Founder's Guide

Three Startup Founders on Mental Health

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Running a startup — or working at one — is tough. Stress, burnout, and simple day-to-day intensity can get overwhelming. When you’re in the thick of it, it’s often hard to keep the perspective that today’s problems aren’t the whole world.

It’s a subject that often only comes up with people we know well — or doesn’t come up at all. Like any subject that’s pervasive but not often talked about, the first step is to bring it out in the open.

That’s why we spoke with three successful founders on their experiences with mental health in Silicon Valley— two of which have actually launched companies to improve awareness around these very issues. They each share their experiences, what’s important to them, and what they do to help themselves and others.

Alyson Friedensohn, Founder of Modern Health

My life’s mission is to bring mental health into the 21st century. I founded Modern Health because I want to change how the world thinks about mental health and to end the epidemic of loneliness. When we say mental health, most people think mental illness. They think weakness. We’re going to change that. We went through Y Combinator and are growing fast because companies are starting to realize the value of prioritizing mental health.

There’s been a cultural shift in society that everyone can agree on; we work longer hours, have longer commutes, higher cost of living, and are constantly tethered to our phones. As a result, depression rates are skyrocketing and suicide rates are going up, yet people are still afraid to speak up when they are struggling because we are so afraid to be vulnerable.

Our workforce today is at the highest risk for depression or anxiety than ever before, regardless of age, race, gender, or industry. We’ve gotten to the point where many people live to work. The reality is that this type of culture is not going away, at least anytime soon.

The problem is we haven’t been equipped with the tools to be resilient to these new stressors of everyday life, which ultimately leads to burnout and unhappiness at our jobs where we spend most of our time.

So while our mission is to help people get better, it starts with creating an environment where it’s OK to get support when you need it. It’s not viewed as a weakness. In fact, the employers that are getting proactive about mental health issues in the workplace are the ones preventing burnout and building up the most resilient workforces.

It’s currently a no-brainer for a CEO to provide benefits to improve employee physical health. Let’s make it a no-brainer for a CEO to provide benefits to improve employee mental health. After all, the next billion dollar idea is in someone’s brain. We might as well take care of them.

Mental Health is Invisible

Mental health and daily struggles are invisible. Someone feeling stress or burnout could be just going through the motions for a week, two weeks, a month, and it doesn’t show up anywhere.

Our culture has an epidemic of loneliness, and there’s huge value in simply having someone to talk to. It’s a human instinct that people want and will always want. We will never be perfectly happy being connected exclusively to technology instead of humans. For our society, the first step is accepting that this is the reality so we can start improving it.

The companies that understand this already are building a culture of happier and healthier employees. They recognize that healthier employees are more productive and likely to be retained. This takes many forms, so it could mean connecting the employee to:

  • An expert or coach
  • A therapist
  • A life coach

It could mean meeting in person, talking over the phone, texting, or meeting digitally.

If we can remove the stigma associated with mental health, we’ll help more than just the 20% of the workforce dealing with depression and anxiety at a clinical scale. We’ll help the 100% of employees dealing with the stress and struggle of everyday life.

Cameron Yarbrough, Executive Coach and Founder of Torch.io

As a psychotherapist and executive coach for 8 years, I worked with CEOs and executives at high-growth startups. We leveraged their communication, self-confidence, and self-awareness to become better leaders.

1. More self-awareness leads to better leadership

Self-awareness is the greatest form of intelligence. In my experience, increasing self-awareness always makes someone a more effective leader.

When people envision therapy, they tend to imagine looking at the past, while they imagine coaching as looking at the future. As someone who’s spent time as both a therapist and a coach, I can confidently say both are important. People stigmatize therapy in part because its retrospective approach can feel like navel-gazing. In my experience, however, you need both. To understand yourself better, you need to look to both the past and future.

2. Some of the best founders still see therapists, despite the stigma

Running a startup is difficult, so a lot of founders seek therapy. It’s not something they talk about, however, since there’s a stigma associated with therapy. On the other hand, founders with coaches are basically shouting it from the hilltops. They’re proud to be improving. That said, since coaching and therapy are similar experiences with similar effects, there’s no good reason that one should be stigmatized while the other laudable.

Being a successful founder requires a resilient, growth mindset. You have to be progressive and hungry to learn. You have to be willing to ignore an arbitrary stigma if it will help your startup succeed.

3. Executive coaching is good for all layers of the org chart

Any employee at a young, fast-growing startup is trying to solve near-impossible problems in short timeframes. They’re often facing similar problems to founders, just of a different intensity. Since executive coaching is really just leadership coaching, it can apply to employees at any level. While the tactical challenges vary between executives and mid-managers, emotional and relationship challenges are similar.

4. There’s a need for more access to coaching

Executive coaching is often very expensive, so it’s traditionally inaccessible to non-executives. My purpose is to help others increase their self-awareness, so I started Torch to build a global marketplace of executive coaches. We’re setting out to solve the problem of price and accessibility so everyone can reach their full potential.

Justin Kan, Founder & CEO at Atrium

I’ve run multiple startups that have dominated my life. While growing Twitch, the company’s problems sometimes felt like the whole world. Now that I’m trying to revolutionize the legal industry, I find it’s important to keep perspective whenever I can.

Startup founders may not face unique problems, but they definitely face enhanced problems. With all sorts of people relying on you all the time—investors, employers, co-founders, family—you feel like you owe these people and are uncertain about whether you’ll be able to deliver. It’s very stressful. For non-entrepreneurs, it’s something they might experience during a shortened time or on a deadline, but for founders it’s just a part of your daily existence.

I generally find that everything I’m worried about today I’ll either forget or remember fondly. It’s hard to keep that perspective, however, so I have a few practices I apply to ensure my mental health:

1. Go for a walk

Walking is a good way to get perspective, unwind, and think of new ideas. It’s a context change that helps your mind relax and find solutions to problems.

2. Meditate for 10 minutes

I’m still very much a beginner, yet meditating has already reduced my anxiety. It helps me maintain the perspective that my problems today aren’t as big as I think.

3. Exercise

I believe fitness is the first step to greatness, so I make sure to exercise at least 3x per week.

4. Use visual reminders

I have a bracelet I wear 24/7. It says, “Either way: succeed or fail, life continues (and generally improves).”

You can get wrapped up in thought spirals, like thinking success is the only path forward, but that’s not actually true. My bracelet reminds me that I’ll probably be okay even anything I’m working on isn’t successful. Proactive visual reminders help me put problems in context, which I find very helpful.

5. Be transparent with a few (1-3) friends

It’s okay to have emotions—to feel bad or guilty. That said, you can’t be freaking out in front of your team all the time. For these emotions and conversations, I talk to friends, typically founders who have gone through similar experiences. With these people, I skip the “I’m crushing it!” bullshit. We vent and get real feedback. It’s cathartic.

6. Find a therapist or coach

I’m very pro-therapy. When people think about therapy, they typically imagine people with mental health problems. That said, everyone has things they could work on; most people just aren’t willing to admit they have problems.

Part of the stigma for therapy is that it’s not normalized. If you reframe it as mindfulness, people will do it because you can meditate without having a problem. The same thing applies to coaching: it’s essentially the same as therapy, but coaching has a positive frame while therapy has a negative one. People think, “coaching can level me up as a founder,” which feels different from saying, “I have a problem I need to deal with.”

The best CEOs have coaches because it works. Becoming a manager without a coach is kind of like trying to be a professional golfer without a coach. You could improve a lot by muddling through, but it’s improbable you will reach the PGA.

However you frame it, I’m very much in favor of getting help.

7. Observe your emotions

I have a latent level of anxiety and guilt that’s with me all the time. It’s typically about not doing enough, being right enough, or working hard enough. When I notice these emotions, I try to observe them and be okay with them. I don’t need to change anything. The act of observation is enough to help me process them.

8. Take a break

I find it takes about 2-4 days away from work to mentally reset. I keep my phone and computer off during this time. If they’re on, it’s not a break.

9. Remember why you wanted this

When things get tough, I remind myself that I wanted to do this for a reason. That reason almost certainly still exists, and energizes me to keep going.

10. Reflect

If I went back in time to when I started the company and told myself where we are today, would past-me be happy with my current result? The answer is almost always yes, and that means a lot.

11. Notice when you’re moving the goalposts

Good founders almost always move their goalposts. That’s okay—it’s how you end up building something beyond your wildest expectations. You should be aware of it, though, so you don’t feel like the challenge is just constantly ballooning with no end in sight.

Let’s talk more about mental health

Everyone lets work stress get to them, but startups are on the extreme end of that spectrum. Talking about problems and normalizing mental health helps everyone. Sharing problems and solutions will make employees happier and companies better. It’s the kind, caring, and ethical approach, not to mention more productive.

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Atrium is a full-service corporate law firm that uses modern technology to give startups a legal experience that is fast, transparent, and price-predictable. The Atrium blog features content from top founders and investors on how to fundraise, navigate startup challenges, and more.

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