Advice from founders for founders on how to maintain optimal mental health whilst building a startup

To better understand the complexities of mental health for founders, Antler teamed up with Female Founders, the leading European Eco-System for Entrepreneurial Women, to discuss mental exhaustion and how to prevent it as part of a fireside chat.



Viveka Gezelius

The global pandemic has resulted in a true startup boom. The Financial Times report 84,000 businesses were registered in October 2020 in France alone, which is a historical maximum and a 20% increase from the same month in 2019 (McKinsey). In the UK, an increase of 30% was observed, according to the National Statistical Office.

While this will help with the recovery of the global economy, creating new jobs and industries , entrepreneurship requires a certain grit and resilience. Such pressure for a sustained time or without rest can impact the mental health of those involved, particularly if you are a founder.

When observing statistics across occupational groups, there is a higher potential among founders to suffer from mental health issues than it is among other careers. In addition to this, the BDC recently released new research on the mental health of entrepreneurs, revealing that while nearly two-thirds of entrepreneurs say they are adjusting to the COVID-19 context, two in five business owners felt depressed at least once a week. The pandemic is having a particularly alarming impact on female entrepreneurs' mental health, with women significantly more likely to struggle mentally during the venture building period (51%) than male entrepreneurs (35%) (Bay Street Bull).

To better understand the complexities of mental health for founders, Antler teamed up with Female Founders, the leading European Eco-System for Entrepreneurial Women, to discuss mental exhaustion and how to prevent it as part of a fireside chat.

Joining the discussions were Linda Waxin, co-founder and Secretary-General of think tank Ownershift, which is aiming for a measurable increase of women's ownership, and Dr. Bernadette Frech, CEO of Instahelp, a mental health platform offering psychological counseling online in five European countries.

Here are the key takeaways from the discussion, and what has helped them remain resilient during times of uncertainty.

Be transparent and support one another

One of the most exciting parts of being a founder is the determination to succeed, and the practise of giving your all to an idea. And while that determination can be the fuel that takes a founder forward, it can also result in isolation and loneliness, something that the pandemic has only accelerated.

"Lots of people are feeling very low during the pandemic," says Dr. Frech. "But we don't address that accordingly. We address the economic suffering as a consequence of the pandemic as well as the physical health. But what about staying mentally healthy? We need to give more voice to that, support one another, ask for help. It's even a strength to ask for help. And share our learnings openly."

Collectively striving to openly share our experiences and emotions, including those which are negative, allows for the possibility to normalise honest discussions around the founder experience, which others can learn from and find support in.

"Deep rest is key to resilience. Learn how to get to the level of deep rest. Learn what that is for you".

Schedule time for deep rest

"Deep rest is key to resilience. Learn how to get to the level of deep rest. Learn what that is for you". This is a key takeaway mentioned by Linda Waxin.

One might think that lounging out on the couch watching Netflix is the best way to rest and recharge the batteries, but as Waxin points out, casual relaxation does not guarantee to reach the level of deep rest that is needed for mental recovery: "To reach sustainable high performance, we need to understand and manage our physical, mental, and emotional energy. High performers require a true balance between intervals of high performance and periods of deep rest. The longer we push ourselves, the more we have to rest to find resilience and balance."

A state of deep rest can be achieved through practices of all kinds, such as meditating, walking, hiking, or going to the gym. What is most important is that we prioritise scheduling time for it and that the practices are performed without any goal other than to just find rest and digest.

Portrait of Bernadette Frech wearing yellow shirt and smiling

Accept and embrace your emotional diversity


Acceptance of emotional diversity

Dr. Frech discussed how the lifestyle of an entrepreneur, with the constant ups and downs that come with building a business, mean that it can be difficult to find balance.

"Living from one finance round to another means huge uncertainty and insecurity" says Dr. Frech. "But at the same time, you feel a huge passion for what you do.

"There are lots of strong emotions to handle and manage at the same time and on your own" she says.

She also highlighted the importance of accepting emotional diversity and learning how to cope with a state of mixed emotions to build resilience.

"Sometimes life's just not that easy but if you're mentally reluctant towards these situations and contexts due to the difficulty of coping with the related emotions, the less creative you will be in finding solutions" says Frech.

If we conversely and constantly challenge ourselves to handle these situations and a diverse set of emotions, Dr. Frech explains, out of her own experience, how this results in the improvement of problem-solving skills, personal growth, and building resilience.

Embrace your fears

Finally, fear is a big part of being an entrepreneur and comes in many different forms. The fear of failure. The fear of not being good enough. The fear of financial insecurity. The fear of disappointing family and friends. The fear of the unknown. But as the Medicine Clinical Psychologist Zachary Sikora says, "Fear is our survival response", meaning that fear is positive.

Instead of being paralysed with fear, Linda suggested to lean into it:"Write down the fear in actual words, tell a friend, your partner and force yourself to put it in words. In that way, it will become smaller. And then ask yourself five times in a row - what's the worst thing that can happen? It works."

By viewing it from new and alternative perspectives it will allow us to reframe them and become less threatening. Ultimately, fears can be embraced and rather work as informative guidance as to what needs to be done next.

Waxin concludes, "remember, you can always quit. Life's more important than any business. And to have that acceptance in the back of your mind will give you strength and allow you to build resilience."

Are you a physician, a therapist, a researcher, or someone that seeks to improve the mental health of people? Head over to our website to learn how Antler can facilitate your entrepreneurial journey and support you in making a big impact. Some of our portfolio companies that are tackling mental health: Stockholm-based VoiceHER, London-based Blueheart and Kalda, and Singapore-based Innade.

This article was written by Viveka Gezelius, Marketing

Subscribe to our newsletter

Get the latest news and views from Antler’s global community

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Must-read articles from Antler

Browse our collection of founder stories, industry insights and latest startup successes from Antler Australia

See articles
5 min read
The 2022 Benelux Unicorn Founder Roadmap: How to build unicorns in Benelux

As everyone anticipates the next wave of ultra-successful companies in Benelux, what does it take to get there? What do the successful founders of Benelux unicorns look like? This report is an in-depth look at the Benelux startup ecosystem and its brightest stars. And above all, it is for anyone who is helping build the next 50 unicorns in Benelux.

5 min read
The Angle: Why the long-term view is the hard but right one

The Angle is a new content series from Antler, featuring perspectives from our team members on the biggest events and trends impacting founders and early-stage investors today. Every article is that person's unique angle on a hot topic—what they see from their vantage point in one of our 25 offices around the globe—not Antler's stance. In our first edition, Jeff Becker draws lessons from the demise of FTX and turbulent tech moments in recent years. This article first appeared in Jeff's Monday Morning Meeting on Substack.

Founder Stories
5 min read
Jamie Bubb: The tech marketing venture developer connecting brands and content creators

Our new content series—"It All Starts with People"—delves into the passions, motivations, and vision of the exceptional founders we have the privilege of partnering wtih around the world. In our second spotlight, we sat down with Jamie Bubb, co-founder of Twirl, a remote content studio powered by top-quality creators that helps brands scale their content engines rapidly and cost-effectively.

5 min read
Venture investing in the downturn

We are living two simultaneous realities: the uncertainty of the current downturn and the unstoppable wave of innovation disrupting every industry. Against this backdrop, Antler's Kevin Brennan shares perspectives on assessing your position in venture capital for the rest of 2022 and into 2023. Might 2023 be the best vintage for the coming decade?

Founder Stories
5 min read
Emilia Theye: The psychologist using AI to democratize access to mental health solutions

Antler was founded on the belief that people innovating is the key to building a better future. To honor them, we are launching a new content series—”It All Starts with People”—spotlighting the exceptional founders we have the privilege of partnering with around the world. Each story is a window into their passions, motivations, and vision—the reasons they are building and the positive dent they are aiming to make on the world.

In our first spotlight, we sat down with Emilia Theye, the co-founder of clare&me—a mental health app that uses language-based AI to develop an innovative approach to virtual self-help.

5 min read
Backing founders from day zero to greatness

Today we are sharing our new brand that reflects that commitment and the reason Antler exists: to stand behind our founders from day zero and to keep backing them on their paths to greatness.

Founder Stories
5 min read
Seven ways founders can prioritize mental well-being as they build

Founders are the life force of the startup ecosystem. They give their all, betting on their seemingly “crazy” convictions and executing on abstract ideas that can potentially make our lives and work easier, faster, healthier, and better optimized.

But sometimes they do this to the detriment of their health. Being a founder means being beholden to customers, employees, and investors while balancing personal life. Often founders trade their stable, well-paying jobs to prioritize the restless inquisitivity of their mind. In the quest to answer the question “what if?”, they sometimes sacrifice their mental and physical health, only realizing the effects on their state of mind once they have impacted their ability to function as a leader. We have also seen how the mental pressure on founders can cause distress to those who depend on them for their livelihood and direction.

5 min read
A fresh take on early-stage VC: Harvard Business School publishes a case study on Antler

Harvard Business School (HBS) recently published a case study about Antler’s fresh approach to early-stage venture capital. Antler Co-Founder Fridtjof Berge shares thoughts on how the case sparks discussion about the best ways to identify and support great people anywhere on earth.