TechCrunch recently published a moving article by Jake Chapman titled, “Investors and entrepreneurs need to address the mental health crisis in startups” with the main call to action being: “It’s great that investors profess to care about founders’ mental health, but words are not enough. We must act to reduce founders’ mental and emotional suffering. It’s the right thing to do and it’s good for business.”
I couldn’t agree more. I too hear a lot of talk about the importance of mental health as well as investing in culture for founders, but not a whole lot of people doing something about it. Perhaps they don’t know how or aren’t aware of any resources.
I couldn’t help but reflect on how the work I am doing through the Culture Lab program is proactively addressing a lot of these mental and sometimes emotional and physical health issues for the entrepreneurs that go through our program. The Culture Lab is a 90-day workplace culture accelerator program for startup and small to medium size businesses.
We work with founders to create intentional workplace cultures. Having an intentional culture, to us, means you have clearly defined values which you take into consideration when making a personal/business decision and those values are imbedded into your day to day operations. You can think of it like the values that are guiding you toward your north star. Those values and that vision of success differs for every organization. Our goal is to get them thinking about what kind of environment and employee experience they want to create and to help them to do that on their own over time.
Shocking, I know, but we ask lot of questions.
To get them to where they want to be, we are constantly asking what are you doing? And why are you doing it?
It’s amazing how many people don’t think about the reason behind a decision or action. We want these leaders to become more aware of the unconscious values that may be driving their behavior.
From our experience, the majority of the entrepreneurs we work with are concerned about “self care” and “health” with those becoming aspirational personal and company values that they want to guide their actions while on the treacherous journey of scaling a business.
Below are just a few examples that relate to how the Culture Lab proactively addresses some of the many mental health issues for our founders:
Story #1 – Substance abuse
Me: Make a list of things you generally do everyday and next to each action, behavior or habit, write down why you do that thing.
*Founder thoughtfully jots down on his paper
Me: Okay now let’s go through that list. One of the things you listed here was take a smoke break. Why do you do that?
Founder: Well honestly, I gave up smoking over ten years ago and I just picked it back up within the last couple of months.
Me: Okay so why do you do it?
*Founder stares off and takes a long pause
Founder: Well, I guess I am extremely stressed right now and that smoke break outside is one of the few times in the day that I have to be myself, to pause and relax.
Me: So do you think you really need to smoke to be able to give yourself that to yourself?
Founder: I guess I really never thought about it in that way.
Me: Awareness is an opportunity for change. It’s up to you.
Story #2 – Moving the goalposts
Founder: We don’t ever take the time to celebrate our wins. I spend most of my time with current day challenges or I am fearful thinking about the future. It’s exhausting to be continuously putting out fires. It’s draining and demoralizing for not just me, but our entire team.
Me: So now that you know about this, what can you do about it?
Founder: I want our entire team to celebrate the wins more often. I am going to create a reminder on our calendars. When that reminder goes off, we’ll go share a win for the week in a designated Slack channel.
Me: How are you going to make sure your people actually do this especially with a remote team?
Story #3 – The Tri-fecta (“I am my company” syndrome, financial risk, poisonous industry tropes)
Founder: I want to get better at learning from failure.
Me: How’s that going?
Founder: It’s still really hard and an ongoing journey. Right now, the failure potential is much bigger. We are about out of money and I am not sure how long we have left. I’ve stopped collecting a paycheck. I need to go out and raise some more funding.
Me: Okay so what is the worst case scenario?
Founder: The company no longer exists after 90 days. We run out of funding, I end the business, I tell all my friends and family that I failed. It would be a failure, but I am not a failure. I am my company in so many ways, but I am more than just this thing. I want to keep that mental framework in mind right now.
Me: Could you live with that?
Founder: Yes. It sucks and it’s not fun and I want to avoid it from happening, but at the end of the day, my wife will love me, my kids will love me and I will have met some amazing people through this experience. It is not the end of the world. I don’t want to think that way, but I am at a point where I need to be more practical so that if it does come to that I am more emotional prepared to be able to think through and live with that outcome. Feedback and perseverance are going to be my focus for the coming weeks.
Founder: I will need your help reminding me to check that everyone responded and I am going to make a separate reminder for myself to check that everyone responded. Right now, it’s important for us to celebrate and stop to celebrate the wins to keep us motivated moving forward.
Had none of these issues been addressed, all of these could have led to greater problems which really affect the overall health of these individuals and the health of the organizations.
“In other words, supporting founders before their “people problems” become business problems yields a 20 percent improvement in performance,” Chapman says.
The Culture Lab programming and exercises were designed to address an array of issues. Our goal is to facilitate an open, honest and look out, vulnerable environment for entrepreneurs to be authentic, fully express themselves and share their challenges with their fellow cohort members.
Managing Director of Culture Lab