The freedom of being a leader comes with hidden shackles: the ties you feel to your investors, supporters, employees and all of the other people you don’t want to let down.
As a business leader myself, I know the feeling of being like a swan: maintaining a serene demeanor while paddling frantically beneath the surface.
We personify our companies, and if we look disheveled, so do our businesses. I’m lucky in that I don’t have investors breathing down my neck. Nearly all of the pressure I feel in my professional life is self-imposed. Still, it can be stressful and sometimes lonely to be the sole founder of a business and have all of the responsibility fall on your shoulders.
I grew up with a mother who worked in the mental health field, and she helped me understand that maintaining good mental hygiene is just as important as making sure your teeth are brushed and your hair is clean.
These days, I’m always self-checking when it comes to my stress and how I cope with it. Too many people ignore the early signs of stress and depression, but like many other illnesses, if you catch the symptoms early, you can prevent startup burnout from exploding into a full-blown crisis.
Identifying early warning signs
Research indicates that stress can covertly sap your love of life. Sundays formerly spent relaxing become paralyzing reminders of the week to come. Your laptop is too scary to open even for Netflix. Your “snooze” button becomes your best friend, and once you finally decide to drag yourself out of bed, you struggle to concentrate and find motivation at the office.
These are warning signs you should also be watching for in your business partners and staff. Listen for language like “I want out” or “this company would be better off without me,” and be aware of any sudden shifts in behavior. That fun-loving employee who starts going overboard at company happy hours is likely trying to mask some unsettled feelings.
If you or someone you know appears to be feeling this way — or even if you aren’t experiencing any of these symptoms yet — it’s important to be watchful of your mental health. I’ve found that the following four tips can help, and get you back on track toward productivity.
Talk it out
“Leader” isn’t a synonym for “invincible.” You’re still a human being with feelings, and your brave face at work shouldn’t come home with you. After a stressful workday, find a great listener who’s willing to hear you vent and express yourself.
One recent study found that adults who have regular in-person interactions with others are less likely to suffer from symptoms of depression.
While I’ve had some great venting sessions with fellow startup founders, I’ve also had some very beneficial conversations with people who know nothing about running a business. My little brother, for example, works in the music industry, but sharing our ups and downs and our wins and losses is also very grounding.
Take a break
If you burn the candle at both ends, you’ll become a melted mess. It’s easy to feel guilty every time you step away from your professional obligations, but it’s been scientifically proven that even short breaks result in improved focus and productivity.
I try to get out of New York City once a month, even if it’s just to go upstate or to have a “staycation” in Brooklyn. Removing myself from the fray has been very helpful in reducing my stress and finding balance.
Stay physically healthy
This isn’t a meaningless myth. There’s evidence that people who engage in exercise have lower incidences of stress and anxiety. Taking your feelings out on a punching bag at the gym is a healthier option than letting loose with temporary fixes such as drugs or alcohol.
I used to have a hard time feeling motivated to exercise, but finding ways to make physical activity fun and competitive has helped. Friends and I created a volleyball league composed of journalists and PR professionals that plays every Thursday. Not only are we moving our bodies, but we’re also networking, blowing off steam and commiserating about our stressful lives.
Infusing joy into other people’s lives is a great way to bring joy into your own. Try volunteering your time at a shelter or food bank once a week. This will put things into perspective, as helping others overcome their challenges will help you appreciate the positives in your own life.
We take on pro bono clients, and we also speak at startup incubators to help new founders understand that they can do PR on their own. Giving a little helps remind you who you are as a human, not just as a business person.
It’s tough to run a company, and it’s sometimes hard for people who aren’t business leaders to understand that. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told by acquaintances that I’m not allowed to feel stressed or upset because I’m my own boss. It’s this line of thinking that leads to poor mental hygiene.
It’s time for us to stop ignoring the emotional costs associated with running a successful business and start taking mental health seriously. Leaders are as susceptible as anyone else on the payroll to the toils of stress and anxiety, and everyone sometimes needs support keeping their head above water.
This article has been edited.
Elliot Tomaeno is the founder of ASTRSK, a PR agency based in New York City. Since 2012, ASTRSK has helped launch more than 200 startups and tech products and has worked with companies like Squarespace, Frank & Oak, Managed by Q, HelloFresh, Favor, ClassPass, and Havenly, as well as films such as “Ex Machina” and “Steve Jobs.” Elliot was listed as one of Business Insider’s “50 Best Public Relations People in the Tech Industry” and was named one of the “100 Most Influential Tech Agency PR Executives in the World.” Elliot was also included in Adweek’s “PR30Under30” list. Connect with @ASTRSKPR on Twitter.
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