Almost everywhere you turn today, you’ll see an ongoing debate over how people should use their time at home during stay-at-home advisories. Some argue now is the time to focus on self-improvement, exercise and learning new skills, while others recognize the stressful realities of working from home, worrying about the pandemic and, for some, parenting or managing other personal responsibilities. For entrepreneurs, this argument adds to a “no days off” attitude that often permeates the startup space and can leave those currently running businesses under more pressure than ever before.
It’s no secret that building a company from the ground up is a massive undertaking, and the stress of starting a new business has been known to negatively impact entrepreneurs’ physical and mental health. Now, add in the stressors of a global pandemic and the negative impact multiplies. According to a report by Michael Freeman, of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, 72% of entrepreneurs self-reported mental health concerns, and 49% reported having one or more lifetime mental health conditions.
Acknowledging the importance of this often-overlooked aspect of entrepreneurship in my work teaching and advising young entrepreneurs and early stage startups at the University of Michigan’s Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies, I developed a course called Building Healthy Businesses where we examine the factors that influence the mental and physical health of entrepreneurs. Given the current strain entrepreneurs might be experiencing, compounded with the debate over how to make the most of our time at home, there’s never been a more important time for entrepreneurs to prioritize wellness.
In any setting, the creation and launch of a business can be an extremely stressful process, but add in a global pandemic and economic uncertainty, and every stressor is heightened. Between isolation and non-stop work, it is common for self-care to get pushed aside and forgotten. As we continue to navigate this uncertain time, there are things that entrepreneurs should be looking to prioritize when it comes to their health. When evaluating an entrepreneur’s health journey, it’s important to not overcomplicate the process. Instead, I recommend focusing on the four basics: sleep, diet, exercise and social connections.
The value of sleep
The first and most important aspect of establishing a healthy lifestyle is making sure you get enough sleep. The Sleep Foundation recommends that those between 18-64 years old should get between 7-9 hours of sleep each night. Sleep is so critical to health and wellbeing, but it’s one of the first things to be sacrificed, especially in an environment where it can feel difficult to ever completely “turn off.” People tend to view sleep as a luxury rather than a necessity when they find themselves overwhelmed with work, but I cannot emphasize its importance enough. Sleeplessness negatively impacts productivity, emotional regulation and the ability to make complex decisions, which are all essential when starting a business. Matthew Walker put it simply in his popular TED talk: “the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life.”
Diet & exercise: Fuel for the entrepreneurial mind
Eating a balanced diet and avoiding highly processed foods can help boost your immune system, brain function and, like sleep, help improve energy levels. Good nutrition leads to a healthier lifestyle and reduces risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer, so focus on fueling your body with a healthy diet filled with natural food. Launching a startup requires high energy, and entrepreneurs can’t let the grueling pace of work get in the way of stopping to eat meals that will fuel their productivity.
It should come as no surprise that exercise isn’t just another great way to boost immunity, but also a fantastic way to relieve the stress that can come with entrepreneurial endeavors. Rather than setting fitness goals that can seem unattainable alongside work, pick a form of movement that works for you such as walking, running, yoga or lifting weights, and stick with it. Start small with an activity you prefer—you are more likely to follow through with an exercise if it’s something you enjoy doing already. Time away from work to focus on an outside physical activity can do wonders for the mind and body, relieving stress and allowing you to take a moment to step aside from screens and email—it could just be when great ideas strike.
The power of human connection
You should also look to set aside time for positive social connections, even if they are remote. Taking the time to talk to someone can help build and maintain the relationships that are so essential to all of us. It’s important to occasionally give yourself a break to listen to a podcast or read a book, but self-isolation can have its own negative consequences. Even a short connection, if meaningful, can yield benefits that simply aren’t available any other way.
While “grinding” at all hours of the day is often mentioned as a given when starting a new business, various research shows that working more than 40 hours a week leads to less productivity, increased injury rates and more illnesses. Keep in mind that effective leaders often lead by example, so avoid setting an unhealthy precedent where employees feel pressured to work extended hours. Take time for yourself to separate from your to do list and decompress—your body, mind and ultimately your business and colleagues will thank you.
It can be difficult to account for self-care while starting a business, but especially in today’s environment where we are all exposed to an increasing amount of stressful news and situations, it has never been more important. For budding entrepreneurs and seasoned leaders alike, prioritizing health and wellness could be your best business decision yet.