Let's talk Founder Wellbeing... and how to Balance Business and your Brain

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Embarking on the entrepreneurial journey with Ethique and Incrediballs has been a whirlwind of triumphs, stumbles, and invaluable lessons. This is an honest (and deeper than expected) chat about founder well-being and mental health. Throughout this episode, the curtain is drawn back on my personal pathways of establishing boundaries, fostering resilience, and forming supportive networks, revealing that prioritizing mental health isn’t merely a personal benefit, but a fundamental pillar for business success and sustainability too. Because if you're burned out, or simply not feeling your best, you can't do your best for your business

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Kia ora and welcome back to Now, That's What I Call Business. I'm Brianne West and today, fair warning, is a bit of a heavy episode. I'm going to talk about mental health, founder wellbeing, and if this is not for you or you need to protect your own mental health, let's just skip this episode. There are places to get help in the show notes and if you are struggling, reach out because you are not alone. I have been there. You know, between the caffeine highs, if you don't have ADHD, those 3am eureka moments or worry moments and a constant juggling we fondly have decided to call entrepreneurship. Who needs a treadmill for cardio right? Today we're shelving business strategizing and I want to talk about something a little bit more fundamental which is founder well-being. No I'm not talking Zen gardens and deep breathing. I am NOT that kind of person. If you are, great. But let's get a little bit real about the rollercoaster of entrepreneurial mental health. First thing I want to mention is hustle culture.

The concept of hustling isn't new, right? I mean, we have taken it to entirely new heights with the likes of bloody TikTok and social media in general, but historically, industrialisation pushed workers to their absolute limits, right? The eight-hour workday is a fairly modern invention, it's why we actually have Labor Day. But the modern definition of hustle culture has its roots in a blend of capitalist values, the American dream and the tech boom. So when Silicon Valley rose to its dizzying heights in the 80s, 90s and 2000s, there was a real noticeable shift, right? So startups began to sprout up like mushrooms. Everyone was promising rapid, rapid growth and faster profits.

You saw insane valuations. We're talking about the dot-com boom, stories of tech entrepreneurs working tirelessly out of garages, becoming millionaires and that sort of story became a legend. It also became part of the narrative that relentless, over-the-top work could lead to massive success. Now we know this isn't true. Luck, privilege, timing, there's just so much more to success than that. But that is the underlying thought process behind hustle culture, right? Work hard, you'll be great. So as more and more tech startups emerged and achieved massive success like, you know, Facebook, Apple, Google, you heard of them, they continued to foster this specific culture involving long hours, little initial financial reward, and an obscene, obsessive focus on growth and innovation at all costs.

Now, this startup mentality has become a template of success for so many entrepreneurs. And it's not so much a template of success, if you're not doing it, you're a failure. Now platforms like Instagram and LinkedIn and Twitter have begun showcasing things like life hacks and growth hacks, which is the stupidest, one of my least favorite sayings, and the daily routines of successful people. I'm sure you've seen some of these which start at like 4 a.m.and involve all sorts of smoothies and gym work and four workouts a day and so on and so forth. But overnight, anyone with an internet connection is now exposed to countless stories of individuals who make it big just by working harder or smarter or longer. And the constant stream of success stories, often without any context or proof of success or mention of privilege, has painted a totally skewed picture of reality. So many entrepreneurs showcase their successes. They don't show the countless hours of struggle, sacrifice, failure, and this gives a total false impression that non-stop hustle is the only way. Now, this isn't most entrepreneurs' fault.

Some certainly portray themselves in that way. But if you rely on the press to tell your story, that's kind of how it goes. They really only touch on the highlights of your career, which of course tends to be the high points or the very, very low points, but that's another story. So you only see a sugar-coated version of someone's story. But what does that actually matter? What does it lead to? Well, 49% of entrepreneurs surveyed are dealing with a mental health condition. The typical population is about 20% which is still enormously high. So we're talking half of the entrepreneurs that you know are struggling with their mental health.

Another fun one, 30% of entrepreneurs in that same study are dealing with depression, a national average is about 20%. Rates for ADHD are 29% compared to the average of 5%, which is an interesting and noteworthy point on its own for discussion later. And for anxiety, it's 27%. The average is only about 18. Entrepreneurs also have higher rates of substance abuse, and I mean, that's a fairly obvious conclusion you'd jump to. Trigger warning here. A really concerning finding from that same study is that entrepreneurs are twice as likely to suffer from suicidal thoughts or make the attempt compared to the general population.

Now is this all solely down to hustle culture? Of course it isn't. Entrepreneurship is stressful as, without the idea that you have to work all hours. But it's certainly a massive contributor. Now look, at the end of the day, there's an argument to be made about quality of work versus quantity, which, whilst we all seem to outwardly agree with, we don't seem to have reflected into our work culture. Working longer very rarely means working better. Many companies, especially Nordic countries, are experimenting things like four-day work weeks and actually still finding increased productivity. You've seen the odd corporation give this kind of thing a go but it's certainly not become a mainstream thing as yet. Another couple of points is, you know, the rise of the gig economy, which is not a phrase I've heard in a long time but apparently that was the economy we're all transitioning to not so long ago, but platforms like Etsy and YouTube and TikTok, there is this societal push to turn every hobby into a side hustle. And I had a conversation with a friend not so long ago and telling her how good she was at a certain form of artwork.

And I said, you know, why don't you think about selling them? And it was just an off the topic comment. And that's just the way I am. I think about business and startups constantly. It's probably quite annoying for people around me. She looked at me. She said why would I want to make something I love Into the job that I would eventually hate She said it far more eloquently than that and she had a very good point Side hustles sometimes have economic benefits and in the cost of living right now I can see why you would turn to it But it strips the joy and relaxation out of these leader activities that you're probably doing because you want to turn off It leads to an always-on mentality. So, you know, we're all excited about remote working, but very few of us have boundaries.

So we work with teams around the world, the lines between work hours and personal time have blurred, the societal expectations now to always be available, always responsive, always on. I 100% am always available, always on and always responsive. I'm not saying it's a good thing, it's just, it's part of me. And I'm happy with that most of the time, but it's not healthy for many of us. And finally, there's constant pressure to hustle and achieve. It just leads to constant stress and anxiety. This culture we have built that you have to work all hours to prove that you are worthy of being an entrepreneur. And it's dead wrong. There is, of course, a lot of unique pressures that come with being an entrepreneur. So you're often totally on your own. Now, you have to make your own decisions. If there's a team around you, great, you've got support, you've got people to bounce stuff off but the buck stops with you. This is super isolating and it's so hard to explain to people but your business is dependent on your decisions. Your livelihoods of your employees is down to your decisions. And very few people outside entrepreneurs and founders understand that.

It's not a slight on friends and family and supporters. It is not like a job. It is all-consuming. It is every breath you take and it is very hard to explain that to someone. You get decision fatigue. I mean, Mark Zuckerberg is famous for wearing the same thing day in and day out because he says he makes so many decisions he doesn't want to make decisions about clothing. Fair. Totally fair. I think the biggest thing for me, I think my last two points are the biggest two for me. One is the weight of responsibility and equity crowdfunding made this worse, right? I felt so personally responsible for everyone who had personally invested in me, but also my entire team. Even if you don't feel it all the time, it's always still there and it's exhausting. The other aspect of course is the constant scrutiny, especially now and I know I tell everyone to get on TikTok, I do, because it is a monumental marketing opportunity. It's also constant scrutiny. Company leaders, particularly if you have a social media presence, but hey, press does it too. Every move is analyzed, your every decision is questioned, things can end up in the media that well, just aren't media worthy.

For startups, especially those with investors, the investment, the pressure from those investors to showcase growth, profitability, and a clear path forward is immense. And all this boils down to a bit shit really. If you don't have adequate coping mechanisms, you can have some pretty severe health issues, both mental and physical, because of course mental breakdown leads to physical breakdown. Now in the last two years, I'm going to talk a little bit more about my personal struggle with maintaining boundaries and mental well-being. This isn't something I'm super comfortable with. So this is an unusual conversation for me actually. But I, you know, I basically, I mean, I jokingly say I chewed through my stomach lining the last couple of years at a teak and I think that's a very fair point, but I would wake up stressed and anxious and it 100% fed into my physical well-being.

I felt like sick permanently, which was super fun, really enjoyed that, and also constant stomach pain. I had a lot of vitiquities to find out what was going on and eventually I said, yeah, you have a basically irritated stomach lining. And I said, well, what causes that? And she looked at me and she said, stress. Sweet. Can't avoid that. So mental, if you don't look after it, it will lead to physical. I know people who have had IBS induced by these startups.

I know someone who's had a straight out breakdown. It also causes flux with your relationships. So long hours at the office, if you have an office or mental preoccupation, so you're there but you're not there, totally strength personal relationships. You can often find yourself totally distanced from loved ones, you might miss out on family moments, you might not be there physically or again mentally. And finally, this all has an impact on your business. So the very thing that you are sacrificing so much for will suffer if you don't look after your well-being. A stressed, tired, mentally fatigued person is infinitely less likely to make sound decisions.

They're also quite likely to create a toxic work culture because stress and negativity tends to trickle down, unlike economics. So it's not just a feel-good factor. A founder's mental and emotional well-being has quantifiable impacts on business performance, and that is something that investors and boards and leaders, everyone should be paying attention to. Multiple studies have pointed towards better decision-making, more effective problem-solving, and increased creativity in leaders who prioritize their mental health. It is not a weakness. It is a strength for a company to check in on people, to look after people and it is still rare.

But every day when I would walk into the office, even when I was not feeling optimistic and cheerful and it's not because the company was going badly. We were in the absolute throes of success. It was all going well. I was just not looking after myself. So I was stressed and anxious, right? So I would feel that when we were walking into the office and I would do my absolute darndest to try and hide it because teams mirror their leader's energy. And conversely, founders who prioritise their well-being and exhibit that balance and champion mental health, they lead teams that are more motivated and committed and loyal and happy and therefore productive.

Now Ethique has gone through massively high highs and enormously low lows. And there's a couple I'm going to talk about specifically. One is an example of how badly I handled something and one is an example of how much better I got at it later on in the game. Learning moment. Now, this is going to show you what a terrible person I am. I very clearly remember something happened. I don't remember what and that annoys me, but I remember the aftermath. Now, it may or may not have been a big deal because I'm quite an emotional person. And back then, I used to react emotionally.

Now my mum used to work for a team for many, many years. And I remember walking in to the lab where she was currently making, I think, mint tea, if I remember the smell. And I burst into tears and I started shouting at her. I wasn't shouting at her, I was expressing the stress upon her. And unfortunately, because she was my mother she was the person I aimed to that and unfortunately you always treat the people you love the most the worst which is a horrible thing about people. Now as always she handed it with grace she was wonderful she took me off a cliff that we overcame whatever it was. That is an example of really poorly handled stress. You never ever take it out on somebody but we always do as a whole as humans we tend to take it out on people. Now an example of where I handled it better, just a couple of years later, was the Britney Spears story.

Now, if you haven't heard the Ethique story, then you won't know what I'm talking about. But effectively, we went viral around the world, like quite literally viral, and got hundreds of thousands of orders and emails, and then Britney Spears added to it by sharing it on her Facebook page, and then Ashton Kutcher did the same thing, and it was completely overwhelming. Everyone says, oh, what a cool problem to have. It wasn't, because we were a team of four in a tiny little office We have lab set up and we could make 50 miles a day. It wasn't fun. We cried all the time It was exhilarating and look I look back on it fondly It wasn't fun, but I was so much better at handling stress then and I knew to ask for help I drafted in friends and family to help I had a complete stranger Who was a wonderful person who I feel forever in debt who answered all our emails and that is no small feat We email most those orders and said look there's just no way we can service this demand because I didn't have inventory monitored websites at that point because we never did more than, I don't know, 10 orders a day.

This was way back in 2015. Most of those people were absolutely wonderful about it. They were really, really kind. But there was a couple of things I did that I think made this easier. One is I went for a lot of walks. So when we were doing meetings or we would have phone calls or if we just needed a moment, we'd go for a walk. We played music and that sounds really strange. We played a lot of Britney Spears obviously, but we played music because it lifted people's spirits in the office. I brought my puppy in. Obviously goes without saying, that's helpful. But I think the main difference was that I was cognizant of the stress and I think the difference there was because it wasn't just mine. And I'm always super aware of people around me and their well-being to actually the point where that becomes a detriment to myself where I like I will take someone to the movies and I'll feel guilty if they didn't enjoy it.

It's like I made the movie. So because I was aware of the stress they are under, I put, I made it a greater priority to combat it. And as a result, we all got through it a little bit better. So what will I be doing differently with Incredibles? Well, the biggest thing I would do with Incredibles is setting boundaries. And this is where we're going to have a chat about strategies you can employ if some of what I'm saying is resonating with you. If you are not looking after yourself as well as you think you should be.

So number one, I'm gonna start saying no. I'm really, really, really bad at saying no. No to me is immediately a confrontational word, which it isn't, and I have been told numerous times it isn't, and I know it's a ridiculous attitude, but here we are. I was raised by English parents. Politeness is in my blood. Yes, I'm blaming you, mom and dad. So saying no is not my favourite thing, but I'm gonna start doing it. I definitely got better over the last year, but I used to say yes to every speaking event. I'd say yes to every bloody conference and there's so many of them. And really, there are very few conferences that are actually worth your while because most people do not take advantage of the opportunities at hand. I know a few people who are conference legends who will go, take notes, go and meet as many people as possible, pester people, make sure they set up meetings. I'm not like that. I'm very passive at a conference and as a result, they're just not worth it for me most of the time. So I'm going to start saying no more often.

I'm also going to say no to meetings. I said no to my first one on Monday this week and it was really awkward. They asked me for something and instead of being like, yep, yep, yep, here you go, let me bend over backwards to do this for you, I said, look, this isn't the best way of doing it for me, so could you lift some of the load? And you know what? It didn't blow off my face. It wasn't a confrontation. They were like, yeah, no worries, cool, done. So I'm going to start saying no. You need to do the same. Sometimes saying no is the best decision for your personal well-being and your business trajectory. I have talked about opportunities and strategy and not every opportunity being an actual opportunity in some previous podcast episodes. I'm not going to go into that now, but go back and have another listen. Just because somebody wants your product in a new country, for example, does not mean that is something you should chase. Another thing I'm going to be doing is designating personal time. And in fact, I already started doing that last year.

I put a little chunk in my calendar at the end of the day. It said leave clear unless urgent. Now I know people will say you should take out the unless urgent. Baby steps. This means I would go home, go hang out with my horses, go for a walk, go to the gym, whatever the hell it is. It was a designated slot for me. Because we are working with a global team, often you get back on your computer and have another meeting or two, either early in the morning or late at night. Now I'm crap at this one, but this is something I'm also going to do. I don't want to, I'll be honest. I don't want to do this one, but I'm going to because I know it's good for me and I feel bad if I've been on my phone all day, but I'm going to disconnect. I hate it. People, I actually talked to Ethically Kate about this on my Green podcast just a couple of days ago, how you shouldn't sleep with your phone. That to me is a foreign concept. I will always sleep with my phone beside my bed and because something happens, something needs to get a hold of me. That's just who I am. But I'm going to start turning off notifications or I'm going to have an out of office reply on an email, say three or four days out of the week so that people know that I'm actually, I can't check all my emails all the time.

Or I don't know, the idea of setting up a tech-free zone at home. Perhaps you set your living room as the room where you just read or I don't know, watch TV if that's what relaxes you or whatever, but you're not allowed your phone in there. It's not so much doing those things that makes a difference, it's paying attention to how they make you feel that makes the difference. So if you start paying attention to your mental well-being and start doing little things, if you notice the difference you're more likely to do more. It's like building a habit right, it takes time, it takes little baby steps. So if you decide right I'm going to leave my phone outside my bedroom, I'm not going to take it to bed with me. I'm not going to check notifications in the middle of the night. And you find you sleep better, maybe you take some steps elsewhere in your life too. Now, if we move on to mindfulness, which is a term I hate because it has become synonymous with, okay, look, I'm just going to offend people, but I just typically don't like a lot of mindfulness practitioners and the way that it's done. That's a little elitist. So we're just going to leave that there. But mindfulness in itself is a very important thing for us all to practice.

And number one is self-awareness. This is exactly what I'm talking about. You need to check in with yourself. Do you feel overwhelmed or anxious or too bloody tired? Do you need a mental health day? Are you exhausted? Do you just need a break? But you need to check in with yourself and almost ask yourself questions. And you might feel a little bit ridiculous. I do. But it's important. And if you don't feel great, have a short break, a day off, go for a walk, seek professional help. None of these things are a weakness. I've never understood why we consider mental illness as separate from physical. How is your brain not an organ? How is it not the same thing? Meditation. Look, I'm not a fan. I've never been very good at it. It's not... I know a lot of people who absolutely swear by it, adore it, think it's the most wonderful thing for clearing their mind, giving them balance. They do it often in the morning or perhaps in the evening to settle themselves down after work. It's not something I've been good at. Meditation isn't just sitting cross-legged on the floor and deep breathing. There are other ways. That's why I scuba dive because scuba dive is like meditation because I promise you when you're underwater you're not thinking about a great deal else. So even if you just set a few minutes aside every day for some focused breathing, I don't know, some visualization, I am NOT an expert on meditation but there are things you can do that will make you feel like meditation is a more doable thing for you.

Some people find that listening to a podcast is a form of meditation. It just re-centers your mind, provides a little bit of clarity and it's probably chaotic. Something else along the lines of the self-awareness side is the staying present. So whilst you're with loved ones or with an event or something, don't keep looking at your phone. We all do and some people are a lot worse than others. But if you are with someone, be with someone. Be with the people you're with, right? It's simple. Stay present.

And finally, lean on experience. Having mentors who've done it before or done something similar and seeking advice from them or simply talking with someone who's been in your shoes can be the most clarifying emotional relief you'll ever experience because you think, oh, okay, this sucks, but I'm not the only one who's been through it and they survived so I will too and also practical direction of course So some of the things that work for me, I love to read I do a lot of reading I may try and do it in physical books, but if I'm traveling, you know, they're a bit weighty So I tend not to so I find reading is really helpful gets me out of my head. I learn things and Just have always enjoyed reading. My parents are concerned about me as a child. They didn't go outside enough So they bought me a slide set they put out in the garden and they were like go play. I love the slide I used to take my books and read on top of it.

Exercise is a big one. I'm very lucky that I have a home gym and a pool and a lifestyle block, so I have the opportunity for exercise. I didn't have those privileges in the early days of fatigue, obviously, which is why walking was so useful. The difference I find in my mental health if I skip exercise for a few days in a row is significant. And on that note, also, I tend not to drink. A lot of people are surprised when I say I don't drink. And I do occasionally. It's not a hard and fast rule. I'll have a glass of champagne or, you know, occasionally, but I find alcohol incredibly depressing. I drank enough in my early 20s to know quite enough about that. So if you have a team, your company culture is going to play a big role in your well-being actually and it comes from you and it benefits you.

So you need to build a bit of a supportive team. And the best way to do that is be super open to communication, empathetic with everybody you deal with, collective problem solving, building a community within your community. God, how many times do I say community on this bloody podcast? So the things that achieve this are really basic like regular check-ins, invest in team well-being programs. It's not only in a supportive environment for them, but it's a supportive environment for you and it becomes like the opposite of a vicious cycle, like a supportive, comfortable cycle. Team members in high-trust companies have 74% less stress, have 50% higher productivity and are 76% more engaged.

I talked about mentorship. Do not walk this path alone. You will probably already feel isolated, exhausted, tired, lonely. Get involved with a mentor, whether it's an official program, whether it's just a you know, a once a month walk around a park with someone who's been in a similar situation, whatever it is, get a mentor. Peer groups and entrepreneurial circles are super therapeutic. There's lots of things like coffee groups and breakfast clubs and lots and lots of groups and clubs that you can join and become a part of and they can be as simple as an hour a month. They're not usually time consuming, but they are something that you exchange stories and strategies and just have a space to be. Ninety three percent of small and medium business owners agree that mentorship is instrumental to their success, but build a network around you of mentors, entrepreneurs, founders, other people in a similar situation.

And once those professional networks are super vital, personal ones are equal, if not more so in their significance. A founder's close circle is often their high out from business pressures, but it's also crucial that the circle understands what the hell it is you're going through. And well, they're not going to understand it to the degree that you do. They can understand the pressure you're under, but that means open communication, talking about it. Strong personal support networks are one of the primary buffers against stress, depression, and anxiety. And for founders, that can mean that it was losing burnout or resilience, success or failure. Right, but that was heavy, wasn't it? Far out. I didn't quite mean to go that deep, and now I didn't mean to talk this long either. I said I'm not super comfortable talking about this, and I don't know why I'm not, but here we are being super honest and open.

I've had plenty of struggles with mental health in my life, both myself and close friends and family. So this is not a topic I'm unfamiliar with and yet it is still something that does feel funny to talk about. So talking about it more will break that stigma, I hope. Entrepreneurship is incredibly fulfilling. It is the highest of highs but it comes with the lowest of lows and challenges and it is absolutely crucial for us to remember that behind every venture is a human and they're often battling things that you totally don't see. So as we wrap up, I want to encourage all of you, whether you're a founder or someone who is close to one, to ensure you prioritize your and their emotional and mental well-being.

Be the support, the resilience, the understanding in someone else's entrepreneurial journey and make sure you are it in your own. Now next week we're talking sustainability in business and I'm very excited about sustainability in business as you'd imagine and I did say we were doing that this week but some stuff has happened to some people I know so I thought having this chat about sounder wellbeing took precedence. Until then I'm Brianne West. This has been Now That's What I Call Business where we're not just talking business, we're changing the world. Look after yourself.

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