Does having a mental health condition help or hinder business owners?

I remember when I first met my MBA group face to face and I told them about my anxiety. I laughed about things being so bad that I’ve unplugged the phone in the office because I don’t have the confidence to answer it. They all thought it was a bit of a joke, surely an allegedly successful business owner couldn’t really be that anxious, but I was being deadly serious. In fact, there are plenty of ways my mental health conditions impact my business – some good, some not so good. Back in 2018, a survey by Natwest’s Great British Entrepreneur Awards revealed that 58% of business owners asked said that they suffer with mental health problems. Another study by Aldermore showed that over three quarters (78%) of SME leaders believe that their mental health has affected their ability to work effectively. So, how do we, as business owners, ensure we’re looking after ourselves? And does having poor mental health negatively impact our ability to run a successful business?

Traits of a leader

During my leadership module for my MBA with Warwick University, I read through chapters upon chapters on “What makes a good leader?” Several of the books actually highlighted being ‘sound of mind,’ ‘mentally stable,’ and ‘free from any mental health issues’ as boxes to tick if you want to become a successful leader. After all, you can’t run a business if you’re locking yourself in the toilets to have a panic attack, can you? And yes, that is something I’ve done on countless occasions. However, some of the other traits stood out to me during my lessons too. Resilience, empathy, the ability to stay humble, creativity and knowing when to take risks. I have met countless people with different mental health conditions during my time as the co-founder of a non-profit organisaton and through the connections I’ve made along the way. I truly believe I could tick off most, if not all, of those boxes with the majority of the people I’d met. 

Custom illustration by Veronika P

The pros and cons of anxiety in business 

When I first started writing for a living I had agoraphobia; something which just seemed to happen overnight and led to me being housebound for around two years. While I eventually managed to receive treatment that enabled me to get out of the house, the anxiety has never really left. It means that sometimes the thought of leaving the house, answering the phone, going to meetings with clients and sometimes even just talking to my team fills me with fear and dread. How on earth can I possibly run a business when I can’t even talk to clients?! 

While the anxiety does hold me back in some ways, I have found that it has opened up plenty of other doors. For example, knowing that I’d be pretty useless in face to face meetings when I first started out led to me looking outside of the local area for clients and niches to work in. The majority of my clients are now based in Tel Aviv or the US and I conduct Skype meetings with them. I would have struggled to compete in my local area, with so many content and digital marketing businesses around, so looking outside of the box landed me work in a pretty interesting niche (and one with very little competition). 

Those with anxiety often understand their own limitations. This means that we have to get creative with how we can run our own businesses. Plus, we like to think carefully about any risks we take, which is always a plus… As long as you’re not totally risk-adverse, of course.

The pros and cons of depression in business

When the sinking feeling of depression hits me during a time when I’m supposed to be at work, I find it can actually make things worse. The guilt I feel about not being able to work, the mounting deadlines and the constant ping of unread emails can make me just want to stick my head in the sand and never come back up again. Taking a day or more off work for depression can actually feel counterproductive for business owners. You have that horrible feeling that you’re letting people down, whether that be your staff or clients, and there’s no way you’ll actually be able to relax to try and feel a bit better. However, it’s also important to take that time off – and that’s why having a strong team of people you trust can be really vital in these instances (I’m a lucky business owner, in that respect). 

Yet, despite all of this, I have found that my depression has made me truly resilient as a person. The trials and tribulations faced in life have actually prepared me for the negative side of being a business owner – especially the rejections. It has also instilled in me an empathy for every single one of my team members. When they’re having a bad day, they know that I’m not going to fire them for needing some time under the duvet. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I have a team of people I can truly trust.

Finally, the darkness that can sometimes envelop me is something that has kept me, and many business owners I know with depression, truly humble. Success in life isn’t something that many of us take for granted when we know how difficult it can be to even get out of bed some days. 

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Looking after your mental health in business

While it may be all good and well saying that having anxiety or depression can potentially make us better leaders, that doesn’t stop the feelings of dread, guilt or just overwhelming stress that comes with trying to juggle our mental health and running a business. It is vitally important that we learn strategies and methods that enable us to look after our own mental health as business owners and below are some things that I have learnt over the last few years:

  • Be open and honest – Whether it is with staff, clients or your social circle, it’s imperative that you open up about your mental health. Trying to hide the truth or simply burying your head in the sand can actually heighten those feelings of guilt. If you’re going to miss a deadline, let your client know. They don’t need to know your whole life story, but a little bit of honesty about your situation can go a long way.
  • Take some time and switch off – You don’t need to wait until you’re having a bad day to take some time away from the business. In fact, prevention is easier than the cure. Make sure you schedule some time for yourself, where you switch everything off. This means that you can also let clients and staff know in advance, which manages expectations and will help alleviate that guilt. Just make sure that everything is switched off… Including those emails!
  • Look how far you’ve come – This is something I try to practice as often as I can, as I know all business owners are big fans of moving the goalposts when it comes to measuring their own success. First, I wanted to make money from writing, then I wanted an office and some staff, then I wanted a bigger office and more staff, then I… You get the point. Spend an hour writing out all of your original goals and how you’ve met or exceeded them so far. Look back at how far you have come from day one of your business. I have started to keep a journal to help me with this and I’d recommend you do too.
  • Stop comparing yourself to others – Another thing I am guilty of is comparing my success to others. I’ll scroll through social media or read stories in business magazines and think I’m just not good enough. This then sets off my anxiety, depression and imposter syndrome more than anything else. It’s one of the hardest habits to shake and one I’m still learning to do, but it will make such a difference. Everyone is on their own journey, that follows their own timeline, and just because you’re not a multi-millionaire at 25 doesn’t mean you’re not a success in your own right. 
  • Have a strong support network – Now, I understand this doesn’t always seem possible for everyone, but there are plenty of different ways to achieve this. For example, I have built a leadership team in my business who are incredible at keeping things running when I need to take time off. I also have my best friend and husband (also business owners) who are there when I need to talk to someone. However, if I ever feel like I can’t talk to them then I take to networking groups on social media. Just having a rant or letting off some steam, even to strangers, has been wonderfully therapeutic. Plus, I’ve then met many other business owners in similar positions to myself. Knowing you’re not alone can truly help you through some difficult times.

As business owners, we can often feel isolated when the bad days hit and that can, in turn, make us feel worse. It is important that we find others to talk to and have open and candid conversations about how we feel. While some of my business textbooks might make it sound like you have to have the mind of a monk to succeed, it seems as though those traits we have gained from depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions, could actually be part of the reason we’re such great leaders… And that really is something to be proud of. 

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