Mental health has always been a taboo topic within the startup ecosystem
With the coronavirus crisis, founders have had to make stern business decisions
The cost of surviving the pandemic has also been psychological
It’s been nearly two months since many Indian businesses started working from home. At the onset, many welcomed the change, and a few even expected it to become the new normal, and for a certain group of forward-looking companies and startups, work-from-home doesn’t even like a new thing. But somehow, we have all failed to acknowledge that this work-from-home is not like the ones we used to have before coronavirus. This one’s happening amid a pandemic and there’s a psychological cost attached to continue working in a global health crisis, even if it’s from a couch with the TV on in the background.
As Nikhil Taneja, founder of a mental health positive startup Yuvaa said, “As someone who has struggled with clinical anxiety in the past, it’s been a task to manage it in these weird times. My first three weeks into work from home were largely an anxious blur, with me trying and failing to make sense of what’s happened.”
This crisis has also pushed business leaders to take harsh decisions like asking employees to go on unpaid leaves, introducing pay cuts and layoffs. And any employer would admit that this is one of the worst feelings as it impacts the mental health of both employees, the extended families and employers.
Talking about the huge uncertainty that has brought this mental dilemma to light, Pesto’s founder Ayush Jaiswal said that this is an extremely difficult time and every entrepreneur is trying to figure out how to survive. “It’s particularly tough for people in the sectors’ directly impacted by the crisis. Founders had to introduce pay cuts and layoff employees, even when it’s nobody’s fault that the company’s revenues are going down,” he added.
Last week, Nearbuy founder Ankur Warikoo also tweeted about the experience of laying off people in these times. He said, “You will have to layoff people at some point. And it will be your fault — not a pandemic, not your investors, not your customers. And that will kill you within, the first time it happens.”
In response to Warikoo’s Twitter thread, other entrepreneurs like WittyFeed’s Parveen Singhal, and Zypp’s Akash Gupta said they have experienced similar experiences in their entrepreneurial journey.
The mental stress is particularly large for early-stage companies, noted Dr Amit Malik, confounder of mental health platform InnerHour. InnerHour saw a significant increase in the number of early-stage companies signing up for their corporate health programmes in the last month.
Self-help AI tool Wysa also noted that entrepreneurs have been reaching out with issues such as dealing with financial stress, accountability issues with the team, managing stress from constantly being on the go, and enhancing resilience in times of failure, among others. Though there are no numbers to show how many entrepreneurs really reach out to such tools given the anonymous nature of such technology platforms.
Stigma Around Mental Health
WHO estimates India’s burden of mental health problems to be massive at the moment. For every 100K people, the organisation found 2400 disability-adjusted life years. This means among the lifetime of every grouping of 1 Lakh in the population, 2400 years cumulatively are spent managing mental disability or trauma. A lot of this is due to the social stigma around seeking help.
Pesto’s Jaiswal believes that there is a definite stigma around talking about mental health among entrepreneurs. “It’s built in to our DNA, I have been through depression four years back and I did not take professional help then. You never even think about that option,” he said.
Even beyond the startup ecosystem, the biggest issue in therapy has always been that people do not come forward because of the stigma attached to it. Psychologists claim that stigma around mental health makes for about 80% of the problem, noted Ramakant Vempati in an earlier conversation with Inc42.
According to First Round’s State of Startups 2019 report which surveyed 950 founders, only 28% of founders under the age of 40 were found to be likely to consult a therapist or psychiatrist and only 16% of founders above the age of 40.
However, entrepreneurs have found alternate ways to deal with their mental toll. For Jaiswal, it’s a daily bout of online gaming with friends. In the case of Yuvaa’s Taneja, controlled consumption of news has helped him to deal with the uncertainty.
“I have been scheduling my news consumption to specific times in the day – where I allow myself to be anxious, which weirdly gives me a sense of control. It’s always a battle between not knowing enough and knowing too much,” said Taneja.
As a founder of a startup, it usually becomes challenging for entrepreneurs to differentiate their company’s failure from failures in personal lives and that can be a cause of immense stress. In the words of Yuvva’s Taneja, “You can’t be strong all the time. It’s okay to be human in a crisis. Help yourself first, then help your team. Mental health must matter as much as physical health now.”