After toiling for more than a year only to see her vision being consumed by an increasingly toxic working relationship, Avis Mulhall had to make a decision: continue working on her business at the expense of her physical and mental health or prioritise her wellbeing by letting go of the cause she cherished so dearly.
This is a common conundrum facing entrepreneurs, who, under external and internal pressure to succeed, are increasingly burning out, succumbing to depression and, at the extreme end, taking their own life.
Experts believe that entrepreneurs are putting themselves at huge risk by doggedly enduring the “fail-fast”, arduous reality of building a start-up subsisting on the smell of an oily rag, in pursuit of a big pay day that may never come.
They believe there needs to be more awareness raised about the tools and skills required to manage stress and tension that affect personal and professional performance to avoid triggering mental health conditions.
Dreams Going Down The Toilet
Looloo Paper was Ms Mulhall’s baby. It sold recyclable toilet paper to businesses, with the proceeds being used to improve sanitation conditions in developing countries. In the space of a year she had built a “beautiful” team of 12 people, signed up corporate customers, and established an “amazing” relationship with a charity partner overseas.
However, when the relationship with her co-founder turned “toxic” she thought about leaving but didn’t want to disappoint those who depended on and looked up to her: staff, customers, mentors, and investors.
“I’d put my reputation on the line and myself in public eye and then I had to think ‘how can I pull the plug without looking like a complete failure?'” Ms Mulhall said. “For me, I got lost so many times, when I didn’t listen to my gut feeling, ‘I know I need to take a break but I can’t because my team needs me’.
“A start-up founder needs to be seen as being confident, strong, stoic, taking everything in stride … But it feels like we can’t show weakness otherwise investors might say, ‘Oh, we can’t invest in them, they’re a bit flaky’.”
Going Down An Unproductive, Rocky Road
Clinical psychologist Dr Jay Spence said the start-up pursuit of perfection was often counterproductive to sustainable positive results.
An entrepreneur’s high expectations can give rise to a concept psychologists call “syntonicity”, which, generally speaking, denotes the behaviour of somebody not believing they have a problem as being the very cause of the problem itself, he said. He himself faces this issue as he aims to develop his app, Uprise, which teaches the psychological skills to boost performance and prevent burnout.
The start-up was developed in the Sydney University Incubate.org.au accelerator program, where he observed that a lot of the participants, especially younger founders, didn’t have the psychological skills and tools to manage the intense demands.
The impact, he said, is that as you become more stressed you stop focusing on the creative elements of a start-up – the ones that will deliver growth and benefits to yourself and users – and instead you spend your time on tasks that simply use up your energy, and generate more stress, because you can’t solve the problem.
Unchecked, he said, it can quickly spiral out of control.
Unless he took regular breaks and maintained positive mental health practices, such as keeping a diary, reflection, and spending time with friends, his solutions would turn from creative to reactive.
This, in turn, would cause greater frustration and stress as the problem was being solved to his expectations.
“I would become more tired and stressed, doing what other people were telling me [to do] rather than having a capacity to think critically, which happens when I’m not stressed.”
A Recipe For Disaster — But Help Is At Hand
Jonathan Hirshon, principal of Horizon PR and founder of the #stepintothelight campaign, said that start-up life – working 60 to 80 hour weeks for months on end, without any short-term validation, depriving yourself of sleep in pursuit of meeting a deadline, such as fundraising or a product release – was bound to take a psychological toll and, in certain people predisposed to mental health issues, trigger an episode.
In his decades working in Silicon Valley, advising to the likes of Apple, Sony and start-ups, he himself has had to deal with these issues and has seen friends and associates go down a depressive path.
He labels it the “death spiral,” which occurs when people don’t admit to having a problem and as a result of things not working out, see the world in an increasingly negative light – “like a colourful rainbow fading to grey” – always assuming the worst about everything.
“Sometimes these people have an external validator to an internal problem – ‘I’m not good enough and the fact I didn’t get my funding proves it’,” he said. “The level of thinking gets twisted into something not healthy.”
He said it’s critical to reach out to these people who have slipped into depression or worse, and let them know that you’re there for them, and that more help is always available in the form of friends, family, and professionals.
“In every case I can think of where people sought help, it worked. Whether that help is a psychiatrist or antidepressants or both, or just talking to somebody, there are different levels.”
Decelerating The Decline
Mick Liubinskas, entrepreneur in residence at the Muru-D accelerator, which also works with Dr Spence’s Uprise app, said accelerators and co-working spaces can provide the “cohort” that can help to mitigate the rollercoaster of emotion – the “we’re going to do it” highs and “it’s never going to happen” lows – that characterise daily start-up life.
Dr Spence said that he has been talking with the founder of the Incubate program about ways to provide support for entrepreneurs.
He said that it was only after he couldn’t answer a question from his wife – “when was the last time he’d gone for his daily, morning swim?” – that he’d realised he himself had stopped prioritising his mental health over the business.
“It just totally skipped my radar, and I’m the guy that’s supposed to know that, so if I’m making that error imagine what it’s like for someone who isn’t professionally trained,” he said. “What I realised is that the energy needs to be split into the day-to-day of a start-up but also part of it is to giving myself constant reminders to check my thinking.”
Setting Yourself Free From A Prison Of Your Own Making
In the case of Ms Mulhall, when things at Looloo turned sour she recalled a pattern that marked the demise of her previous endeavours.
“I’d get cancer, get hit by a car, get in an accident. I’d always wait until things fell apart, until the shit would hit the fan, before I took a break,” she said.
She decided she wouldn’t let that happen again and opted to close the business rather than allow a toxic relationship to consume the best of her.
“I thought I was walking away from something and failing and f—ing up but it opened up a million things to me and I ended up walking onto a project so aligned with everything I believe in.”
She now has a “three pillars” philosophy – balance, relationships, impact – to assess whether a project is worth pursuing. Unless all three are in harmony and productive, she won’t embark on the project.
Ms Mulhall, who was honing her guitar skills during our conversation, said her No. 1 priority is to do the things she enjoys, like spending time in nature, being on her own, and with supportive friends, to foster the creative qualities that allow her to succeed personally, professionally and socially.
“I used to nurture projects but now I nurture myself, and the projects just happen.”
If you need help and want to talk to someone please contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.