A founder depression looks a lot like typical depression and can damage a company from multiple points.
30 Jul, 2017HBR.ORG
Eric is, by all means, a very successful entrepreneur. His technology company has grown considerably in the past five years. He’s raised two rounds of funding, has a customer base in the thousands, and is managing a team of eight employees.
Although admired by fellow entrepreneurs, Eric harbors a dark secret: He goes home every night feeling extremely exhausted and unhappy. Naturally a quiet person, Eric has become distressed by the endless networking, fundraising, and people management that he is required to do. He feels physically and emotionally drained, no longer able to sleep well or concentrate during the day. He finds that work is no longer as enjoyable as it used to be, so his motivation and performance have taken a hit.
Eric has a classic example of founder depression. Usually marked by sadness or a loss of interest in activities, founder depression looks a lot like typical depression and can damage a company from multiple points. It can hurt company performance, since depressed founders lose their ability to function effectively on a daily basis. It can cause employees and investors to lose trust in the founder’s ability to lead, which can fuel doubts about the company’s future. And it can risk the health and well-being of the founder — something I have seen in my work with entrepreneurs and as a student of clinical psychology.
According to research, entrepreneurs are 30% more likely to experience depression than their nonentrepreneurial counterparts. Most believe that founder depression is caused by an increasingly complex and competitive world. Technology and globalization have made startups riskier and more stressful to manage. Failure is common.
But startup stress is not the only reason why entrepreneurs can experience depression. Some founders may become depressed because they’re pushing themselves to be entrepreneurs when, in reality, they may not have the personality for it in the first place.
Research shows that successful entrepreneurs have a distinct type of personality. First, they are more open to experience — more imaginative, creative, and curious than managers who have not founded their own companies. They are also more conscientious — more likely to seek higher levels of achievement, work motivation, and planning. Founders are generally more extraverted and less neurotic.
Not everyone has the personality to be a founder, but more and more people are choosing to start their own companies because entrepreneurship is increasingly seen as an attractive and prestigious career path. In fact, roughly 66% of adults today are interested in becoming founders. As such, it is reasonable to expect that not everyone will have the entrepreneurial personality traits needed to become successful and happy in their jobs.
For some founders, learning how to manage the typical startup stress may no longer be enough. To beat depression, they must also learn how to manage and deal with their own personality. Here are some tips to help entrepreneurs keep founder depression at bay.
Understand your personality and identify your weak spots. Before you can manage your personality, you have to know what it is. The IPIP-NEO test is one of the leading online personality tests in the industry. With over half a million responses, it is considered a valid, reliable assessment tool. By taking the test, you can see how you score on the four traits mentioned above. Which are your highest and lowest scores? Think about which startup activities may be especially difficult for you.
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For example, if you scored very low in extraversion, you can expect that highly social work, such as networking or fundraising, may be stressful. It also helps to talk to entrepreneurs in your industry about what the biggest stressors are. For instance, in software service companies targeting the enterprise business, the biggest stressor could be the uncertainty of very long sales cycles. If you are a founder in this space, you need to think about how comfortable you are with uncertainty.
Hire people who complement your personality traits. Leaders tend to choose and hire employees who have the same personalities that they do. But founders should do the opposite: Get a business partner or cofounder who has the personality traits you’re missing. That way, they can fill in your weak spots and enjoy the work that you may find stressful. This frees up your time to do the things you actually enjoy. For example, if you scored very low in openness to experience, you may not be intrinsically interested in creative work — even though you could do it if you wanted to. Find someone who is invigorated by imaginative work. Have them take lead on creative projects. You’ll have more time to do work that energizes rather than drains you.
Create a “restorative niche” to reduce stress. Founders can’t always avoid the work they don’t like. Despite their best efforts, some founders will find themselves required to do work that severely clashes with their personality. Founders in the early stages of their startup will find themselves networking day and night, for instance, even if they don’t enjoy socializing with people. Psychologists recommend creating a “restorative niche,” a distinct place and time where someone can destress and revert back to their true self. For example, introverted founders can unwind from their networking activities and combat stress by scheduling daily “quiet time,” during which they can indulge in complete silence and isolation. Niches can help founders reenergize and restore psychological balance before it becomes too difficult to manage.
Know the telltale signs of depression. There are many symptoms of depression. Apart from feelings of sadness, depression can take the form of a significant loss of pleasure or interest in the things you used to enjoy doing. Other signs include a sudden increase (or decrease) in sleep, weight, appetite, or energy, as well as increased feelings of worthlessness, guilt, or self-blame.
Founders should become familiar with these symptoms so that they can recognize when they’re experiencing these symptoms and seek out the professional help they need. They can also enlist the help of a trusted friend or family member to help them recognize these symptoms, especially since founders overwhelmed by work can sometimes miss the early warning signs.
Just because you don’t have the personality to be an entrepreneur doesn’t mean you can’t found your own company. But it does mean you must be aware of mental health risks and manage your personality and surroundings accordingly. By following the tips above, you can take one step closer to becoming a happier, more satisfied founder.