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The mental wellbeing of next generation entrepreneurs

By Raj Mariwala

There has been a growing focus on mental health and work—but this has been restricted to startups and mental health in the workplace. We have conversations about employee wellbeing, but not about the health of the leader of the enterprise, or the next generation entrepreneur.

This is an important question to explore because it affects not only individual wellbeing, but also could affect the way business is conducted and may cascade down to employees.

Based on the studies done by Mariwala Health Initiative and Ascent Foundation, we know that next-gens face challenges that are unique to them, due to their potential involvement in family businesses. These causes of stress are what we would call unique life stressors experienced by next-gens.

One of the clearest stressors faced is the pressure to prove oneself to family and to peers in the same social networks. This could take the form of feeling compelled to join the family business, the fear of not being able to carry on the legacy built by older generations. The feeling of ‘I’m not enough’ makes the pressure to succeed manifest differently for next-gens from an older entrepreneur.

The second significant challenge is by the very nature of ownership in family-owned business, where there is involvement of more than one individual, which may give rise to conflict in interactions with family members. For example, the disagreement between the older generation and next-gens regarding the vision for the business or perhaps change over workplace culture. While next-gens may aim to maintain a work-life balance this may diverge from the ‘work is first’ outlook of the older generation. Such conflicts can result in emotional manifestations, such as anger, confusion and frustration. Younger entrepreneurs have reported that such conflict makes them become reclusive and may result in issues with their physical health.

Both the above challenges can combine with others to create a fear of failure especially when thinking of new ways of doing business or achieving growth in terms of profits and expansion. This fear of failure is further intensified by the popular idea of next-gens being visionaries, innovators, leaders and risk takers and of ‘matching’ the older generation—the burden of expectations. The above dynamics mean that for NXGs there may not be space to discuss vulnerability or failure and this in fact links business failures to failure of the individual next-gen. This further adds to the general stigma that is already prevalent about mental health. Next-gens may feel intensified stigma and shame to explore ways to cope with the distress or reach out for support.

Consequently, the coping mechanisms that next-gens rely on could range from physical exercise, listening to music, meditation, trekking and yoga to substance use of alcohol or drugs. While it is good to have ways to cope with stress, all of the methods above are individual outlets rather than looking at talk therapies or reaching out for support. Such individual outlets may not be enough or may cause harm in some cases.

Thus, it is critical for next-gens to look at multiple ways to maintain a sense of mental well-being. Part of this responsibility is on the older generation—to not pressurise the next-gen or rationalise the strain i.e. “I had it much harder than you, so don't complain.” Additionally, many next-gens may feel alone—that no one else is experiencing these stressors. Talking to peers, especially trusted peers is a great way to break the feeling of isolation, of self-scrutiny. Whether older gen or peers—it is always important to talk positively of options related to talk therapy or coaching.

While entrepreneurs may have their personal and individual ways of managing stress, an important step is to be self-reflexive about one’s stressors so next-gens can manage them better. Older generation entrepreneurs and next-gens both need to work towards understanding their stressors and their mental well-being as not just individual but how it links to larger familial, social and financial contexts. To effectively address next-gens’ wellbeing there needs to be a change in the ecosystem—where there is space to discuss failure and vulnerability and to lead from the front when it comes to mental health at work.

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