ready. Make sure you give an open invitation to talk in case the person changes his/her mind.
E: I couldn't agree with you more, proactivity is crucial. And for the anecdote, I often say that the best tools for marketers are their eyes and ears as well.
Historically, the so-called “hustle culture” (a workaholic lifestyle) has been prevalent in the tech industry, though it has proven to be counterproductive. How can startup founders instill a positive mental health culture from day one? As companies finalize their budgets for 2022, is mental health something they should budget for?
V: Yes, mental health is something they should budget for! It will save people and money. At Mindler we have the possibility to use a so-called "Mental Health Day" once every quarter. It’s a paid day that employees can use when feeling tired or a bit worn out. The day can involve activities like spending time in nature, watching old movies, yoga, doing sports, reading...
Also budget for kick-offs and other fun activities. When people laugh and have fun together they bond, and when people feel a bond with others they work better together and they dare to be sincere with each other. This will affect the overall mental health of the whole company.
Founders can instill a positive mental health culture from day one by talking about and acknowledging mental health issues. Sharing personal stories about one's own mental health issues (past or present) are very appreciated and creates an open and safe work environment (at least in Sweden with our flat organization structures). What you are showing is "it's human and ok to sometimes not feel your best". By talking about, and acknowledging mental health issues we will gradually destigmatize them.
Not being too rigid about working hours is also something I think will relieve employees of stress. As long as you as a founder/leader are sure that the employees’ duties and actions are in line with the company's best you can allow more freedom. If people have the possibility to do everyday chores, pick up children from school, go to the hairdresser on a weekday, etc, they will for sure work those extra hours in the evening or on the weekend to get the job done.
Promote and arrange physical activities at the workplace! It is common knowledge that physical activity improves mental wellbeing. This can be done in many different ways - arranging lunch yoga/running with a professional, sponsoring gym cards, and of course...buying a ping-pong table ;) (raises heartbeat and guarantees laughs).
E: I can totally relate to that. That’s something I personally struggled with when I started consulting and found myself on the verge of burnout. It's easy to get caught up in something you're passionate about, to be always on, and to say yes to too many things. Even as a “company of one” I’m now very careful to schedule time to unwind and am very selective about what I accept.
The new year is synonymous with resolutions. What are some simple but sustainable actions individuals can take in 2022 to prevent mental health issues?
V: Sleep more. Research shows that since the introduction of smartphones we sleep less. Sleep is a basic need and essential for our well-being (both physical and mental). It is individual how much sleep we need so I won´t say a number, but instead - sleep one more hour/night in 2022 than you did in 2021. There is tons of research on the benefits of sleep.
Do something good for someone else every day. When we give to others we release a powerful brain chemical called oxytocin which makes us feel good. It activates regions of the brain associated with pleasure, social connection, and trust, creating a “warm glow” effect. It doesn't have to be big stuff. It can be things like helping an elderly person cross the street, paying for someone's coffee whose credit card is not working, or writing a sweet note to a colleague. When you make someone else happy you are taking care of your own mental well-being!
E: I really enjoyed the book Why We Sleep on the topic. And I love that you mention genuine acts of kindness as a stimulant, fascinating! As a psychologist, you probably hear tons of myths and bad advice. What should people ignore?
V: Some bad advice:
"Pull yourself together" (when feeling down). The person has most likely tried this. Instead, ask questions so that the person feels seen and understood, e.g. "how long have you been feeling like this?", "have you spoken to anyone else about it?", "what do you feel that you need?", "how can I help you?"
"It's gonna be fine, don´t worry!" (when someone is worrying). Instead, you could ask "what are you most worried about?"
"Time heals all wounds" (when in grief). No, time does not always heal all wounds, but one can learn how to live a meaningful life WITH the wound.
And some common myths:
That our memories are a reflection of an actual event. Our memories actually represent a distorted version of what happened, and they change over time.
Talking about your problems will always help. In some cases, it can make the person feel worse, for example in some cases of trauma.
E: I have definitely said "It's gonna be fine, don´t worry!" way too often in the past and I will start changing that straight away, thank you. For the last question, let’s look ahead. In the next five to ten years, what trends do you see emerging that might have a positive or negative impact on mental health?
V: I think mental health could benefit of a decrease of social media usage - it is just not as fun anymore and many people are starting to realize that they spend many hours a day just watching photos and reading nonsense (in most cases). The reduction of the use of social media, especially media that portrays a glorified reality, would free time for us to do stuff in real life
In part because of the pandemic, the world is now talking about mental health issues. To bring issues like mental health to the table for debate will do us all good. Nobody lives a life without mental health issues at some point. Allowing more stately funded means for mental health issues, and for companies to take these matters seriously are necessary.
E: Indeed, no one is immune to mental illness, and it needs to be discussed and supported more openly. Interesting take on social media. Deleting my private Instagram a few years ago is actually one of the best things I have done. But with so many discussions about the Metaverse and Web3, I believe that people will be spending more and more time online. That excites and worries me in equal measure. Time will tell.
Thank you so much for taking the time to share your expertise, Victoria. This discussion taught me a lot, and I hope it was a worthwhile read for all of you.
Wishing you a happy and healthy start to 2022!