Prior to launching her company two years ago, Inna Semenyuk worked for large corporate entities in the PR space.
“It was always an environment where you’re pushed to do more and stay longer and over-deliver, which is great, but it was always creating an environment where there is tension and struggle and pressure,” the first-time founder of marketing consulting firm InnavationLabs recalls to Entrepreneur.
Starting her own business gave her the flexibility she was after, but the excitement of growing a new venture was accompanied by loneliness. She says that the first year in particular was a crash course in how to keep herself from getting overwhelmed.
“You deal with totally different issues [as an entrepreneur],” Semenyuk says. “You have different clients and you have personal direct responsibility. So there are a lot more different kind of pressure points now that I’m working by myself.”
When you’re launching a business on your own, the only way that you will actually succeed is if you don’t burn the candle at both ends. A joint 2015 study from University of California San Francisco and Stanford University found that mental health concerns affect 72 percent of entrepreneurs. And a 2012 Gallup poll found that in the United States, entrepreneurs were more likely than other workers to reportexperiencing stress in their day-to-day activities. For entrepreneurs, mental health should be a priority. It can start with something as simple as going for a walk around the block.
“If you’re not physically healthy, you’re not mentally healthy,” says Dr. Anna Akbari, sociologist, entrepreneur and the author of Startup Your Life: Hustle and Hack Your Way to Happiness. “That’s something that can easily be deprioritized for entrepreneurs because your time is so limited.”
Akbari noted that especially for 9-to-5 employees who are thinking about making the leap and starting their own business, having that kind of control over your time can seem like a luxury. But on the flip side, when the only person you have to answer to is you, “every hour can be a work hour,” she cautions.
So with the understanding that you have a limited amount of time, how can you make sure that your stress level doesn’t go into the stratosphere? Small actions that taken all together can build a strong safety net.
For Semenyuk, the first step was turning off notifications on her phone and keeping it on silent at all times. She also took the time to curate her social feed and inbox. Any newsletters that she didn’t have a use for, or people she was following or who were following her that felt like a drain on her mood and energy, were taken out of the equation. And she made sure to schedule time for breaks every day to, as Akbari recommends, get outside and to the gym. She also started meditating for just 10 minutes every day with the help of apps such as Calm.
“It doesn’t really help you get rid of your voice in your head that’s usually negative and criticizing, but it actually helps you observe that, observe your emotions and take notice, but not react to them,” Semenyuk says. “So you’re becoming less reactive, but you respond better in stressful situations and you make better decisions in business and in life because you have more clarity.”
Akbari is also a fan of meditation and how valuable it is when it comes to changing how you make decisions in high-pressure moments. “If ever there is a time when you need to optimize [that process], I’d say it’s when you are launching and scaling the company,” she says.
If all goes according to plan, you won’t be solo for very long. As your company grows, how can you make sure you’re not only modeling healthy behaviors, but creating a workplace where your employees feel like they are supported?
“If you’re stressed out as a leader, then that affects all the people who work for you,” says Dr. David Ballard, the head of American Psychological Organization’s Center for Organizational Excellence. “In a startup kind of environment most of the key people are in pretty stressful roles and if you as the boss are adding to that stress, that’s actually hurting the performance of your company. It’s hurting the well-being of the people who you need to be at their best.”
Ballard says last year’s annual APA survey of the American workforce found that only 42 percent of U.S. employees said that their workplace gave them the tools they needed to manage stress. Over a third reported that they were chronically stressed at work. When people are stressed, they look to move on to other organizations. If they stay, they may not take on new roles that they might be well suited for.
“[When people are stressed, they] don’t seek promotions. They don’t try to move into higher level roles, if they think the tradeoff isn’t worth it,” Ballard says. “If the stress level is going to be too high for what they get out of it, people will bypass those opportunities and those may be people who could actually be very helpful in terms of the growth and success of the company.”
Ballard says there are a few basic things that employers have control over when it comes to stress. Namely, being transparent about and creating a dialogue around compensation and benefits. Provide flexibility in people’s schedules. Create pathways to growth and advancement. And make sure that the kind of work your employees are doing provides value to both them and the company as a whole, even if it’s on an administrative level.
“There’s [a] dynamic that occurs that’s called qualitative underload. You may be busy, but you’re bored. It’s not interesting, it’s not challenging or meaningful to you — that actually causes stress for people,” Ballard explains. “We don’t tend to think about it that way, but it’s true.”
Akbari says another hidden stressor is the guilt that can creep in if your work-life balance doesn’t look quite the way you want it to. She recommends creating a system to stay mindful during these moments of extremes, whether it’s setting an alarm or scheduling a regular check-in with a friend or business partner. But otherwise, it’s OK to stay the course.
“Many of the most important moments in our lives actually benefit from a little bit of imbalance or some extremes. Whether you’re deep in a project and you don’t want to stop or you’re on a creative streak or you’re launching a new venture,” Akbari says. “One of the important things for entrepreneurs to do is to to give themselves permission [to not have that balance.] … No regret, no guilt, no apologies.”