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Balancing Mental Health for Founders: The Foundation

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Our expert launches a three-part series that provides useful advice for entrepreneurs seeking mental well–being and better work-life balance.

In the fast-paced world of startups, where uncertainty is the only certainty and each day brings new challenges and opportunities, mental health often takes a back seat to business objectives. May’s observance of mental health awareness serves as an important reminder that neglecting mental well-being can have dire consequences for founders.

10 Common Struggles of Founders

  1. High levels of personal investment and accountability
  2. Always being “on” with long working hours
  3. Financial insecurity
  4. Work-life imbalance
  5. Market and business uncertainty
  6. Multitasking and overload 
  7. Pressure from investors and stakeholders
  8. Isolation and loneliness
  9. Fear of failure
  10. Identity tied to the startup

Alarmingly, a recent survey of 156 startup founders found that nearly half are contemplating quitting their ventures this year. A staggering 45 percent reported their health as bad or very bad in the past year, while 85 percent experienced high stress and 75 percent faced anxiety. These figures underscore the urgent need for addressing mental well-being among entrepreneurs, who are often caught in the whirlwind of startup challenges.

My own path as a founder began five years ago when I established Applied Real Intelligence (A.R.I.), an investment firm that manages the A.R.I. Senior Secured Growth Credit Fund to support thriving startups. Through my experiences and interactions with hundreds of founders, I’ve observed the shared struggles we all face. From raising capital to managing teams and navigating market challenges, the pressure is constantly high and can be overwhelming. 

This mini-series of articles is dedicated to empowering founders to enhance and sustain their mental well-being. In this article, we establish the essential practices needed to build a sound foundation for mental health.

Be Purposeful and Committed

As Yogi Berra wisely said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you’’ll end up someplace else.” Having a clear purpose provides the focus and deep motivation necessary to overcome the constant barrage of challenges that founders face.

Jeremy Smith, an army veteran and founder of Civitech, a civic data company that helps increase participation in public life, emphasizes purpose and commitment. “Commit to what you are doing. As a startup founder, you will be more successful, happier and fulfilled if you actively commit yourself to your core pursuits and avoid dabbling,” Smith says.

Prioritize Self-Care 

Take care of yourself first. Just like the airplane safety instruction to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others, you need to be at your best to make your business thrive. Shawne Merriman, former All-Pro NFL linebacker and founder of Lights Out Brand, which includes Lights Out Xtreme Fighting and Lights Out Sports, highlights the importance of self care.

“In the NFL, maintaining elite physical and mental health was crucial for success,” Merriman says. “We had rigorous routines and dedicated time for physical recovery and mental focus. The same applies to business and every aspect of life. If you neglect your well-being, you can’t perform at your best, and ultimately, it will affect your ability to lead and grow your company.”

Get Optimal Sleep and Rest

Sleep is crucial for mental and physical health. Research consistently shows that inadequate sleep impairs cognitive function, decision making and emotional regulation. Merriman emphasizes the importance of a holistic approach to well-being. “The big three are sleep, physical fitness and diet. Build your foundation on these to achieve peak performance.”

Enhance your sleep quality and ensure you’re at your best each day with these tips:

  • Establish a regular sleep schedule to improve sleep consistency.
  • Create a restful environment with minimal noise and optimal temperature.
  • Limit screen time before bed to reduce blue light exposure that can disrupt sleep.
  • Practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or meditation to calm the mind before sleep.

Ensure Proper Nutrition

Surviving on instant noodles is not a sustainable strategy for startup founders who need to maintain high energy levels and sharp cognitive functions. “It’s not just about what you eat — when you eat is equally important,” Merriman says.

Focus on incorporating balanced meals into your daily routine:

  • Plan and budget for healthy eating, prioritizing meals rich in vegetables, whole foods and plenty of hydration to support energy and brain function.
  • Consider meal timing to optimize nutrient absorption and energy management throughout your hectic days.

Exercise Consistently

Regular physical activity improves mental clarity and emotional stability. “Exercise helps you disconnect from work, reduce stress and boost your overall mood and energy levels,” says Merriman, who recommends a regimen of at least 45 minutes of exercise three to five times a week. Consider incorporating:

  • Short, high-intensity workouts if your schedule is tight, maximizing the benefits in minimal time.
  • Regular movement breaks during the day, such as stretching or quick walks, to keep energy levels stable and mind focused.

Practice Realistic Positivity

A positive mindset is essential for long-term success. Regular reflection on gratitude enhances your mood and perspective. We are shaped by our thoughts and decisions, so focusing on positive aspects of your journey is vital. 

Jenny Beres, co-founder of Pink Shark PR, which consults with many leading fintech founders, observes that successful founders often practice gratitude and view setbacks as opportunities for growth. This approach not only sustains motivation but also turns challenges into resilience-building experiences. “Regular gratitude and a balanced, realistic positivity are key to managing the ups and downs of entrepreneurship,” Beres says.

Meditate Regularly

Meditation serves as a valuable tool for mental clarity and focus. Sunny Singh, a successful tech founder and chairman of TCA Venture Group, underscores its importance in preventing burnout among entrepreneurs. He advises taking short breaks for meditation to recharge and realign with your vision amidst the constant firefighting that characterizes startup life. “In the midst of chaos, meditation offers a sanctuary to center yourself and find clarity, which is essential for sustaining momentum,” Singh says.

Unplug Occasionally

The constant influx of emails, social media and news can be overwhelming. It’s essential to unplug periodically. Spend time in nature, take breaks from screens, and occasionally dedicate a day to being tech-free to recharge fully.

Connect With Others

Family, friends and pets provide essential emotional support. Engage in conversations that aren’t work-related and enjoy time away from business stresses. Joining a founder support group can also be beneficial for sharing challenges and finding practical solutions. Liz Ward, Head of ZEBOX America, a corporate accelerator for global supply chain startups, seconds the notion of spending time with people.  “Carve out a niche of people – both personal and professional – that you can lean on when that burnout feeling creeps in, which it inevitably will,” Ward says.

Seek Mentorship

Experienced founders and career coaches can offer valuable insights and support. Samantha Lewis, partner at Mercury Fund, a VC firm focused on early-stage software startups, highlights the importance of mentorship. “The founder journey can be incredibly isolating. Finding a good mentor or an executive coach who is well-versed in the founder’s journey can provide a huge boost to mental health and fortitude,” Lewis says.

Founders face unique and significant mental health challenges. By building a strong foundation with purposeful commitment, prioritizing self care, getting proper sleep, maintaining good nutrition, exercising, practicing gratitude, meditating, spending time in nature, connecting with others and seeking mentorship, you can enhance your mental well-being and resilience. These practices are the bedrock upon which to build a successful and sustainable entrepreneurial journey.

Stay tuned for the next article, where we will delve into productivity hacks and advanced strategies to maximize mental health for startup founders.

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