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Why Entrepreneurs Opening Up About Mental Health Might Help Us All To Play Harder At Work

13/09/2016 09:03

There are strange rumblings abroad in the harsh jungle of entrepreneurship and venture capitalism. Some of the big beasts have pushed away from the pack towards the rest of us. They want to share rather than roar. They want to talk about their mental health. So do I.

Tim Ferriss, internationally famous author and angel investor, has unmasked himself as a sufferer of bipolar disorder and has blogged about his descent into suicidal thoughts. Brad Feld, a specialist in financing technology start-ups, has spoken at conferences and online about his struggles with depression and, again, bipolar disorder. Many more - from Steve Jobs to Richard Branson - could be mentioned.

Playing with Numbers

What is interesting isn't just the fact that so many entrepreneurs and business owners experience mental health conditions. This is easily explainable due to such factors as the sheer quantity of hours that entrepreneurs work each week. A recent survey found that entrepreneurs work an average of 50.5 hours per week, rather than the 4-hour workweek famously advocated by Mr Ferriss!

What fascinates academics is the link between certain types of mental illness and the profession of entrepreneurship in the first place. Research from Stanford University has discovered that 49% of entrepreneurs have a mental health condition. Particularly prolific was bipolar disorder - a condition in which the sufferer swings between periods of depression and periods of elevated mood known as mania or hypomania, depending on severity.

Entrepreneurs are approximately ten times more likely to experience bipolar disorder than the general population. This has led to its nickname as the "CEO disease". Another study showed that adults with bipolar are 33% more likely to be entrepreneurs than the general population. So it seems that the correlation between mental illness and a career in entrepreneurship could be one of both cause and effect.

Of course, entrepreneurs aren't the only group of workers to experience mental ill-health as a result of their profession. For example, I've written elsewhere about the need to tackle stress in the voluntary/community sector in particular. The mental wellbeing of workers in the not-for-profit sector is in steep decline. They lack both the resources available to public sector workers and the flexibility offered to some in the private sector.

The Opposite of Play

Strategies suggested by mental health experts for entrepreneurs and others in the workplace tend to take a familiar line. For prevention - healthy eating, regular exercise, sleep, sunshine, breaks, and work-life balance. For treatment - medication or therapy (CBT, the popular Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or the lesser known Behavioural Activation, etc.) Other suggestions include the use of journaling, meditation and health apps.

But it is in-work strategies that require the most attention. Unless a healthful activity can be integrated into the schedule, even into the structure of a normal, working day, then it isn't a solution, it is a side-line. CEO coaching might help those who can afford it, and coworking will help those whose jobs allow them to avail of it. For the rest of us, fun days out and wheeling ping-pong tables in won't do. So what will?

My own proposed solution is to transform a harsh work ethic into a light and creative play ethic. After all, to paraphrase the words of play scholar Brian Sutton-Smith, "The opposite of play isn't work, it is depression." The use of 'depression' here isn't word play. Medical expert Stuart Brown has conducted research into the phenomenon of play deprivation as a cause of mental illness in adults. The results are tragic, both for workers and for our economy.

Work Healthy, Play Hard

It all starts in the head. Play is first and foremost an attitude and a state of mind. After that, there are key emotions that are commonly associated with play, such as fiero, Italian for 'fierce pride'. A play mindset turns workstations into play stations, for entrepreneurs and everyone else. Through play, we replace tasks with games and tell stories to give our data meaning. We schedule celebrations of victories alongside deadlines. We envision the future before planning it.

The 21st century has witnessed some interesting attempts to blend work with play. Using game mechanics to boost user engagement and employee recruitment, for example, is almost passé . Many organisations employ storytelling as a leadership and management tool. Lego has launched their Serious Play service to aid group creativity and teamwork. And the sound of Laughter Yoga sessions has pierced the seriousness of more than a few company training rooms!

I gave a talk earlier this year called 'Mental Health for Entrepreneurs' in which I brought some of these techniques together. I plan to expand on them in a half-day workshop in Belfast next month called 'A Play Ethic for Entrepreneurs: How to Work Healthy by Playing Hard'. At the first talk, much to my surprise, we enjoyed both an international audience at which all seats were taken, and column space in Belfast Telegraph. Apparently, this is a topic whose playtime has come.

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