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Having a head for business can point to mental health problems

By Dr Allen Baird

Published 02/08/2016

A US study found that entrepreneurs were more than twice as likely to have a mental health condition
A US study found that entrepreneurs were more than twice as likely to have a mental health condition

An astonishing piece of research published in 2015 by California and Stanford Universities found that 49% of the entrepreneurs studied had a mental health condition. The general population average is around 20%.

These conditions included depression (twice as likely among entrepreneurs) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (six times more likely).

The most disturbing fact was that bipolar disorder was 10 times as prevalent among these entrepreneurs. This condition - in which a person swings between periods of depression and elevated mood - was so well linked to entrepreneurship anecdotally that it was nicknamed in business circles the 'CEO Disease' for years.

Other recent research has made similar connections. For example, children with ADHD are four times more likely to become entrepreneurs than those without. And, according to Aalborg University in Denmark, adults with bipolar are 33% more likely to be entrepreneurs than the general population. So mental health conditions can serve as a draw into the world of entrepreneurship. But they can also grow as a consequence of it.

A UK survey found that a quarter of small business owners have fallen ill due to stress and overwork.

Part of this results from the fact that many owners not only have to work in but on their business, acting as their own accounting, marketing, legal and HR departments.

While employees in large organisations enjoy legislative rights and support for their mental health, entrepreneurs know their business lives or dies with them.

Part of the problem lies with the entrepreneurial mindset, in which ridiculous working hours are not only expected but encouraged.

And a professional setback is often incorrectly seen as a personal failure and source of shame. Another study showed that a fifth of small-business owners will take no holiday this summer, due to lack of time, money or desire, as work has taken over their life.

Many famous and successful entrepreneurs learn how to use their mental health conditions as business advantages.

Richard Branson has ADHD. Steve Jobs was described by a biographer as obsessive and likely bipolar. But it's a double-edged sword. A mood that can generate extreme energy, confidence and creative ideas can also lead to dangerous risk-taking, burnout and depression.

The first step in dealing with this is to talk about it. That's why the research and survey results are so useful.

They allow otherwise tough-minded, reputation conscious entrepreneurs to realise it's not just them. Then they can hear each other's stories, and those of more famous entrepreneurs like Brad Feld, who has started talking openly and blogging about his mental health challenges.

I had been diagnosed with clinical depression before I started my own business in 2006 and have experienced bouts since. Speaking in schools with local mental health charity Aware helped me lose any embarrassment about my illness and, in fact, fired my desire to help. I've also designed and delivered training workshops in Queen's University on Positive Psychology and so-called 'Learned Optimism', a revolutionary technique to prevent and combat depression.

On Thursday, August 11, I'm running a free mini-workshop in The Foundry, a co-working space established by East Belfast Enterprise, at 10.30am.

The workshop is called 'Mental Health for Entrepreneurs' and is designed for freelancers, start-ups, small business owners and employers, mental health workers, and anyone interested in the topic.

In it, I'll suggest ways to transform the dangerous work-ethic of entrepreneurship into a play ethos that protects mental health and promotes business success at the same time.

Belfast Telegraph

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