Breaking the Silence:
Prioritizing Mental Health in Canada's Innovation Landscape

May 1, 2024

May is mental health awareness month. In this article, our friends at Collectively Tangled, a mental health service for start-ups and innovators, tackle the current state of mental health in the Canadian innovation ecosystem, recognizing stress and burnout, and actions innovators can take everyday to overcome mental health challenges. 

A staggering fact has been overlooked for too long:

Founders experience mental health concerns at greater rates than the general Canadian population, and they face many unique barriers when it comes to seeking out mental health support.

We need to change this. Foresight has teamed up with Collectively Tangled to break down these barriers, starting with a frank conversation about the realities of working in emerging industries.
Hard work and stress are part of the founder journey, but that doesn’t mean founders have to sacrifice relationships, hobbies, and physical health. Instead, it makes mental health and self care even more important to the success of Canadian business. 

Research shows the key to positive mental health isn't avoiding stress, but rather, having the scientific knowledge and skills to identify, assess, and respond to it.

Some truths about mental health: 

  • Everyone has mental health, and it impacts everything we do
  • Mental health can be nurtured and strengthened, or neglected
  • Just like physical health, mental health is a spectrum, and is impacted by many factors
  • Looking after our mental health adds to our capacity - it doesn’t take away from it
  • Burn out is not a productive state
  • Resilient people build resilient businesses

Mental Health and the Canadian Innovation Ecosystem

Chances are, many founders have experienced grind and hustle culture. Burnout is glorified, in a way: if you’re not burning out, you’re not trying hard enough. That narrative comes at a cost. Founders are more likely to experience mental health challenges than the Canadian average, and face significant barriers in accessing support. 

Research from BDC and the Canadian Mental Health Association shows that amongst entrepreneurs:

  • 62% report feeling depressed 
  • 46% say mental health issues interfere with their ability to work
  • 66% have difficulty maintaining work-life balance
  • 80% of senior leadership report exhaustion typical of burn out 

That makes those struggling with stress and work life balance part of the majority. Women, people of color, and young entrepreneurs are even more likely to experience these challenges. And yet, innovators are less likely to receive support to help them manage stress and improve mental health.

Three key barriers stop innovators from seeking help:

  1. Stigma, or fear of damaging their reputation
  2. Lack of access to relevant services
  3. Cost of services

The good news? Things are shifting. 

Founders are more open than ever before to discuss and receive mental health support: 

  • 72% consider mental health of their team to be “high priority”
  • 97% see mental health as “very important” to the success of their business

This is important, because innovators play a massive role in our net zero transition and future economy. If as a culture, we ignore entrepreneurs’ mental health, they cannot reach their full potential, and we are sacrificing progress towards a better future for our planet. 

Recognizing Stress and Burnout 

Now that you know the mental health stats amongst innovators, what do stress and burnout look like?

Stress is a physiological system, meaning it involves both our brains and bodies. Our stress response gets turned on in the face of a perceived threat. This system is designed to be turned on and off, and to respond to those threats. Think of it like the bodies’ smoke detector. 

Stressors are never going to go away. The way to achieve a state of positive mental health and avoid burnout is learning to turn that alarm off and return to a healthy baseline. But the modern world adds a new layer of complexity that our system finds extremely challenging. Modern day stressors are ongoing, and in a remote-work and highly connected culture, there is rarely the ability to turn off completely. When stress is experienced for a sustained period of time, burnout occurs. This natural consequence if sustained stress is commonly described as emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced personal accomplishment.

Entrepreneurs commonly miss these warning signs, and don’t link them to job stress until their system is completely overloaded. Knowledge is power, and building awareness empowers innovators to take action and return to a healthy baseline. 

Here are some common signs of stress: 

Physical Signs

  • Tension
  • Pounding Heart 
  • Muscle Aches
  • Restless 
  • Headache
  • Dry Mouth 
  • Tight Chest 
  • Stomach Issues
  • Sweating
  • Tired or Wired
  • Increased Blood Pressure
  • Numb or Tingling Hands/Feet

Cognitive Signs

  • Focusing on Negatives
  • Agitation 
  • Restless 
  • Reacting vs. Responding 
  • Guilt
  • Expecting the Worst 
  • Forgetfulness
  • Racing Thoughts 
  • Brain Fog 
  • Mood Swings
  • Impulsivity 
  • “Sticky” or Intrusive Thoughts
  • Difficulty Focusing 
  • Rigid Thinking

Experiential Signs:

  • Avoidance 
  • Fidgeting 
  • Sleeping More Frequently
  • Sleeping Less Frequently
  • Withdrawing
  • Self-Medicating
  • Not Spending Time Relaxing 
  • Changes in Eating Habits
  • Arguing 
  • Taking on More Tasks
  • Vivid Dreams

Strategies to Move Through Stress and Prevent Burnout 

Luckily, the body’s stress response comes with an off switch: the parasympathetic nervous system. There are simple prompts and ideas designed to activate your parasympathetic nervous system, and reset the stress response in order to return to a healthy baseline. Next time stress hits, give some of these a try:

Real-Time Strategies

Do these in the middle of the day to reset:

  • Deep breathing
  • Doodle, draw, or colour for 5 mins
  • Go for a walk

Proactive Strategies

Do these before stress hits:

  • Prioritize enjoyable activities
  • Prioritizing sleep, movement, and fuel
  • Focus on gratitude
  • Imagine being your own parent

Cognitive Strategies

Do these when you're focused on a stressor:

  • Count backwards from 100 by 7s
  • Write down thoughts
  • Talking it out

Physical Strategies

Do these to physically release stress. 

  • Movement
  • Hot bath or shower
  • Stretch
  • Sing, shake it out, or dance

Like most good strategies, simplicity is key, and there isn’t one right answer. The most important steps are trying out the options, putting the ones that work into action, and developing a positive, consistent habit.

Together, we can collectively build a healthier innovation ecosystem, where the health and wellness of innovators are prioritized and celebrated. Join us in building a positive mental health habit this month, and taking a step towards eradicating burnout.

When to Ask for Help

Being able to press reset is important, but sometimes we realize there’s bigger things going on that we need support with. If that’s the case, you don’t have to navigate that alone. If you need support, visit Canadian Mental Health Association or call 988 to reach Canada Suicide Crisis Helpline (24/7 phone or text).

This article was written by our partners at Collectively Tangled.

Collectively Tangled provides mental health services specifically for entrepreneur, startup, and the innovation sector. They are mental health professionals who also speak and understand entrepreneurial language— they're founders, too. They work with businesses of all sizes to support their growth and development, while keeping mental health in mind. Follow on Linkedin and Instagram for free tools and tips to support your mental wellness.

After all, resilient people build resilient businesses. 

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