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It’s time we talk about Canadian entrepreneurs’ mental health

5-minute read

If you’re an entrepreneur, stop me if this sounds familiar: every day you go to work and you’re pulled in a million directions at once—making decisions, managing people, finding capital and resources—trying to keep your business running. You’re irritable, losing track of small details, and things are getting out of control. You feel like you have no energy left to keep going, but you keep this to yourself, so you don’t worry your family or your employees.

But then one day, something goes right. You make a big sale or win a great contract. You come back rejuvenated and feeling great for a while, but it doesn’t last. Sooner or later, this cycle begins again.

Entrepreneurs are passionate people. They’ve worked hard to turn their dreams into reality, and they carry the weight of the company, their employees, their customers, and maybe even their community on their shoulders, not to mention the responsibilities at home. For many, this takes its toll. Despite signs of stress, fatigue, depression and burnout, only 6% consult a professional. This is a real and pressing issue that deserves awareness.

For entrepreneurs to succeed, we need to start taking mental health seriously.

Health and success go hand-in-hand

BDC is Canada’s bank for entrepreneurs. To put that simply: BDC wants entrepreneurs to succeed and grow. That is our purpose as an organization, but now we see that their success relies on more than just financing and advice. For entrepreneurs to succeed, we need to start taking mental health seriously.

In 2019, we partnered with the Canadian Mental Health Association for a first-of-its-kind research initiative that focuses on entrepreneurs’ mental health. Starting in August 2020, we began conducting regular surveys to find out how entrepreneurs are dealing with the pandemic. Over the past year, we talked to more than 500 small business owners across the country to see how they were doing as the situation changes.

What are entrepreneurs stressed about?

Our March 2021 survey shows that the top three sources of stress are cash flow, the impact of the pandemic on expenses, and keeping the business afloat. Business owners are worried whether they can generate enough revenue to make a profit and cover expenses.

Entrepreneurs are also more worried about the health impact of COVID on their family and their employees (from 36% of those surveyed in August 2020 to 42% in March 2021). They have reported a rise in loneliness and isolation (from 21% to 28%), as well as stress over their ability to raise capital (from 13% to 22%).

It’s interesting to note that our survey results from March look like last August, when cases were fewer and the restrictions were lighter. For example, two-thirds of entrepreneurs said they felt like they had things under control in March, compared to just 57% last November.

However, the situation changes so quickly that I suspect if we were to do the survey today, we would get significantly different results. To use a simple metaphor: entrepreneurs’ mental health levels are like an elastic tied to the general pandemic situation. It stretches back and forth as months go by, as cases go up and down, and restrictions tighten and loosen. But as time goes on and the stresses don’t let up, entrepreneurs risk wearing out their capacity to rebound.

Who’s the most affected?

Survey after survey, some entrepreneurs are more likely to experience mental health issues than others. Entrepreneurs who run new businesses, as well as entrepreneurs whose businesses are still affected by COVID-19, report more mental health concerns. Women and visible minorities are also more likely to be affected.

Women entrepreneurs, for example, consistently reported much higher rates of stress than their male counterparts. Compared to men, women face more disturbed sleep, feelings of uncertainty and inadequacy, and even burnout. In addition, they operate in the most impacted industries, such as retail, wellness and hospitality.

A silver lining: entrepreneurs are taking better care of themselves

No matter how much I wish that it was, seeking help isn’t easy. We’ve discovered the top three barriers preventing entrepreneurs from seeking support are social stigma, costs, and access. Men were more likely to report that they’re barred from mental health support because of worry for their reputation (17% vs. 8%), while women are more likely to be stopped by the associated costs (40% vs. 30%).

There is one silver lining to all this: when we first surveyed people in 2019, taking care of their mental well-being was barely on people’s minds. However, in our March 2021 survey, we’ve discovered that entrepreneurs are paying more attention to their mental health: 50% reported that they are addressing mental health challenges and are coping with them effectively.

We all have a green indicator and a red indicator in our lives. If what we’re doing is causing more stress and fatigue than it does satisfaction or fun, maybe it’s time to stop and take a good look at what we’re doing and adjust. I hope that entrepreneurs continue to get better at noticing these signals and what they’re telling them.

As human beings, we’re all vulnerable in one way or another.

Ending the taboo

Our goal is to raise awareness around the issue by breaking the stigma. BDC has a list of free resources that people can check out in our Entrepreneurs’ well-being section.

I encourage everyone, not just entrepreneurs, to seek help when they need it. Whether it’s family or friends, if you’re open to speaking about it, it’s almost certain there will be someone who can listen and help.

Entrepreneurs are by nature resilient. No one can run a business without a deep reserve of resiliency. It’s how entrepreneurs can accomplish the impressive things that they do. But at the end of the day—we’re human beings, not superheroes. And so am I. And so is everyone. As human beings, we’re all vulnerable in one way or another.

We must shift the popular view of entrepreneurs from “tireless visionary” or “lonely hero” to one that allows them to show their vulnerability and ask for help when needed, without any fear or shame. We can break the stigma around mental health challenges by joining our voices and speaking up.

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