From the recent entries detailing my habits and routines on my blog, the running theme in all those personal playbook pieces is maintaining balance and making all the pieces of a busy life fit together. A big piece of that puzzle is mental health and stress management.
In my experience and throughout my professional life as a venture capitalist, investor, CEO, board member, executive, and mentor, I’ve learned a thing or two about dealing with stress in high-stress environments.
As April is National Stress Awareness Month, here are some things I’ve noticed from the companies I’ve worked with. I hope these may be valuable lessons for other founders or anyone working in tech when navigating burnout and trying to keep stress under control.
Acknowledgement and Self-Awareness
Compared to 5 or 10 years ago, openly talking about stress, burnout, depression, and mental health has come leaps and bounds, but there’s still much further to go—especially among men. Research on men’s mental health shows how distress manifests differently in men than women, and they also cope with stress differently. Men are far less likely to seek help for mental health challenges, irrespective of age, nationality, or ethnic or racial background.
Differences between men and women aside, I want to acknowledge stress in the workplace—particularly in the technology industry. The startup journey and raising funds is deeply personal and founder-driven. Tech is an incredibly high-stress environment with huge rewards, but also huge downfalls that get on peoples’ nerves and affect their health. Stress isn’t always a bad thing; feeling stressed is the natural response to doing something that’s both difficult and important. But when it starts affecting your personal relationships, leaves you constantly exhausted, and takes a hit on your performance, then it has clearly become too much.
When founders, investors, and their boards have close relationships and mutual understanding, dealing with stress in this high-stress environment becomes much more manageable. Often, they will know you better than most people—possibly better than you know yourself. This vulnerability and understanding can help you recognize when you’re having an off or bad day, which opens your eyes to the support you didn’t know you needed.
And when you know how stress affects you, you can ask for what you need.
Lay It on the Line and Ask for What You Need
Your team, investors, and board need to know what’s going on to be able to help. They don’t know what they don’t know.
On one board I serve on, we worked closely with the CEO to make it easier for her to maintain her family life balance during a particularly challenging time. Having a strong and honest relationship with this CEO and their openness to communicate what they needed made it clear how the board needed to support them. But some people aren’t as cognizant of their stress and don’t want to share their difficulties, and you can’t blame them for being more private.
My experience on this other end of the spectrum was when I was part of a small board where we weren’t as close to the team as we should have been, certainly not enough to support them through a crisis. About six years into running their company, the whole management team had a major meltdown over a lawsuit that came up during a major opportunity. All of this stress became too much to handle, and it built up into a frenzy that affected everyone—the close team and their families in their personal lives.
I handled that stress the best way I knew how: really getting to know them to understand what they needed. Meeting after meeting and one hard conversation after the next, everyone was exhausted and tired of me having these discussions, but plowing through unveiled nuggets of success.
The result? The board bought small numbers of shares from all founders to ease their stresses and alleviate the stressful environment they were dealing with at work and home, and the company managed a seamless leadership change. Airing everything out and having countless uncomfortable conversations was the formula for this team—like it is for most other cases. When these leaders didn’t want to get vulnerable, I personally opened up to build trust with them. Although they didn’t want to talk and even admitted that I wasn’t their favorite person throughout this time, in the end, they thanked me. It was necessary for their success.
These two examples show the clear contrast between knowing your people and not. Fostering strong relationships between CEOs, leadership, investors, and boards makes all the difference when it comes to the comfortability and confidence to lay it on the line and ask for what you need. It’s next to impossible to open up to someone you don’t trust, so building rapport and closeness should always be prioritized.
Solutions don’t always have to be the “be all, end all,” but asking for what you need is tremendous when dealing with problems and managing stress to move on.
Take Care of Yourself
When founders and CEOs have the “I am my company” mentality, this spirals into personal conflicts, anxiety, burnout, and high emotional strains. In fact, studies show that entrepreneurs are 50% more likely to report having a mental health condition compared to others, and only 1 in 5 founders are satisfied with their mental well-being and stress levels. But as I mentioned, conversations about stress and mental health have come a long way, and people have much more empathy now than ever before. If you’re not doing okay, chances are people will be willing to help if they can, but at the very least, they’ll understand your struggle.
This is why self-awareness and transparency about what you need are so important: being honest about how you’re doing is how you can start taking care of yourself. In this fast-paced industry and cutthroat environment where 90% of startups fail, people have extreme lifestyles—fast growth is just as stressful as layoffs, founders feel the pressures of losing investors, and there are still dozens of other things on their to-do lists. Managing mental health is no easy feat. Entrepreneurs themselves can work to reduce stress, anxiety, and vulnerability to mental health problems by leading more balanced lives through activities like physical activity, meditation, sleeping well, and therapy.
Beyond taking care of yourself, destigmatizing mental health requires creating awareness and participation from all stakeholders—investors, board members, executives, mentors, and teams. We need to continue normalizing the discussion of mental health challenges, starting open dialogues, and providing a safe and supportive environment so that entrepreneurs can discuss their stress and mental health challenges without fear of repercussions.
Talking about mental health and stress is getting more complicated because life’s complicated—paying bills, dealing with family issues, struggling with team dynamics—you never know the full story of what someone is going through. If you’re overwhelmed and need help, say it. If you’re a leader who notices someone in your company or on your team is struggling, extend your support (if they want it). Asking for help isn’t easy, but it’s a good start to destigmatize mental health.
By no means am I an expert on the topic, but I hope my experiences shed some light and offer you some guidance. I’d love to hear how you manage your stress or what kind of resources help you navigate turbulent times.