Entrepreneurs have a reputation of being willing to work long and hard hours just to avoid the confines of a 40-hour-a-week traditional job. The life of an entrepreneur certainly confers many benefits including a more flexible work schedule and greater autonomy, the ability to work in a way that aligns with your own values and purpose, opportunity for growth and development and the excitement of taking an idea from seed to commercialisation. However, as is the case with most choices, there are also downsides.
The reputed entrepreneur’s 63 hour working week, an absence of work life/balance, difficulty maintaining boundaries between home and work when your office is your home, can all elevate work stress levels, not to mention the uncertainty of not having a dependable pay cheque. All these factors can take a strain on an entrepreneur’s mental health. In fact, a recent study reported that only 22% of entrepreneurs are satisfied with their stress levels and mental well being. In this context, it is important to understand the unique challenges entrepreneurs and founders face and how best to ameliorate these.
Why is the work of entrepreneurs/founders so different?
All work generates a degree of stress, so what makes entrepreneurial roles different?
In the late 1970s, Professor Robert Karasek developed a method for analyzing stress-producing factors in the workplace. The Job Demands-Control Model has been widely utilised to examine workplace pressures and their association with coronary heart disease, musculoskeletal illnesses, psychological strain and absenteeism. The model identifies the two main features of a job role that determine its stress inducing characteristics: psychological demands and control and decision making. According to Karasek, workplace stress and problems are more likely to arise when an individual has high demands and low control. But what exactly do these concepts mean?
This refers to the requirements of the job role, including factors relating to time pressure, effort, mental load or difficulty. Studies have found that startup founders tend to experience high levels of pressure due to the constant psychological demands of their jobs.
2.Control and decision-making
This refers to the amount of freedom and autonomy offered in the role. Entrepreneurs typically have a high level of job control, as they can decide how they want to organize their work and often have the freedom of choosing their own working hours. This relative freedom also has its drawbacks however, as many entrepreneurs find themselves consistently working more hours than a balanced work schedule would allow.
Source: Karasek, R. A. (1979). Job Demands, Job Decision Latitude, and Mental Strain: Implications for Job Redesign. Administrative Science Quarterly, 24(2), 285–308. https://doi.org/10.2307/2392498
As shown in the diagram above, the Job Demands-Control Model posits that entrepreneurs have “active jobs”, and that having such high levels of control and decision-making in the workplace should alleviate the negative mental health effects of having such high levels of psychological demands. According to this model, an “active job” should enable an individual the confidence to cope with job demands in a positive way.
An Unhealthy Work-Life Balance
Because entrepreneurs have a high level of work demands, they may choose to deal with their significant job demands and stress by working longer hours. Whilst working longer hours may have economic benefits, sustaining an intense work schedule also carries with it the potential for significant physical health consequences, such as increased smoking and alcohol consumption, weight gain and decreased levels of physical activity
It’s no secret that maintaining a healthy balance between work and life can prove tough at times. This is especially true for start-up founders. Founders work an average of 63 hours per week, substantially more than the average of 40 hours per week. Given this, it’s no surprise that entrepreneurs have a significantly lower level of work-life balance than conventional employees.
Due to the high level of work demands, entrepreneurs are also at increased risk of experiencing personal relationships discord as a consequence of their work demands. A recent study also reported that 78% of entrepreneurs wished they could spend more quality time with their children. This suggests that the nature of work for entrepreneurs and founders is taking a significant toll on their personal lives.
A Healthier Path for Entrepreneurs
It is important that entrepreneurs do not let their work demands blur the boundary between their work life and personal life to a point where their mental wellbeing is neglected.
At times, entrepreneurs may have no choice but to work long hours. However, the ability to mentally disconnect from work during leisure time, can serve to ameliorate some of the negative consequences of periods of intense work.
Luckily for entrepreneurs, a benefit of their role is that they are often able to design their own work schedule, including having the flexibility of choosing their own work hours and location. This means that entrepreneurs can try to alleviate stress by rescheduling tasks or choosing soothing environments in which to work. So why not try to maximise the opportunities offered by your higher job autonomy by scheduling times throughout your week to take a complete break from work-related activities and put your focus elsewhere.
The importance of taking a break
Sometimes an intense schedule can mean you have lost touch with exactly what you need to relax and recharge. Here are some ideas to consider….
- Catch-up with family and friends – social support can significantly improve a person’s mental health by reducing the effects of negative stressors
- Change your view – entrepreneurs experienced significant improvements to their mental health following a recovery retreat in a rural setting.
- Have a digital detox – consider taking regular breaks from technology – a study found that founders often take their devices to bed and use them first thing in the morning – try keeping your devices out of the bedroom altogether and make a commitment to avoid checking emails/social media at certain times, particularly before bed when the blue light from devices can affect sleep.
Environmental interventions, such as changes in work design to include time for non-work related activities (social interaction, relaxation activities, digital detox), can have a powerful effect on an entrepreneur’s mental well being. However, it is also important that entrepreneurs consider individual interventions such as the adoption of stress management strategies in the workplace.
It is not surprising that entrepreneurial roles are considered to be one of the most stressful types of employment. However, the stress experienced as a result of psychological job demands can actually have positive effects on an entrepreneurs performance.
Research has shown that the way an individual evaluates a situation as either an opportunity or a threat can have a significant effect on workplace outcomes. If an individual appraises work demands not as a hindrance (i.e. as something negative that may lead to harm or loss), but as a challenge (i.e. as something positive that may lead to gain or growth), this can help alleviate the negative risks associated with stress.
But how do you achieve this mindshift? In her TED Talk ‘how to make stress your friend’, psychologist Kelly McGonigal explains that “when you choose to view your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage”. She encourages people to respond to physical symptoms of stress, such as a pounding heart or quickened breath, by thinking ‘this is my body helping me rise to this challenge’. This is known as cognitive reframing, and this ability to reframe your perception of stress is a powerful tool to improve your mental health.
Former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss has a famous saying: “When the pressure is on, you don’t rise to the occasion—you fall to your highest level of preparation”. Entrepreneurs are certainly accustomed to rising to address numerous challenges, but why not consider making key changes in how you care for your mental health as a key part of your work to succeed as a founder?
Entrepreneurial work is unique in both its benefits and challenges. Knowledge is power, as when entrepreneurs understand the unique challenges they face and how best to address them, they can function as their best selves. Small changes can have a profound impact on entrepreneur/founder mental and physical wellbeing. Taking time out to nurture your innovative energy and manage your stress response allows you to remain creative, productive and agile enough to navigate the road to unicorn status.
Author: Anna Kelly, Macquarie University
Editor: Shireen Bernstein, Insights Manager, North Sydney Innovation Network