Data from the Australian Mental Wellbeing Index revealed that Australians’ mental wellbeing is low and trending down over the past 12 months. If you layer this with the challenges of a difficult macroeconomic climate, alongside an ever-present hustle culture, the need for support systems and resources for founders’ wellbeing is critical.
Chris is an Australian Social Entrepreneur focusing on mental health and addiction. He’s the Founder and former CEO of Hello Sunday Morning. He’s now the CEO of Australians for Mental Health and the Co-founder of Clean State Clinic.
Chris and Jane joined AirTree’s Jackie Vullinghs for a candid discussion about the highs and lows of the founder's journey, the impact that's had on their mental health, and their strategies and tactics for building resilience and maintaining their mental wellbeing.
Lived experience= Their life’s work
Like many founders, Chris and Jane have lived the problem they’re trying to solve. Chris’ journey into the mental health and addiction space began in his early 20s at university.
“I found myself with a daily dependence on alcohol, and I was using it to self-medicate. I later found out I had depression. I was lucky to get a good GP, the right diagnosis and medication I still take today. It led me to my fundamental driving passion: how can we give more people access to care when they need it?” says Chris.
After starting her first business in her mid-twenties, Jane hit a point where she felt like the work she was doing wasn’t meaningful or her true purpose. She sold her business and got involved in the local community, which was the catalyst for her next move.
“I was volunteering at my boy’s kinder, doing veggie patch duty. I was spending time with young people and seeing a whole host of anxious students. I couldn’t remember my childhood being like that, and it concerned me,” says Jane.
“I met up with James Tutton, who was previously a client, and he asked me what I was up to. I told him I wanted to create something to bring meditation into the community for young people. He’d been thinking the same thing, and that’s how Smiling Mind was born.”
The bumps in the road
Survivorship bias plagues the startup narrative. And we rarely hear founders talking about the hard times and downward spirals one can find themself in. It can all come to a head when things inevitably don’t go to plan.
For Jane, this all came to a head when she stepped into the role of CEO at Unlocked, a startup she was a seed investor, after the founder and CEO, Matt Berriman, courageously stepped aside to prioritise his health after his Bipolar Disorder diagnosis.
“I became the CEO 8 weeks before the IPO, and then Google took us off the Play Store. That stopped our revenue stream and we ended up putting the business into administration,” says Jane.
“Everything I knew about who I was as a founder and a leader was turned upside down. From a career and personal standpoint, it was one of the most gruelling things I’ve ever been through. I felt responsible for the almost 100 people that worked for us. We had an incredible culture and when Matt and I told everyone what was happening, I urged them to find other jobs. Not one person did as they wanted to stand by the business, which was incredible. But the weight of it all had me feeling like a failure.”
Many founders find their sense of worth and identity tied up in their startup. But removing the idea from the founder’s identity, so the company doesn’t feel innately tied to its creator is healthy for the company–and the founder.
“When I left Hello Sunday Morning, it was a huge step for me because my identity was wrapped up in it since my early twenties. I’d also just broken up with my partner. So I was in this exodus of identity in the external world,” shares Chris.
“I saw my therapist every week, and he took a psychodynamic approach. He said, ‘You should leave this organisation the way you wish your father had left your family’. When my parents broke up, nothing was spoken about, and I was always confused about why it happened. So I always associate that with a lack of communication.
“So when I left Hello Sunday Morning, I wanted to overcommunicate the succession process and make sure everyone knew what’s going in. In a way, it was sort of therapy within therapy.
“You feel the fallout from that loss of identity in the first few months. You used to have a clear answer to ‘What do you do?’. And I didn’t have that for a bit and that was almost nauseating in social situations not to have an answer. But it’s a very healthy thing to go through and have space to figure out what I wanted to do.”
Start with the little things
Most founders will go through periods where they lose their oomph. It may be because of team conflicts, flatlining growth, or going back to the drawing board on your product strategy. Perhaps business is fine but you’ve just reached a point of exhaustion. Burnout can hit even during moments of success. For Chris and Jane, it’s about finding ways to manage their wellbeing practically.
“Know when to quit each day,” says Chris. “If you’re stuck on something, give yourself space to think about it.”
“Work with your energy. Some days I feel reflective and I need to sit and think about things. Other days I feel driven and productive. I don’t fully understand where that energy comes from or why I feel the way I do–it’s probably a confluence of things–but I try and accept that’s how I feel on that day, and work with that energy, rather than try and override it with coffee or not getting enough sleep.”
The typical archetype of a founder is obsessiveness, and Jane includes herself in that bucket. With the awareness that her biggest strengths are also her biggest weaknesses, the small things, like having a no-phone rule at dinner with her kids, keep her in check.
“A lot of people ask, ‘What’s your morning routine?’, and I say if you’re not a morning person, don’t have a morning routine; have an afternoon or evening routine,” says Jane.
“I love mornings–that’s how i’m wired. But you’ve got to do what’s right for your body and your constitution and build around that.
“I’ve become completely religious about my own time. When I get up early, no one interrupts it. The hack is to carve out the time, and don’t worry if it's only half an hour. It’s about the commitment to it.”