September 9, 2020 Colin Jacobsen

Balancing a Startup and Mental Health

Photo credit: Tim Foster

Starting a company is a challenging process requiring perseverance and determination. What is often not discussed is the emotional toll it can take on budding entrepreneurs. Too often a reasonable work-life balance is replaced with the hustle porn culture of “fake it till you make it” and “always-on.” This leads many entrepreneurs down the path toward depression and anxiety.

Launching a new venture is burdensome enough without the traditional toxic, workaholic lifestyle. Quite often entrepreneurs don’t pay themselves in the early stages, but to the surprise of many, still have to pay their bills and function as adults. Add to the mix the constant rejection from early client prospects as well as fundraising leads and suddenly self-doubt starts to creep in. Am I sure I made the right decision? Should I just take a corporate job and either give up or make this a side hustle? I wonder what my family and friends will think if I fail? Can I take a guilt-free vacation?

If that cocktail of sadness wasn’t enough, COVID-19 comes along causing demand to subside in nearly every industry. Overnight, revenue and fundraising become speculative at best. You try calming yourself by going to the bodega and supporting a local business, only to be yelled at by a maskless patron who tells you that you’re a sheep for listening to public health officials (true story).

These negative emotions and experiences leak into your business and lead to bad decisions and outcomes. That is why we’ve developed a number of strategies at Arlene to help cope with what we’re all dealing with and make sure every team member is comfortable and working to their optimum capacity.

First and foremost, Arlene employees maintain a division between work and home life to avoid burnout. We recognize that each team member is human and facing a once in a lifetime challenge. Time with family and friends is key to keeping each of us happy and balanced.

Eating healthy and exercising are good ideas when there isn’t a global pandemic. But while there is one, it’s more important than ever. We encourage our team to take care of themselves and carve out time for physical activities when possible. Arlene also recognizes this is an area where the company can continue improving. As the business grows, Arlene’s P&L has a line item for self-care/wellness.

Regular 1:1s and using each other to vent have also been cathartic. Too often entrepreneurs are told to always be hyper-positive. That if you aren’t relentlessly optimistic 24/7, you should quit and join a bigger company. But as Allyson Chiu from the Washington Post wrote, that “toxic positivity” is counterproductive.

Rather than encourage our employees to conform to being fake happy, we have check-ins to make sure they’re okay and troubleshoot anything they are battling with. We see venting as healthy and necessary. We encourage employees to try therapy as we don’t believe mental health should be stigmatized and that people should seek help when needed.

We try to stress-reduce through socially-distanced group activities. As nice as it is to see everyone on Zoom, there is nothing that can replace human contact. Given it’s hard to have everyone travel during the quarantine, we do smaller, gatherings based on the geography of our team members.

Building a business is difficult mentally, emotionally, and physically. Trading health for a company’s success is counter-productive and hurts the business in the long run. It’s important to recognize weaknesses, imperfections, and anything else that makes us human. At Arlene, we hope to support one another and make the startup experience positive.

If you would like to learn more, please check out the following resources:

And feel free to send us a message if you would like to talk or have feedback.

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