Op-ed: Entrepreneurship nearly killed me. Why it’s time for us to do something about founder burnout

Erin Blaskie
L-SPARK’s Erin Blaskie says we’re failing entrepreneurs who need mental health support

Earlier this summer, the Canadian Mental Health Association produced a report called Going It Alone: The Mental Health and Well-Being of Canada’s Entrepreneurs and the statistics within the report were alarming but not that surprising based on my personal experience with being a founder.

The study outlines a number of statistics that help illustrate the mental burden on entrepreneurs. Nearly half of the entrepreneurs interviewed in the study experienced low mood or felt mentally tired at least once a week, while roughly three in five felt depressed at least once a week. Nearly one in two felt that mental health issues interfered with their ability to work.

I was the one in two when I owned my company and to be frank, it almost killed me.

A crushing weight

In February of 2015, nearly 10 years after starting my company, I woke up one morning to a crushing weight on my chest. My back and shoulders were on fire – it felt like my skin was going to peel away from itself – and I could barely get out of bed. A series of negative business-related events, combined with a divorce, had floored me and the 10-plus hour days, the lack of self-care and the cognitive dissonance around the state of my mental health had caught up to me.

In short, I was burnt out beyond belief.

The days that followed were messy and blurry but I remember trying to pretend like everything was fine and maintain my strong, heroine-like persona. That didn’t last long, however.

One night, after having dinner with my family, I drove myself to a walk-in clinic and told the receptionist that I needed to see a doctor immediately or I might not make it through the night. It was one of the scariest moments in my entire life – I teetered gingerly on the edge of life and death and I thought there was only one way out of my burnout and stress.

As I began to seek out various treatment options to get through this period of burnout and depression, I came to the stark realization that there are very few support frameworks in place for entrepreneurs who are suffering from mental health issues. There is no paid leave, no paid sick days and most clients won’t wait around for you to get your life together – they have businesses to run, too.

When my doctor would suggest taking time off, I’d get more stressed out thinking about the bills I needed to pay as a newly single mother. When they suggested I do therapy, I had no idea where I’d get the time to do that while I was also trying to keep my clients happy and ensure my life kept chugging forward. The suggested solutions felt misaligned to what I needed.

The entrepreneur’s complex

As an entrepreneur, you wrap a lot of your identity around being a founder. The company you run, being productive, creating solutions for customers, shipping a product – these are all things that become the fabric of what makes you, you. In my case, depression made me believe that the strong, confident, can-do-anything person I thought I was was simply a farce. I felt like a fraud and carried doubt, fear, frustration, confusion and vulnerability with me daily.

In the CMHA study, it says: “Both popular and academic discussions tend to favour a romantic view of entrepreneurs as heroes, visionaries and pioneers, leaving little room for discussions around their vulnerability.” This couldn’t be more true to my own experience.

In my own article, which I shared on Medium.com shortly after opening up to the world about my experiences, I shared this: “We live in a society that values fortitude and optimism and business owners must have both in abundance. We have been taught that the weak do not rise to the top and as a result, we have become extremely well-versed in ‘impression management.’ We stuff our vulnerabilities down under the sheets knowing full well that there is only one place for them – hidden and out of sight.”

Lifting the weight

We (founders, mental health organizations, organizations that support founders, etc.) need to find better ways to support entrepreneurs who are in a crisis due to stress, anxiety and overwhelm. We need to find a way to reduce the stigma so that entrepreneurs don’t feel silenced. I’m fortunate that I survived and made it through but that’s not the case for many and we need to figure out how to ensure that we’re doing better for our founders.

The report suggested a few recommendations, based on the findings, which included:

  • Developing flexible and relevant mental health support for entrepreneurs
  • Creating tools to help entrepreneurs achieve better work-life balance
  • Strengthening research around entrepreneurial mental health
  • Shifting the popular view of entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship
  • Including mental health in entrepreneurship education

Given my own experience with entrepreneurial burnout and depression, I couldn’t agree more with these points – particularly the first point around flexible and relevant support for entrepreneurs. The current framework around mental health support isn’t setup in a way that many self-employed people, especially contractors, consultants or solopreneurs, can engage with without loss of income or loss of customers.

I don’t have all of the answers as to how we change the support system for entrepreneurs but I am feeling extremely inspired by organizations like CMHA who are researching this topic, producing these reports and starting the conversation. I’m grateful that there’s light being shone on this shadowy side of entrepreneurship and I’m encouraged to continue forward with the work we’re doing around mental health in the accelerator at L-SPARK.

As I continue to share my own story and create as many containers for this tough-but-needed conversation in the entrepreneurial circles I find myself in, I’m hoping that you’ll look for ways to do the same because you just never know when a single conversation will save someone’s life.

Erin Blaskie is the director of marketing at Kanata’s L-SPARK accelerator.