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10 lessons to help founders protect their mental health

When people think of a stereotypical startup founder, they likely imagine a happy Richard Branson sipping champagne and taking his super yacht out for a spin around his private island in the Caribbean. But the reality is that, for your everyday founder, this image couldn’t be further from the truth.

A study out of the US found that, among 242 founders surveyed, 72 percent had some level of mental health issues, while 49 percent reported having one or more lifetime mental health conditions.

This side of entrepreneurship is rarely seen. Whether out of ego, insecurity, denial, or a combination of the above, founders have traditionally tended to block out conversations about wellbeing and hide their inner struggles as they focus desperately on building their business.

Far from being superhuman, startup founders are prone to the same pitfalls as the rest of us. In particular, there’s the temptation to compare themselves to other founders – many of whom might outwardly appear to be ‘killing it’ (ie by raising millions in VC funding or being touted as the next Facebook or Atlassian).

However, like many people in this age of social media, founders will naturally project a rose-tinted version of themselves and their startup online, without sharing the soul-destroying moments and self-doubt that is so often inextricably part of the startup journey.

Who, or what, is to blame for the mental health struggles of our founders?

While mental health is a deeply personal matter that affects each person differently, a recent report published by KPMG Australia explored many of the likely contributors:

Working constantly:

Of surveyed participants, the average workweek for founders is 64 hours long, or more than 50% higher than the average employee working a 40-hour week. A larger proportion of founders (around 40%) also reported having had no days off for the past three months.

Never switching off:

A majority reported that they almost never ‘switch off’, but are almost constantly thinking about their startup.

Struggling to find a balance:

Typically, founders, in their sole pursuit of startup success, do not prioritise work-life balance by taking time to do physical exercise or foster important relationships with family or friends.

10 lessons for founders to help protect their mental health

Some entrepreneurs might understandably think ‘Of course I work constantly, don’t see my friends and never switch off. I don’t have a choice because that is what is required to succeed in this game’.

Sadly, the mental health statistics speak for themselves.

The good news is that there are steps every founder can take to look after themselves. Rather than thinking of self-care as a weakness, founders should think of it as an insurance policy to ensure their startup is sustainable long-term.

Separate your self-worth from your startup’s success:

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking of your startup’s success (or lack thereof) reflects your own.

Trust and empower your team:

Remember that your team are talented and intelligent people, and that you hired them for a reason. Ask yourself: ‘What is sucking my time that I can outsource to someone else so I can focus on the important stuff?’

Redefine failure:

It’s become a cliché, but often failure is simply part of the discovery and testing process. Thomas Edison famously said (in inventing the light bulb): ‘I have not failed, I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.’

Find a community:

Sydney is now home to the Founder Circle, a support group for founders. Startup hubs such as Stone & Chalk, a corporate partner of Hall & Wilcox, can also be great for sharing your challenges and finding a compassionate ear.

Say ‘no’:

Everyone only has 24 hours in a day, including founders. Sometimes saying ‘yes’ to something can really mean saying ‘no’ to something else, so choose wisely and learn to say ‘no’ when you don’t have capacity to do more.

Forge a ritual:

Especially one that incorporates regular self-care practices such as exercise or meditation.

Be authentic:

Don’t try to be something or someone you’re not. Try to focus on bringing your whole unadulterated self to your startup.

Take a break:

Otherwise you may be forced to take one due to burnout or poor health.

Help tackle the stigma:

Talk about the issue of mental health, especially with other founders. Studies show that simply checking in with someone who is struggling can greatly assist them.

Get help if you need it:

You’re not alone and there’s no shame in admitting you need a helping hand.

Ultimately, founders play a huge and indispensable role in society in driving innovation and change in our communities. But they also have the world on their shoulders.

If you are a founder who is struggling, you should reach out to a friend, trusted mental health professional or call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or SANE Australia on 1800 187 263.  


Dan Poole is a graduate lawyer at Hall & Wilcox, a member of the Frank startup practice and a serial founder, having founded social enterprises home.one, Crêpes for Change and The Coffee Cart Changing Lives. James Bull is a senior associate at Hall & Wilcox and heads up the Frank startup practice nationally. Jacqui Barrett is a partner at Hall & Wilcox and part of the Frank team. 

Featured Image | City of Melbourne/ That Startup Show / Photographer Wren Steiner





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