I’m going to have to be straight up with you from the off. As far as I’m aware, there is no way to make your business completely watertight to the perils of mental ill-health striking. There will always be a difficult phase to grapple with as a result — the key is to manage the scale of the consequences and how lasting their impact is. That is what I’ll be exploring here.
The first thing to address is the elephant in the room. It’s not easy to tell people that we work with that we have mental health issues. Most people may choose not to and, for those that do, they might fear that HR meeting for weeks and then maybe not even tell the whole truth once it comes around. Perhaps it’s easier when the business is your own, you might propose. Ultimately, you’re the boss, you call the shots and there’s no one around to fire you very easily (you might have a co-founder and/or a board of directors though, who can indeed do that). I have told both a company I was working for and people working for my own company that I have struggled with my mental health over the years. Yes, I do believe it is easier to tell your own employees or team, but that doesn’t make it easy. I really didn’t want people to doubt my resilience.
That said, telling people is, to me, extremely important when you’re an entrepreneur. Paying people’s salaries is a huge responsibility and, in the same way that you are investing in them, they too are investing in you. They chose you as their employer and they are funneling their time, effort and care into your vision. So I personally feel I owe them the respect of telling them that while I have up phases, I could possibly have down phases — I also might not. You don’t need to share your daily mental health diary with them, nor give a blow by blow account of your first break down — you can just let them know that you have had problems with your mental health in the past and the impact this has had on your work. In my case, that was not being able to get myself into the office or log onto my emails for periods of time, so my team needed to know that. I hadn’t just disappeared. This is just my take on it though and you shouldn’t feel obliged to tell anyone if you don’t feel comfortable doing so.
If you’re feeling apprehensive and want to think about how you can tell your team, please feel free to reach out to me — I’d be happy to have a chat/email exchange to help you work out the best way for you, or even just to give you the encouragement you might need. If you don’t want to be open about it — which is more than fine — then the plans you put in place can just be presented as “what to do in case anything happens to me”. No one needs to know what they “anything” might be.
Assuming we’ve ticked that “telling people” box (and, conversely, it’ll probably feel better than you imagine), we need to put together a mental health proof your business toolkit. It’s a toolkit that is neatly compartmentalised, like all good toolboxes.
Preventative Action — before the shit has hit the fan
Reactive Action — once the shit has hit the fan
Ideally, you’ll have some strategies in place in each segment. The thing that underpins and unites both these compartments is the foundations, without which the strategies you create will be ineffectual and more unhelpful than helpful, as they’ll lull you into thinking that you’ve got some measures in place when the reality is that you haven’t.
Firstly, you need to understand your behaviours and what is likely to happen when you are becoming unwell and when you are unwell — understand those behaviours in great detail and how they might impact the business. Secondly, you need to be 100% honest with yourself. Perhaps you might like to believe that your next bout of depression will last for a month, but given that it’s always lasted for 6+ months in the past, putting a month long action plan in place is just going to leave you, your team and your business screwed over for 5+ months — which is enough to kill off any business. It can be tough to be honest with ourselves about the impact of our mental health because it can involve diving back into painful memories and then imagining it in your future too. If you need support to be able to do this, I strongly suggest you get it — there’s strength in knowing where you need help and asking for it.
When co-founder & COO at Stemettes, I wasn’t ready to be so open about my mental health. When founder & CEO at Salomé, I was very open about it, regardless of whether I was ready or not. But on both occasions, when the shit hit the fan, I was nowhere to be found. If you can’t communicate with a depressive (which is often the case), then whether you’ve discussed it beforehand or not, you need to have physical documents and instructions in place for people because you sure as hell aren’t going to be jumping on a conference call with your team any time soon.
Here’s what my versions of Preventative and Reactive Action have looked like as an entrepreneur.
As founder of Salomé, I told my steering committee fairly soon after I’d assembled the team that I had struggled with my mental health in the past, on a fairly consistent basis. It was easy as they were a bunch of creatives and the majority of creatives will experience mental health issues at some point in their lives. I proposed that I come up with a plan for the business to be able to run in my absence and asked if they were happy to take things over in the event that things took a turn for the worse for me. They kindly said “of course” (bearing in mind they were a voluntary team) and one girl in particular volunteered to be the stand-in leader of sorts.
What did I do? Given my extreme love of spreadsheets, I created a spreadsheet with everything that anyone would need to run the business, in quite a lot of detail. As I was creating this document in the early-ish days, I saw it as a living document and added to it as I went along. It had timelines, contact details and more on it.
The result? Well, yes, things did take a turn for the worse, and yes — the team stepped up to the plate admirably. Given that, unfortunately, I found it too difficult to even sound the Red Alert, they had to work out that they needed to step in from cryptic messages left on the website and vague emails that my sister made me send. The best thing to come out of it was that our writers and customers were communicated with. Salomé dealt with hundreds of people on a quarterly basis, for each issue, many more than we would if we were just selling a product as a one month old business. And so, thankfully, most people were eventually updated on what the issue was and why there hadn’t been a magazine released or their writing hadn’t been read. When I came back to the business, even if to hand it over to someone else, my email to let our audience know about the path forward was met with complete understanding and people volunteering to step up and form the new team. Which made my heart sing.
Get people to do the stuff that you can’t. I felt embarrassed that, when things felt really tough in my head, the things I would normally do with such ease became really, horribly difficult. Things like sending an email to my steering committee: impossible. Telling people that the next issue of the magazine was going to be delayed: almost out of the question. That’s understandable; mental illness does strange things to your mind, of course, and no one can be blamed for how they react. As such, the people around you will completely understand — and even if they don’t understand, they certainly won’t judge you for it.
What did I do? When I couldn’t send an email, I got my sister to sit down with me. It’s a bit like being a school child really. She had to sit next to me to make sure I wrote it and then when it was done she had to read it over to check that it was ok to send (I wanted her to do this, to be honest). When someone else I know was going through a terribly tough path and her body was in melt-down, she was too ill to write the emails herself, so her friend came round and sent them all for her, with her permission. When things are hard, it doesn’t matter what needs to be done, all that matters is that it gets done and damage is kept to as much of a minimum as possible.
The result? By hook or by crook, I sent those damn emails. I really didn’t want to, but my sister cornered me and made me — it didn’t even come from me. I wasn’t able to, but it’s best to be as transparent as possible with the people around you so they can help you in the most useful way possible.
These are just a couple of examples of things you can do to prevent and respond to mental ill-health, to protect the health of your business. There are, of course, many others which I can’t cover in this article, but will do with time. But what it typically comes down to is two things: 1) being prepared and 2) being transparent. By doing both of these things, it makes the process so much easier. You may be lucky enough that you have colleagues and family or friends who eventually work things out, but the quicker that a situation can be responded to, the less of an impact mental health issues are likely to have on your business, your colleagues and your future.