Mental health struggles plaguing this group of business owners key to the economy

BDC says 45% of entrepreneurs experienced mental health challenges in early 2023, but many are starting to seek help

Article content

Six years ago, Rhiannon Rosalind seemed to have it all. She was busy running the Economic Club of Canada, the speaker’s forum she’d taken the helm of at age 26 and of which she later became the sole shareholder, while also launching the Junior Economic Club of Canada and raising young children.

“But I was struggling,” Rosalind said. She recalls using her productivity and busy lifestyle as sources of validation and to “hide from the things I didn’t want to face.” She was also using alcohol to calm her nerves and numb her emotions after busy days.

Advertisement 2

Article content

Article content

A near-death experience prompted Rosalind, now the founder of national non-profit Conscious Economics, to step back and take care of herself. In 2017, she was on a Junior Economic Club trip with 30 youth in Nunavut, when a massive storm almost capsized their boat, shaking loose an anchor that nearly hit Rosalind.

“I’d been extremely successful very young and grew up with a lot of trauma, and … struggled with alcohol, overworking, all of these things to try to keep myself straight and steady,” she said. “It was a real wake-up call to say there’s some stuff I need to take care of inside of myself.”

Most Canadian entrepreneurs won’t have a moment of clarity as dramatic as Rosalind’s, but many struggle with their mental health as she did. Forty-five per cent of Canadian business owners experienced mental health challenges in early 2023, up from 38 per cent in February 2022, according to a May survey by the Business Development Bank of Canada. A third, or 31 per cent, said they wanted to seek support from a professional, up from 21 per cent the prior year.

Entrepreneurship has been significantly more challenging over the past three years, hitting business owners with months of on-and-off pandemic lockdowns followed by subsequent labour shortages, supply chain snags, inflation and decades-high interest rates. The collapse of Silicon Valley Bank earlier this year proved to be another source of unexpected financial pressure for some in the tech sector.

Article content

Advertisement 3

Article content

The BDC began surveying entrepreneurs about their mental health and raising awareness about existing resources in 2018.
The BDC began surveying entrepreneurs about their mental health and raising awareness about existing resources in 2018. Photo by Courtesy Business Development Bank of Canada

But entrepreneurs have faced mental health challenges long before the pandemic. A 2019 study by the Canadian Mental Health Association and the BDC found nearly half of small business owners experienced low mood or felt mentally tired once a week, and three out of five felt depressed. Many attributed these challenges to business-related concerns such as cash flow, finding the right talent, meeting their own high expectations and feeling inadequate. The study noted such challenges impacted entrepreneurs’ ability to maintain work-life balance, their concentration at work and their professional relationships.

Female, early or growth-stage entrepreneurs and those with fewer than 10 employees were more likely to report mental well-being concerns.

In another study of small business leaders by Michael Freeman, a clinical professor at the University of California San Francisco’s psychiatry department, in partnership with Gallup Inc., 100 per cent of those surveyed said they’d experienced stress or adverse or traumatic events related to their work, with three per cent attempting suicide.

Advertisement 4

Article content

“These are real people who have real lives and real families, and they create 80 per cent of new jobs for our economy,” Freeman said. “At the edge, the more extreme edge, the mental health issues can be quite significant.”

These are real people who have real lives and real families, and they create 80 per cent of new jobs for our economy

Michael Freeman, clinical professor

Annie Marsolais, chief marketing officer at the BDC who also acts as the bank’s advocate for mental health awareness among entrepreneurs, said owners “carry the weight of their business survival and growth, and that of their employees and communities. It’s a lot of pressure.”

Freeman, who studies entrepreneurs’ mental health, noted small business leaders can also “over-identify with the companies they build,” a tendency that can be particularly detrimental if their enterprise is struggling.

Yet, entrepreneurs often find it difficult to access mental health care. More than one-third of the small business owners surveyed for the CMHA report cited reputation-based concerns and worries about speaking openly about their struggles as barriers to seeking care, while roughly the same number said cost was an issue. Twenty-three per cent said they didn’t know where to go to get help and 22 per cent said their access to care was limited.

Advertisement 5

Article content

But that trend may be shifting. Marsolais said the BDC’s own polling has found entrepreneurs are becoming more open to seeking help. “There’s stigma associated with entrepreneurs — that they’re superhuman, that they have no weaknesses — but in raising awareness we’ve seen them seeking professional help,” she said. Half of business owners aged 45 and younger have reached out to a professional, according to the BDC’s May survey. “It’s good news but it’s worrisome, because it means more people need help,” she said.

If we want to create a sustainable and healthy business ecosystem, we’ve got to do something

Annie Marsolais, chief marketing officer, BDC

The bank is planning to aid them in getting the support they need: in early 2024, BDC is launching a pilot to provide its entrepreneur clients a number of hours of free virtual therapy with a professional.

The BDC began surveying entrepreneurs about their mental health and raising awareness about existing resources in 2018, after hearing of multiple business owners who had committed suicide. While Marsolais acknowledged mental health is an unusual focus area for a bank, she said BDC’s leadership felt it was important, given entrepreneurs are at the heart of the economy. Roughly 98 per cent of employer businesses in Canada are small enterprises, according to Statistics Canada.

Advertisement 6

Article content

“If we want to create a sustainable and healthy business ecosystem, we’ve got to do something,” Marsolais said.

Entrepreneurs can also help themselves using self-regulation strategies to maintain their mental health, Freeman said. Some of those include prioritizing sleep, maintaining close relationships with friends and family members who aren’t entrepreneurs so they connect to their worth outside of business, taking regular breaks throughout the workday, taking full days off, spending time in nature and staying physically active.

Related Stories

Rosalind went to therapy and stopped drinking after she returned from the Arctic — changes she said led to transformation in her personal and professional life. Her new venture, Conscious Economics — which currently runs programs on artistic development, financial well-being and education, and business and policy — came out of her own experiences with workaholism and a desire to make entrepreneurship more mentally sustainable.

“We can build something that is infinitely better and healthier,” she said. “I know that, I believe that, because I’ve built new systems in my own life.”

Article content