Entrepreneurship will test your mental health. Here’s how to protect it.

It’s not a case of ‘if’; it’s a case of ‘when’. If you choose to be an entrepreneur, your mental health will come under strain. It’s inevitable. That’s the conclusion I’ve drawn after 30 years of running my own business, Antal International. 

Fired with enthusiasm and the thrill of the chase, we fail to factor stress and sleepless nights into business plans. After three decades at the helm, I believe we should. Today I advise all entrepreneurs – especially those starting out – to develop consistent strategies for dealing with tough times. Your business and your career will, at some point, serve you at least one big curve ball. Never mind how the bottom line will cope; the most critical question is: how will you handle it, mentally and physically? 

I believe that, as entrepreneurs, we must pay more attention to our mental wellbeing. We need to brace ourselves for the journey we’ve chosen, act wisely when the road gets bumpy, and seek support when we feel – as we inevitably will – that the wheels might just fall off. 

The idea of a Teflon entrepreneur is a myth 

Here is the starting point. Taking a more sensible and realistic approach to entrepreneurship begins with the dismissal of this macho fictional character. The “entrepreneurial superhero” – who dons his/her cape each morning, gets knocked down by baddies but gets back up again without feeling pain – is a lie. Entrepreneurs are as vulnerable as anyone. Data shows that business owners are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and addiction, and are more prone to suicide. So take off that cape!

It’ll be a rocky ride

We put ourselves in a stronger position mentally if we walk into entrepreneurship with our eyes wide open, braced for turbulence. I did not do that when I started my business. Little did I know the surprises that lay ahead. 

When I launched Antal, I was almost breathless with anticipation, knowing I’d spotted a geographic market niche ripe for exploitation. I’d identified a latent demand for recruitment services in Central and Eastern Europe. Nobody else had seen it, or if they had, they were wary of chasing it. I was terrified that the competition would wise up. 

That excitement and fear of rivals drove me to build the business quickly. I jumped in with both feet, hiring people without feeling sure they would work out. I remember walking into our Budapest office in the summer of 1996, seeing 40 people, and thinking ‘how did that happen?’ 

I don’t regret building the business so fast – it had to be done. But given my time again I would have steeled myself more strongly for the challenges ahead. Walking into a situation with your eyes open gives you a better chance to mentally protect yourself.

You’ll be let down. Plan for it

I soon hit one of my first significant bumps. A trusted manager went rogue. He decided he wanted a part of the business for himself. 

I’ve since learned that it’s an error to expect constant, unconditional loyalty. Instead, you must factor in an element of betrayal. That’s reality and you should not take it personally. In the service sector especially, people will hive off and set up their own entities. They’ll think that they can do it better than you, and you’ll be in a stronger position if you accept this is likely to happen. 

Moreover, bank on staff issues causing you the odd sleepless night. Your team will not necessarily be as carried away with your vision as you are, and you’ll often ask yourself: “Have they got the energy and motivation to do what I need them to do? How can I motivate them more effectively? Have I got the structure right? How many more times do I have to have the same conversation?” 

Excitement can turn poisonous

We are all naturally excited by opportunities, but we are also afraid of missing them. Successful founders harness that excitement and fear, turning it into positive energy. Waking up at 4am in a cold sweat is all part of your entrepreneurial drive. 

However, such excitement and fear can be spiritually and emotionally draining. Channelling them is fine, but becoming over-reliant on them for fuel is not. It’s best to balance them out with nourishing downtime, physical exercise, or whatever it is that brings you peace and relaxation. 

If you don’t, your naturally restless energy may turn toxic. Excitement morphs into irritation, which mutates into stress as you mutter to yourself: “I’m flat out and this still isn’t working.” And: “I’m making good decisions, but market forces outside of my control are killing my bottom line.” 

Studies show that positive excitement and negative anxiety produce similar neurological responses. Whether you experience one or the other often depends on whether you’re thinking positively or negatively. By looking after yourself and balancing your entrepreneurial adrenaline with relaxation, you’ll be able to think positively for longer. 

Your most powerful asset

I’ve invested in 19 businesses so far. Seven have failed. The ones that have succeeded are led by people who are able to keep going when things get tough. They do not see themselves as entrepreneurial superheroes but recognise that downs are inevitable and have found ways of coping. Tricky periods come from many areas including bereavement, staff issues, divorce, investor pressure and sector downturns. Whatever the source, success depends on you being able to keep going while taking the punches. Reacting well to punishment is just as important as scoring goals. 

However, at the risk of repeating myself, I’m not talking about stiff-upper-lip heroism here. Rather, I’m suggesting that it’s critical to design robust coping mechanisms to get you through the rough patches.

The difference between success and failure

Today’s investors now look beyond the numbers and delve into the psychology of management teams. My experience tells me that you can launch a brilliant product in a high-potential market, but if the leaders can’t cope when the going gets tough, the business will fail. 

A successful entrepreneur must be able to withstand significant personal pressure. That’s the difference between success and failure. 

Fight your way out of dark places

Each person has ways of dealing with tough periods. Peer-support groups such as Vistage and MD Hub are useful because they allow you to talk to others in similar situations. Sharing experiences, thoughts and feelings is critical to mental health. I’ve pulled myself out of dark places many times by chatting to others. 

Mental health is also directly connected to physical health, so exercise is a powerful tool for exorcising demons during turbulent times. I run and cycle to keep physically fit but also because it gives me clarity of thought. 

The key message

My key message is this: entrepreneurial superheroes do not exist. Don’t kid yourself into thinking you’re made of Teflon. Instead, accept that tough times are part of the deal and start to brace yourself by working them into your business plan. Why not factor in a fortnight with flu, a week when you’ve had a blazing row with your partner, or a month when you’re dealing with bereavement?

By being well prepared for the problematic issues that lie ahead, you not only take the first step in protecting your mental health; you also improve the chances of your business flourishing.