This article is taken from D/srupt issue 2 (2019-20). View the full magazine here.
Dr Anita Hall, Senior Teaching Fellow in the Faculty of Natural Sciences, is an Imperial Mental Health First Aider (MHFA) and she is on a mission to make people monitor and care for their mental health the same way they look after their physical health. Anita wants to bust the stigma surrounding discussion of mental ill health. Here are Anita’s top tips for looking after your mental wellbeing, based on her MHFA England training and the hundreds of conversations she’s had with Imperial students over the years, including startup founders.
“You may already be convinced of the importance of mental health awareness or you may need some persuasion that it’s worth paying attention to. Recent reports about the mental health of entrepreneurs may encourage you to read on; for example, one study found a high level of ill health among entrepreneurs, caused by stress, anxiety and depression. There are aspects of the entrepreneurial life that may pose risks to our mental health and it is worth a little of your time and energy to plan how you are going to minimise these risks.
“Mental health is defined by the World Health Organisation as ‘a state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community’. If you have an existing mental health condition, there’s nothing to be ashamed of and you should seek all the help and support you can to help you live well with it. Imagine having a physical illness. You wouldn’t for a moment hesitate in seeking help and treatment – mental health is no different. Many entrepreneurs are living full lives with a mental illness because they have good help and support.
“Whether you do or don’t have an existing condition, regularly think about how you are feeling. If you or those around you notice a change in your feelings and/or behaviours, talk it through with someone – a friend, a family member, a therapist or a doctor. You are a very important asset to your business, so you need to take care of yourself and seek help and support when you need it. Taking care of your physical health will also support your mental health, so force yourself to leave the lab or office and make an effort to sleep, eat and exercise well.
“There will be challenges throughout your working life that will sometimes cause you stress; while you are calm, plan things that you can and will do to healthily manage this stress. Avoid falling into the trap of unhealthy behaviours, such as working 24/7 without taking time out to recharge, putting too much pressure on yourself or drinking, especially if there is a culture of this around you.
“You are a driven person with high standards, which is wonderful, but sometimes these personality traits may tip into unhealthy perfectionism, meaning you are placing unhelpful harsh demands on yourself and/or your colleagues and this can cause distress. I’d recommend reading about unhealthy perfectionism to see if it is something you recognise in yourself. If you do, you could benefit from thinking about how you can avoid constantly criticising yourself or the work of others. Some have found cognitive behavioural therapy techniques useful in doing this. Remember to celebrate your strengths and achievements, and those of your colleagues. If people are constantly criticised and never made aware of their self-worth and successes, this can lead to demotivation, unhelpful procrastination and depression.
“There is uncertainty in the world of startups, especially in a changing economic climate – acknowledge this uncertainty and the anxiety that it can induce. Read up about some healthy strategies to reduce anxiety. Think about what aspects of your work you can and can’t control and minimise how much attention and worry you give the latter. Be honest with yourself and talk about your concerns with someone.
“Ensure that there is more to your life than your work and maintain social contact with people who make you feel content. Give some time to activities that give you pleasure so that you are not working 24/7. If work is all you have in your life, you are very vulnerable if it falters and you are at risk of burnout before you can achieve what you want to in your entrepreneurial life.
“Remember entrepreneurship is a marathon, not a sprint. You need to keep yourself fit and healthy for the long haul. Think about how you use your precious time; realise and demonstrate that you can say ‘no’ sometimes – people will often respect you for doing so.
How to cope with ‘failure’
“There may well be ‘failures’ along the way in your career; plan how you will deal with how these make you feel and how to best learn from them. Read about how other entrepreneurs you admire have gained so much from their own ‘failures’.
“You will often be focused on the future and the next steps in your work – make sure that you take time to enjoy what’s good in your life now. Some people find meditation and mindfulness practice useful in helping them do this. Take a little time out of the busyness to think about your values and what a successful life means to you, and ensure that you also include space for this in your days.
“We are all encouraged to be innovative and excellent in our research and educational activities. You and your colleagues can help us to be innovative in the world of work too by role-modelling good mental health awareness and self-care.”