When You’re Working Yourself to Death How Do You Know When to Stop? – Entrepreneurs and the Danger of Neglecting Mental Health
“When I’d sleep late and have no energy at work. I said: ‘I can do better’.” – Entrepreneur
“I was completely washed out, just mindlessly going to work everyday, doing nothing outside of it, zombie-mode.” – Entrepreneur
“There are multiple reasons why (depression) happened to me – financial stress is usually the biggest cause. Others can be loneliness in my role….” – Entrepreneur
“The more exhausted you get, the more you make small mistakes. Then you get slower at what you do. Then you need to work more hours for the same task. Then you get even more tired…” — Entrepreneur
“I unravelled, crying for no reason at all, throwing temper tantrums, but then I kept going, seeing clients, building a team. One day, I collapsed at home filled with rage and frustration. I called my therapist, and he told me to get back on medication for depression. I had gone too far – again.” – Me
WE ALL BREAK DOWN, IT’S NORMAL
The world has been going through an upsurge of wellness trend, trickling into the start-up world with health tech, mental health tech, transformational tech, and more businesses more conscious of social impact. The irony, however, is that founders and entrepreneurs ourselves, forget to take care of ourselves in the process of wanting to do something good, something meaningful, something to fill gaps in the market.
I have written / spoken / taught lots about how to take care of our minds, interviewed entrepreneurs on how they dealt with challenging times, and encouraged more to speak out about the hurdles they jump through so we see a realistic view. But, how do you know you are on the brink of breakdown, or in fact, broken down?
Sometimes, the hard truth is, you don’t, until you are over the cliff. Like me, perhaps you will learn the lesson enough that at least you recognize you are over the cliff and free falling.
Be aware that this is the state you are in, and then you can decide whether to free fall to shattered little pieces, or find a parachute.
And that, is one of the most important and fundamental step – awareness.
HOW TO BE AWARE?
Do you relate to any of the snippets that entrepreneurs have shared about their experience? Can you see yourself in their experiences? Whether or not, I suggest this first pivotal step:
1. Be Honest with Yourself
We spend a lot of time putting up a brave front, for we must look confident when pitching to investors, strong so our team thinks we know what we are doing, and a beautiful smile so we keep up the glories of being an entrepreneur, especially vis-à-vis our friends who work in big corporates and driving around in their Mercedes with a chauffeur.
Stand in front of a mirror and look at your reflection. Have a conversation with yourself. What is not going so well? What is my wishful thinking, and how is it different from reality? Where are my limits – mentally, emotionally, physically, and competence-wise?
There must be a time when we call it what it is, and stop kidding ourselves. In Chinese, we have a phrase, 痛定思痛, which means when we are in pain, we must reflect upon the pain. I would add that we need to reflect on how we ourselves have contributed the situation, regardless of environmental factors and how uncooperative people were. We are not perfect, and neither do we want to be, so there is nothing wrong with admitting to ourselves, “this is where I did not do so well.”
Unless we can be honest with ourselves, we will live in denial and rationalization, and fail to recognize that we are indeed defragmenting, and any support, any “10 ways to prevent burnout”, any “be positive” thinking will have no effect.
2. Physical symptoms
Once we can have a frank – albeit sometimes tough – conversation with ourselves, then we can try to recognize our signs.
Continue looking in the mirror, best full length. Notice your hair, your eyes, your complexion, your posture. Do your eyes have spark or are the eye bags puffier? Is your hair shining or thinning out? Is your complexion radiant or pale and dry? Are you standing up with broad shoulders or slouching because your body feels heavy with fatigue?
Back aches? Shoulder pains? Skin acting up? Leg cramps? Stomach knots? Have you lost weight or gained sudden weight?
These all tell you something, that perhaps you are experiencing stress that has become demotivating, or that you are overly anxious, or you are losing interest and vitality.
Don’t ignore your body, it can tell you more than you know.
3. Emotional signs
Emotions are some of the most valuable data we have to tell us about us. Many of us have learnt to suppress them or some are “negative.” Emotions are emotions, that’s it. Some may make us feel unpleasant or awkward, but they are neither positive nor negative.
Do we feel exhausted, tired, no energy, angry, resentful, lonely, guilty, melancholy, and/or disappointed (in ourselves)? Do we feel hyperactive sometimes, manic almost, nervous all the time, worrying, and then swinging between moods? Have we lost interest in things we used to enjoy, people, family, relationships, and sex? Are you cancelling social activities, preferring to curl up in a ball on the sofa? Is your mind not as sharp as it used to be, or even memory loss?
These are also signs that perhaps you are the verge of burn out, depression or anxiety issues.
WHAT TO DO THEN?
Physical symptoms could be more than stress. Mood changes are normal part of life. The warning bells come when this is happening frequently and consecutively over two weeks plus. And to err on the safe side, be vigilant that this is happening and try to find out what might be going on with yourself.
Do NOT try to diagnose yourself online. If you do not know if this is something to be concerned about – TALK TO A PROFESSIONAL MEDICAL PRACTITIONER. I cannot emphasize that enough. They can give you informed advice, and if you can afford to, seek a second opinion. There are also multiple free hotlines with access to trainer counselors and therapists who can help, and with today’s technology, you can access as long as you find free WiFi and can get online.
A word of caution: our friends mean well, but when you are in this delicate state of mind, your reality is different from theirs, and the last thing you want is to talk to a friend who does not understand what is going on nor has the knowledge or training, and they simply tell you, “Don’t think like that, just be positive.” That would push you further down the hole.
INTROSPECTION IS KEY
There is no lack of articles which give you a list of things that you can do to thrive or stay mentally resilient. All of them are valuable – and with experience, the fundamental key of it all for me, is to develop our capacity, and willingness to introspect. To ask ourselves the difficult questions, stay with the difficulty and pain of the answers, and then we can make decisions to take the course of action that is most appropriate for us.
Sometimes, it is a matter of going through the experience. In addition to my worst depression that lasted a few years almost a decade ago, I have had other depressive episodes, anxiety attacks, postpartum depression and suicidal thoughts throughout the years. We are not invincible. Break down might not just happen once, just as colds may come back every season. As much as I try to prevent myself from sinking, I find more helpful is that when I am sinking, I sink with awareness. I have learnt enough to cope with the pain and depression when they come, and each time, I gain more self-awareness, all because I can confront myself in honesty.
PUT YOUR MONEY ON WELLNESS
As Founders, we must look after our brains and mind, for that is perhaps the most important asset we use to come up with ideas, strategize, implement, and turn those brilliant ideas into life, take them to market, and earn a living from it. Equally important, is to pay attention to our team’s mental wellness, because if they are not well, they will not be producing what you would like them to.
So, do not just say it is an important aspect and you care about your’s and your staff’s mental wellbeing and then when it comes to paying for a mental health workshop make the excuse of no budget – put your money where your word is.
Enoch is a Mentor at Chinaccelerator and Managing Director of Bearapy, a B2B social enterprise that helps organizations and startups become mentally healthy workplaces through wellness consulting and training. One of her ambitions is to change how the startup world views mental health. She is also the Author of “Stress in the City: Playing My Way Out of Depression.”
Enoch recently joined Chinaccelerator’s China Startup Pulse Podcast as a guest to discuss the importance of mental health care and wellbeing. To listen to the entire conversation, check out her episode on any podcast platform or on the website.
Bearapy is offering a mental wellness workshop in conjunction with the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing on 31 July from 1:30 – 4:30pm, titled “The Only Way is Through – Mindfulness and Growth for the Professional”. We will explore sustainable practices to improve your mental, emotional and professional well-being. Click HERE to find more details about the event.
For other workshops, training, or wellness consulting, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
China Startup Pulse Podcast with Enoch Li
Chinaccelerator just interviewed Enoch Li for the China Startup Pulse Podcast. In this episode, Enoch shares her own struggles with mental health and the importance of taking care of employees’ mental wellbeing. She emphasizes that mentors and investors also need to take on the role of creating a healthy environment for entrepreneurs.
You can find our podcast by searching “China Startup Pulse” on any podcast platforms or visiting our page HERE. Go and check out other episodes!
Listen to Enoch’s episode here!