After 27 years of being in the corporate sector, serving many of them in leadership roles, the entrepreneur bug bit me. I stepped out of the corner office, gave up all the great perks and set up my little venture. How difficult can it be, I thought? After all, I had run large and complex businesses successfully.
When I was a CEO, I used to think that the job and the position that came with it was the toughest in the world. After being a small entrepreneur for 15 years, having experienced moderate successes and huge failures, I now know that being a small entrepreneur is the toughest business job by far.
Entrepreneurship is a daily roller coaster ride, going from highs of success to bottoms of despair. The experience can either make you phenomenally resilient or break your spirit.
MSME entrepreneurs are a high-risk category
While entrepreneurship looks glamorous from the outside, in reality, most face daily challenges of survival. Long before VUCA entered the corporate jargon, entrepreneurs always operated in a volatile, uncertain, changing, ambiguous, and stressful environment.
The threat of failure, high pressure to deliver to investors, and being hooked to a dream, has meant entrepreneurs gave up sleep, time with friends, family, exercise, healthy eating habits, and ended up with chronic stress, anxiety, depression, addictions, and other physical and emotional health issues.
In fact, there’s now a stereotype of a hugely stressed leader who finds it hard to ‘switch-off’ that many entrepreneurs seem to emulate.
A landmark study conducted by Michael A Freeman of the University of San Francisco found that 49 percent of entrepreneurs, especially startup founders, suffered from at least one type of emotional health problem.
Compared to the general population, here’s what the entrepreneurial cohort is likely to have:
In 2017, 970 million people were found affected by emotional health issues like stress, anxiety, and depression. This number was estimated to cross 1.2 billion in 2019. At last count, India leads the list of countries with over 200 million citizens suffering emotional health issues.
Emotional Fitness: What does it even mean?
With the current economic landscape, it’s clear that entrepreneurs will have to address their emotional health crisis as well as what their employees are facing.
Emotional fitness goes beyond solving emotional health issues. It’s also about building emotional resilience. So that no matter how bad things get, we are able to maintain homeostasis of emotional wellbeing.
Today, physical fitness is not just about losing weight, but also about keeping the weight off, enjoying a lean, fit, and active body. Similarly, being emotionally fit for an entrepreneur means preparing your mind and heart the way an athlete prepares their body for the Olympics.
Self-care, personal growth, and self-awareness are some aspects of emotional fitness. And just like training for the Olympics requires professional guidance, so does becoming emotionally fit.
You need experts in psychotherapy, coaching ,and counselling who know best how to help you build resilience and resolve the issues.
How to be emotionally fit?
Often, we’re surprised to read about the suicide of a business leader or Bollywood icon. We think they had everything going for them, they were intelligent beings, surely they could have found a way out.
And we’re surprised that no one around them got to know that they had reached such a point of desperation and sense of being cornered.
Emotional health issues are deathly quiet, often intensely private. They sneak up on us when we are either too busy coping with stresses and responsibilities, or when we have been ignoring the signs for a long time.
Being vigilant in spotting the signs of an issue developing is one of the most effective ways to stay fit. For example, social withdrawal, mood changes, eating too much, or too little; sleeplessness or restless sleep, frequent periods of anxiety, often envisioning the worst-case scenario, are just some of the signs.
Accept and acknowledge
The first step of the journey begins with accepting that there is a problem and that the problem is big. Most often business leaders like to maintain a facade of extreme confidence, optimism, and that they ‘got it all together’.
They think it goes against this image if they show their vulnerabilities. They also fear ridicule, rejection, and social ostracism. So they end up either in denial or suffering it in silence. The truth is, owning up to your vulnerabilities shows courage, takes away the shame, and makes you a more admirable leader.
Basic self-care is a primary step to building emotional fitness. Address the essentials like sleep, healthy eating habits, exercising, and socialising. Most entrepreneurs, especially startup founders don’t sleep well. As a result, they are constantly fatigued which, in turn, results in irritability, poor decisions, and erratic behaviour.
Putting off physical exercise is one of the worst things to do for entrepreneurs; working out or playing a sport releases endomorphins, and gives another sense of achievement.
Even if it’s only once a fortnight, socialising has multiple benefits. It gets really lonely for most business leaders. And it’s hard for many to share their worries or emotions with anyone.
A circle of friends with whom one can de-stress and recharge helps to a great extent. An emotional support network is one of the most significant social capital an entrepreneur will ever build.
Bring in the experts
Now, most of these self-care tips are known. We see hundreds of articles in Sunday supplements telling entrepreneurs that they need to learn to ‘switch off’ from work and chill, eat healthy, and live healthy.
Unfortunately, to deal with the level of emotional health crisis most entrepreneurs are facing today, they would also need expert guidance. It’s critical to bring in the experts. Highly experienced psychotherapists, counsellors and leadership coaches who not only understand the pressures and challenges the entrepreneurs face, but can offer guidance specific to their personality and circumstances.
Some of the greatest business leaders in the world have had exceptional and highly experienced therapists who provide them with emotional support and help them keep their mental wellbeing.
Lead the way
An entrepreneur’s greatest asset is their mind. They use their intelligence and wits to solve problems, build products and services, and create wealth.
Unfortunately, while they may be using their mind 24×7, they may not be paying it attention, or are dismissive of its call for help. Piyush Kumar, Co-founder and CEO of Rooter, recently put it perfectly in a recent article, “I started going for therapy when things were good, when we had successfully launched a new product and raised funding. I started because just like I concentrate on physical exercise, I wanted to pay attention to mental health as well.”
The post-COVID-19 world will show us that entrepreneurs like Kumar who choose to be self-aware, acknowledge, and address emotional health issues will be the ones to establish healthier company cultures, develop emotional fitness among employees, and create more sustainable and successful businesses.