If someone asked you to name the greatest assets of your business, your mind would probably first go to your technology, intellectual property or talent. Those things are certainly valuable. But without wellness, entrepreneurs cannot use those tools to their full potential.
Especially early on, your company literally is your vision. You, and the few missionaries who believe in you, are running on faith. You must stay optimistic. Your job is to help people who believe in your mission to feel energized and keep building in the face of rejection. That’s really hard to do when you’re hurting, languishing, depressed or caught in a spiral of doubt and anxiety, which, unfortunately, many entrepreneurs are.
According to a study from the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly half of all entrepreneurs (49 percent) struggle with mental health issues compared with 32 percent of the general population. The combination of intensity, risk exposure, criticism, setbacks and ambiguity can turn destructive amid long hours, sleep deprivation and a lack of time to attend to one’s physical and emotional needs.
I experienced this reality firsthand. BetterUp was, in part, born out of my desire to build a business that didn’t glorify hustle to the point of burnout. Many others in the startup community have also bravely spoken up about their own mental health struggles.
Our internal data shows that when startup leaders report suffering mentally, they are 25 percent less engaged with their work, 31 percent less able to handle stress and 27 percent less satisfied with their lives overall. These gaps are particularly significant at a fast-growing organization where you are the public face, the captain of the ship and the head cheerleader. A lack of wellness doesn’t just feel awful, it also holds back your company.
Wellness then isn’t a “nice to have.” Nor is it simply about trying to squeeze in a weekend yoga class. It is a key building block of sustained performance that enables entrepreneurs to make the most of all the other resources at their disposal. That makes it one of your most valuable assets, and it should be a priority.
Here’s how to start cultivating your own well-being as an entrepreneur.
1. Control your schedule
When you start building a business, there is, by definition, no structure yet. This leads many founders to be entirely reactive. Rather than planning their days, they race to put out fires and respond to opportunities.
To some extent this is inevitable. Building a startup will always involve hustle and stamina. But if I could give one piece of advice to my younger self starting out as a founder, it would be to be more proactive and intentional in structuring my time.
The flip side of not having much structure yet is that you are more in control than you often feel. Yes, you need to chase (almost) every opportunity, but you should still plan your days to reflect your energy levels and maximize your wellness.
Do you write better in the mornings? Do you prefer evening meetings? Do you need Friday off to engage in deep thinking? Part of the beauty of being your own boss is that there is no one to tell you No. You can bound and box your time in ways that will make you more sustainably productive. That’s now your job and your job alone. And, it’s one of the most important jobs you can do to set yourself and your company up for success.
2. Take breaks like a Navy SEAL
In just about every professional team sport you can think of, it’s routine to sub players in and out based on their energy levels and mental state. Navy SEALs do this too. If SEALs feel they are not “mission effective” for any reason, they sit out the mission. There’s no shame involved, and in fact, it’s viewed as courageous to admit when you cannot perform at the right level.
Work — particularly in fields like startups and finance — is one of the few elite endeavors where if you need to take a beat, you’re deemed a failure. This is madness. When Tom Brady or the U.S. military’s toughest warriors pause to rest and recover, that doesn’t mean they’re weak. Making it a point to take a break doesn’t mean entrepreneurs are weak either. Breaks give you space to reconnect with what you love about your work and your life — to come back energized, committed and performing at your best. Valuing wellness doesn’t take away from grit or exceptional long-term performance, it enables it.
3. Rotate your crops
At my company, we’ve immersed ourselves in the scientific literature around burnout, and while the roots of exhaustion might be hard to spot in the moment, the research on the subject is crystal clear: Flow states help prevent burnout. If you regularly do work that engages you so much you lose track of time, you can meaningfully reduce your risk of burnout.
It is, of course, impossible for entrepreneurs to maintain a flow state all the time. There will always be logistical hassles to sort out, sales to forecast and other less than absorbing tasks needing your attention. But be conscious of how much time you spend both on activities that drain you mentally and on those that recharge you, and then plan your schedule accordingly.
Just as farmers rotate crops in the field to prevent soil depletion, thoughtfully rotating tasks will prevent the mental dust bowl we call burnout.
4. Put on your own mask first
The idea of “putting on your own mask first” in an emergency has become a cliche, but for good reason. Attending to your own wellness affects not only your ability to perform personally but also the quality of the decisions you make for your entire organization.
We make bad decisions because we’re not centered. We feel rushed. We’re anxious. When we’re calm and focused, we’re able to act more in alignment with our values, and the more well-being we have, the easier it is to stay in that state.
Modeling healthy choices is also the first step in building a healthy culture, but wellness both trickles down and loops back around. As legendary coach Phil Jackson taught NBA all-star and BetterUp adviser Pau Gasol, “The strength of the wolf is in the pack and the strength of the pack is in the wolf.”
5. Build a wellness-boosting system
Another essential step in building a culture of wellness that will keep both you — and your team — performing at your peak is to formalize the practices and policies that help maintain well-being. Prioritizing reflection and other forms of “inner work,” normalizing rest and recovery, providing opportunities for learning and coaching, and ensuring some control over tasks and schedules isn’t just essential for your wellness as an entrepreneur. It’s essential for your teams’ wellness too.
As you design your systems, ask yourself: If I put any person from the street into this company, would their wellness improve or decline?
Implementing these tips isn’t about kindness. And while I can’t imagine wanting to create a company that has a net negative impact on the people who comprise it, implementing a wellness system isn’t about sacrificing performance for some touchy-feely ideal either. It’s about recognizing wellness as the incredibly valuable asset it is to propel your company toward greater success.