The COVID-19 pandemic, and its economic fallout, has mounted unprecedented challenges for the modern, global entrepreneurial community. To give you an idea, 41% of startups globally have less than three months' worth of cash on hand, and 74% of startups have had to terminate full-time employees because of economic constraints, according to a recent survey from consultancy Startup Genome.
Faced with so much chaos, founders could be forgiven for overlooking a key responsibility they hold to their organizations: Keeping themselves healthy enough to run their businesses.
But with the very real physiological and psychological threats related to COVID-19, entrepreneurs must pay extra attention to their health and wellness to lead their companies through the crisis. Here is some advice for founders about how to stay well during times of COVID-19.
Monitor your stress levels.
Entrepreneurs aren't known for turning tail and retreating when faced with stressful situations. Many even thrive under stress. And to some extent, stress can be a motivator. But according to Harvard researchers John D. Dodson and Robert M. Yerkes, once stress exceeds a certain level, it creates anxiety and production levels plummet substantially; a scenario graphed out in their famous Yerkes Dodson curve.
With the spread of COVID-19, there is no shortage of factors contributing to heightened stress for entrepreneurs. At the end of April, Crunchbase reported that "280 startups have laid off 21,609 employees" since the outbreak was declared a pandemic on March 12, and Reuters recently reported a 26% spike in commercial Chapter 11 bankruptcy filings in April.
All the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak and its economic fallout isn't just impacting entrepreneurs' productivity, it's taking a toll on their mental health. According to a March Pew Research Center survey, nearly 1 in 5 in the United States reported having had a physical reaction "at least some or a little of the time when thinking about the outbreak."
David Brown, co-founder and CEO of the global seed accelerator Techstars, said in a question-and-answer session that the weight on founders right now was enormous, with some losing investor support and others being forced to lay off staff. "It is so hard to be an entrepreneur in the first place," he said. "It is a rollercoaster, and it is full of ups and downs. There were companies that were on downs when this hit, that are then having another down."
The negative effects of stress don't end with mental health either. Studies show that increased stress levels contribute to changes in blood sugar levels as well as other physiological side effects. For founders with common pre-existing metabolic dysfunction such as high blood pressure, high blood sugar or abdominal obesity, monitoring stress and concentrating on healthy habits becomes even more imperative as researchers continue to link high rates of COVID-19 deaths to comorbidities such as diabetes.
In a recent review in the journal Metabolism, Casey Means, MD, argued that dietary and lifestyle interventions are the best tools we have to help our society prepare for the next pandemic. She also says that monitoring stress is more important than ever, in part because of stress's impact on mental health, digestive health, and the immune system. For founders to remain healthy and present to manage their companies through these trying times, they should prioritize monitoring and managing their stress.
There are some general rules to follow for monitoring stress. Herbert Benson and Peg Baim of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine in Boston told Harvard Business Review that founders should constantly self-monitor indicators that can point to high levels of stress. Some good questions founders should regularly ask themselves include:
- Are you losing your attention span after or during work projects?
- What is your overall mood about the work you're doing? Are you optimistic or frustrated?
- How is your stamina? Do you have the energy to move forward, or are you stalled?
- Are you experiencing any physical reactions that could be caused by stress? (For example, heartburn, headaches or dizziness).
There is also this online self-assessment tool created by Kaiser Permanente's FindYourWords campaign to better understand one's mental health.
Experts have some recommendations for COVID-19-related stress management as well.
Aiysha Malik, technical officer in the department of mental health and substance use at the World Health Organization recommends not getting lost in the sea of information surrounding the spread of the virus, and focusing attention on authoritative bodies such as the WHO or the Centers for Disease Control to get trusted information about the virus. Avoiding panic-driven headlines and social media posts can help stem the spread of misinformation, but also lower stress levels.
For founders experiencing acute stress and anxiety, it is encouraged to reach out to local and national organizations for help. Some good resources include:
- io, a digital resource for depression and anxiety. Recently they made available free resources related to COVID-19.
- Mental Health America's COVID-19 resources.
- The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration provides a tool to find support near you.
Stress and anxiety are inevitable side effects of founding a company. But the economic uncertainty caused by COVID-19 will take stress to new heights, and founders should remain conscientious of their own stress levels and manage them accordingly.
Exercise regularly to manage stress and boost immunity.
One of the best-proven stress managers is regular exercise, and founders should take note. Champions of regular workout routines include some of the most successful entrepreneurs of our time, including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Virgin Group Founder Richard Branson and former Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates. A study in Canada has shown that entrepreneurs are working harder and "enjoying less downtime" for activities such as exercise. In the general population, the American Psychological Association reported that just 17% of adults are exercising daily, despite the finding that 53% of adults say they feel good about themselves after exercising.
What's more, exercise can also help boost the immune system. According to the publishing division of Harvard Medical School, "Just like a healthy diet, exercise can contribute to general good health and therefore to a healthy immune system." The report notes that exercise promotes good circulation, which in turn helps build up the immune system.
With social distancing measures to combat the spread of the virus negatively impacting our daily physical activity, it is more important than ever for founders to carve out time in their week for exercise.
San Francisco-based CEO coach and host of The B-Suite Podcast Barbara Shannon says that regular exercise has gone from being a "nice-to-have" healthy habit, to being an essential respite from the lockdown. In this way, the pandemic is helping business leaders acknowledge how being active improves our team productivity as well as our general well-being. A study in the Journal of Small Business Management echoes this sentiment, finding that exercise "in fact does help entrepreneurs in meeting both their intrinsic and extrinsic goals." It's also turning into a new way to strengthen work relationships, as teams share fitness app recommendations and health tips during meetings and via communication tools.
During times of self-isolation due to COVID-19, the WHO recommends that people get "150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity per week, or a combination of both." According to the global health body, founders can allocate their total weekly minutes in a variety of different ways, including short bouts of physical activity (such as push-ups or jumping jacks) throughout the day, taking longer walks or jogs while maintaining mandated social distancing protocol, or participating in online exercise classes or YouTube exercise tutorials, among others.
Even during normal times, exercise is a powerful tool for entrepreneurs to help manage stress and remain physically fit. As daily physical activity is diminished due to social distancing measures, founders should pay extra attention to attaining the weekly recommended amount of exercise to help keep themselves healthy to manage their companies. As leaders, they should also pass these best practices on to the rest of their employees.
Leverage technology to stay healthy.
We're living in an era of accelerated digital transformation across all industries, and healthcare and wellness are no exception. Founders should take advantage of digital health solutions to help them monitor and manage their health, tailor medicine to their personal needs, and when possible, make healthcare more affordable and accessible.
Fitness tracking applications from companies like Apple Health can help founders stay aware of their physical activity and motivate them to get healthier. However, recent technology advances are pushing health tracking even further with apps like Apple's ECG which monitors the wearer's heart rate, and Levels' metabolic health monitoring software coupled with a continuous glucose monitoring device that allows wearers to receive instant data about their unique metabolism and its functionality. For meditation and to track sleeping habits, Kenn Gudbergsen of TrainAway recommended Headspace and Fitbit.
Digital health innovations are also aiming to help people stay safe in times of COVID-19. Health insurance technology startup Abartys Health recently launched its PatientLynk platform which provides patients with faster, better access to their healthcare information, including COVID-19 test results. Silicon Valley startup BreathResearch is creating personal spirometers – a device that measures the air moving into and out of the lungs – to help enable early detection of respiratory illness, and Valera Health is launching personalized telemental health services to help people with COVID-19-related stress and anxiety. A full list of innovative startups solving COVID-19 related problems can be found on StartupHealth.com.
These types of technological advances are providing individuals with insights into their own personal health that weren't available a few short years ago, and founders would be wise to leverage this technology to keep themselves healthy.
As the outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States moves into its fourth month, and more businesses are impacted by its health and economic fallouts, it is more important than ever for founders to remain healthy to better lead their companies through uncertain times.