Let’s save UK founders from burning out

Christina Richardson, October 10, 2019 3 min read

Christina Richardson is the co-founder of weare3Sixty, a company on a mission to ensure every founder in the startup ecosystem has the support to reach their full potential.

We see startup successes championed in magazines and all-over social media, fuelling a glossy, almost heroic image of entrepreneurship. But the recent study into the pressure and wellbeing of UK entrepreneurs paints a very different and much grimier reality, a reality that is filled with exhilarating highs and anxiety-inducing lows, and it is leaving nine out of ten entrepreneurs showing frequent signs of mental health strain.

9/10 entrepreneurs report signs of mental health strain

In the weare3Sixty study, 77% of founders say running a business has affected their mental health, 71% feel that it has affected their physical health, and over half identify with complete burn-out. 

Many of us are operating at relentless pace, pulled in conflicting directions, and the lack of emotional support is leaving four out of five founders feeling overwhelmed. But many are too nervous to talk about it. When we discuss the challenge of stress and feeling overwhelmed in our founder-training and group-coaching sessions the biggest revelation for everyone is that they are not the only one feeling that way. But the silence across the ecosystem leaves eight out of ten founders feeling lonely on the rollercoaster journey as a result, fuelling self-doubt and quashing motivation.

So, calling all UK entrepreneurs, know that you are not alone and do not be deterred. Much like you I’m sure, 93% of those surveyed are still glad they are an entrepreneur, with 91% driven by passion for making a difference. The focus then is on getting a healthier balance that enables you to perform better under this pressure whilst driving the business forwards. Here are five tips to get you started.

1. Invest in the most important asset in the business

The pace and performance requirements of entrepreneurship are most akin to being a pro-athlete. But consider for a second just how much support athletes have: coaches, physios, conditioning coaches, nutritionists and psychologists, all to optimise peak performance of body and mind. 

The UK is a mature startup market, so in British Cycling parlance, it’s all about marginal gains. We therefore need to think about performance in exactly the same way, and learn from the sports industry. To get the best out of ourselves we need to invest in the skills and wellbeing that can keep us at our peak – and expand our soft-skills in much the same way we might the functional knowledge in the business. 

2. Find support in safe spaces

With a mixed ecosystem filled with investors on one side and entrepreneurs on the other, the caution around talking openly is inevitable, but as the study shows this is leaving entrepreneurs feeling alone, and this eats away at our mental wellbeing and resilience. Finding a founder group, that is facilitated and confidential, is a great way to safely bounce ideas off other founders and hear how they’ve overcome similar challenges. It makes a huge difference to motivation and productivity.

3. Complete a big goal first each day 

The to-do list is always going to be monstrous as we juggle multiple-hats with limited resources as entrepreneurs. It can very easily become a game of ticking things off a list rather than focusing on the big goals that will deliver against the bigger mission. Since time is a fixed resource, our job must be one of ruthless focus and prioritisation. Allocating a morning slot of an hour or 90 minutes to commit to doing your biggest, most-important, ugliest job first means we focus on the important tasks at the beginning of the day. It also delivers a strong sense of achievement and momentum by lunchtime!

4. Accountability drives performance

On the topic of goals, peer-accountability is also a powerful performance-driver for goal-orientated people like entrepreneurs. Studies shows that successful goal completion goes up to 65% if a goal is shared with a peer; but it goes up to a massive 95% when a goal is agreed with a trusted peer, along with a deadline for checking progress on that goal. So find yourself a founder buddy to share goals with and align on progress on a fortnightly basis.

5. Balance performance with wellbeing

As entrepreneurs we tend to have brutal schedules, constantly running from one task to the next, leaving the body in a constant fight-flight-freeze mode. In the long term this leads to burn-out because our bodies do not have the fuel or recovery-time to perform  like this again and again. And even in the short-term this chemically-fuelled buzz prevents good decision-making, since all the fuel of the body gets shifted away from the brain. But one small habit can change all that – breathing. When you change task, take just 1 or 2 minutes to focus on deep breathing (where you breathe into your belly and focus on your breath). This activates your parasympathetic nervous system – the bit that allows you to be calm and think. Instil this habit and you’ll soon find you feel more in control and able to tackle the next task with renewed energy, and in the long term your mental wellbeing will be improved too.

Join us on one of our next FounderSprints to learn more. 

Data & research, Mental Health