The Unspoken Emotional Cost of Being an Entrepreneur

Founders who define their lives around their jobs may face higher rates of burnout

Credit: Image Source/Getty Images

“Are entrepreneurs touched with fire?” asked Michael A. Freeman, MD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco, in a study he co-authored in 2015, which analyzed the relationship between entrepreneurship and mental health. The paper opens with an image of Aaron Swartz, the young co-founder of Reddit and the creator of RSS, who hanged himself in 2013 after years of grappling with depression.

Successful entrepreneurs achieve hero status in American culture. We regularly celebrate the illusion of overnight success, with headlines applauding how much money a startup raised and how quickly it grew. But with so many entrepreneurs feeling compelled to fake it till you make it, not everyone makes it out unscathed, especially when it comes to mental health. I know this from firsthand experience — founding my own startup left me exhausted and unhappy. Though I’ve since been able to adapt to the stress of running a company without persistent mental anguish, I know there are many others who suffer quietly.

Freeman’s study of 242 entrepreneurs revealed just how susceptible entrepreneurs can be to conditions like depression, ADHD, and bipolarity. In comparison to nonentrepreneur study participants, entrepreneurs were:

  • Just as likely to report suffering from anxiety
  • Twice as likely to report suffering from depression
  • Three times more likely to report a history of substance abuse

Behind the razzle-dazzle of “hustling” comes loads of stress and expectations from investors, employees, and the media, the effects of which may not remain contained to just the entrepreneurs themselves. Another startling finding from this study was that the entrepreneurs were twice as likely as the rest of the population to report having close relatives suffering from depression, ADHD, anxiety, or a history of substance abuse.

Even if entrepreneurs are aware of the effects of overwork and stress on their mental health,and the health of those around them, they may not be taking the necessary steps to combat these problems. Entrepreneurs often make themselves less resilient by neglecting their health. They often eat too much or too little, and are prone to ignoring exercise and getting very little sleep.

One driving cause of these unhealthy traits could be working an excessive number of hours per week. Some entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Arianna Huffington have publicly acknowledged their struggles with getting enough sleep due to working long hours. And this habit — long hours synonymous with a romanticized fast-paced Silicon Valley lifestyle — extends far beyond the Bay Area.

In China, ‘996’ work culture has swept the tech industry, with employees of tech giants and startups alike adhering to an unwritten rule to clock ridiculously long hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. It’s a demonstration of work ethic and job dedication, a push to formalize much-lauded “hustle.” These long hours aren’t strictly for programmers or engineers — Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma famously championed 12-hour work days as “a blessing.” But other Chinese entrepreneurs are less positive about the reality of their overwork. In an interview about Chinese tech work culture, Zhao Xiuwen — the founder and CEO of the A.I. startup ZingFront — said: “Sometimes I’m awake from 2 a.m. to dawn and can’t stop thinking about my company’s future… Being a startup CEO is one of the most demanding jobs in the world.”

So what can founders do, to help preserve their mental health as they navigate these demanding jobs?

You are not your work

According to a study of New Zealand entrepreneurs in the Journal of Research in Marketing and Entrepreneurship, business owners were more at risk to develop burnout during their careers. And a Harvard Business Review (HBR) study found that founders who place emphasis on their work and defined their lives around their jobs were more likely to experience burnout.

This obsessive passion may have helped in the early days of founding their businesses, but over time it may lead entrepreneurs to become emotionally dependent on their work, to have difficulty imagining their lives without their work, and to be overly concerned with their productivity, wealth, and success.

Like other employees, entrepreneurs who experience excessive worry, punishing work hours, and a single-minded obsession with work are at risk for burnout. Besides being more vigilant about establishing a work-life balance, entrepreneurs could benefit from reminding themselves that there is more than just one potential career, one goal, one company in their future. They need not stake everything on the project at hand.

In the HBR study, this flexible mindset was found to help moderate the relationship between work and obsession, meaning that entrepreneurs who believed there was “more than one perfect career” for them were less likely to burn out. So as long as entrepreneurs view entrepreneurship as their one and only path to professional or personal success without truly embracing the consequences of it, they risk losing the flexibility to moderate their mood with factors outside of work.

In identifying themselves so intrinsically with their business, entrepreneurs risk existential crises attached to business crises. If their business collapses, the entrepreneur loses a massive part of their identity along with it.

Performing at your best is only possible with rest

It’s common for entrepreneurs to work a crazy number of hours. “Hustle porn,” as Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian puts it, is an ethos that encourages entrepreneurs to put in the all-nighters required to achieve success, no matter the cost. Passionate entrepreneurs often find themselves working well into the night. When this goes on extended periods of time, it can lead to sleep deprivation.

Although sleep deprivation is commonplace in modern society, entrepreneurs are much more susceptible to it. A Harvard Medical School study in 2010 showed that lack of sleep can cause degradation in cognitive functions such as creativity and innovation, even if stimulants are taken to restore alertness and vigilance.

The flip side of this is true as well: Studies have shown that a good night’s sleep can help entrepreneurs stay focused on their work, which makes practical sense. If you have a good night’s sleep, you’re less irritable, much calmer, and more capable of thinking rationally. The same advice we give to college students cramming during all-nighters can and should be applied to adult workers. Rather than sleeping less than three or four hours a night to fit in more “hustling,” entrepreneurs are much better off getting more sleep.

Learning to ask for help

During a recent interview on The Tim Ferriss Show, former Congressman and business professor Ed Zschau said, “Entrepreneurship isn’t about starting companies. Entrepreneurship is an approach to life.”

It’s also about solving problems. Entrepreneurs may spend the bulk of their days solving challenges facing their companies while ignoring the issues that inevitably rise in their mood and personal lives as a result of this continuous stress.

For leaders, there’s still a stigma around revealing vulnerability in public or private, partially because the traditional role of a CEO or founder is someone willing to bravely face any crisis and find a solution.

Just as most entrepreneurs have gone to others for investments, business advice, and mentorship in their careers, they need to lean on others for moral and personal support, too.

Regardless of the problem they’re trying to solve and the companies they’re trying to build, it is important that entrepreneurs practice self-awareness and freely seek help when needed. No matter how much they love their work, it is never worth sacrificing their wellbeing.

UI/UX at The Iterative | Founder of Singapore’s first collegiate UI/UX student organisation | CS @ UOL

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