Dealing with stress and emotions as a startup founder (especially during COVID)

We are facing a global crisis, perhaps the biggest of our generation. Besides the social and health impact, the current situation has taken a toll on all of us but with a special impact on founders.

Stress not only affects your mental, emotional, and physical well-being, but also the startup as a whole. A stressful environment may lead to disagreements amongst team members, delays, de-motivation, indiscipline, etc. but the greatest impact can be felt on the mental health of founders: depression, anxiety, burnouts, or just the inability to ake decisions.

Take a look at some advice on how you can deal with stress as a founder:

  1. Acknowledgement and self-awareness

The first step to deal with it all the uncertainty around you is to accept that current times are strange, but acknowledge that you’re neither guilty nor a hostage. Crises come and go, so accept them assertively and refocus your attention on identifying opportunities in the midst of changes. You’ll free your mind to respond to the new reality with new mental processes and strategies.

Feeling stressed is the natural response to doing something that is both difficult and important. Understand your emotions in stressful situations by simply being more aware of your ‘natural’ mechanics: thoughts, feelings, and automatic physical/emotional responses. By using some breathing, stretching and mindfulness techniques, you’ll be able to regain control in these situations. Greater self-awareness will allow you to make thoughtful choices when facing challenges or deadlocks.

  1. Build a resilient organization

If you’re feeling stressed or anxious, probably your co-founders and staff are also feeling it to. We’re collectively riding the same emotional roller-coaster, so it’s a crucial time for team strengthening!

Always address any signals of fatigue among staff, so they don’t feel isolated in the process. Focus on positive and reciprocal communication with your team members, by establishing honest feedback loops.

Lead by example and practice empathy by supporting every team member to realign expectations, re-set goals and adjust the workload. While some pressure is inevitable for team performance, the notion of combined strength has to be very present now, more than ever. Building an emotionally intelligent workforce is one of the main keys for post-pandemic startup survival.

  1. Reinforce culture and belonging

Building ompany culture is one of the most important roles of any startup founder. Re-igniting passion and purpose will drive your energy towards uniting teams around common beliefs. Dedicate some time to understand how digital interactions can recreate the ‘office feeling’, and build new virtual/hybrid bonds.

By focusing on the startup’s strengths you’ll help staff to feel that they are working to prove the company/product to the world, and not prove themselves to the company.

Implement processes that enable better collaboration and connection between everyone. Online calls are not your only resource: ‘reinvent meetings’ by being creative and flexible in the communication tools, suggest online coaching, and foster informal interactions (lunches, virtual happy hour, etc.)

  1. Take care of your health

Studies have found that entrepreneurs are prone to mental health conditions more than the general population, and from my personal experience, self-doubt, depression, and anxiety are unfortunately very common among entrepreneurs. The ‘I am my company’ approach leads to personal conflicts, burnouts, and high emotional strains.

Breaking this cycle starts by taking care of your body. Much of the damage caused by stress is due to the cumulative effects of the cortisol hormone. Taking care of your body can help you counteract stress, and this means sleeping well, a balanced diet and exercising (elevating your heart rate) for at least 30 minutes, three times a week. These are the essential building blocks to stress management and optimal neurological functioning: eating, sleeping and moving. Simple, right?

Don’t forget the basic blocks and set a balanced weekly routine that also includes time for yourself. Playing video games and watching TV are common ways to relax, but they tend to be physically passive. Develop and include a hobby or activity that sparks joy; let your brain and body enjoy a different speed, like cycling, playing an instrument in a band, or maybe painting.

  1. And remember that you are not alone

Running a startup is hectic and can be chaotic at times. Paradoxically, being a founder/CEO can be a very lonely place, especially during crises and stressful periods. This loneliness is not an inevitability and you can reach out to others. Startup communities, other founders, experts and investors can play an important role in supporting you and your business decisions.

Foster a strong relationship with mentors, as it will allow you to let off steam with productive conversations and put your decision options into perspective. Besides mentoring, aim to keep your normal social routines and look for ways to expand your networks.

Final thoughts

Entrepreneurship involves a roller coaster of emotions: fear, insecurity, loneliness, euphoria, frustration and stress. Start by separating what you can control from what you can’t, as it is a way to lift some of that weight off your shoulders.

Not everything is urgent right now and some emails can wait. Although it is tempting to respond impulsively at times, take this COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity for you to better manage emotions and strengthen your resilience, empathy and adaptability.