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Could free therapy help more entrepreneurs succeed?

A survey from the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) found that 24 per cent of entrepreneurs are struggling with their mental health, and that the numbers are even higher for younger, diverse and female entrepreneurs. Now, the BDC and other organizations are providing free therapy for business owners in need.

New mental health programs support business owners struggling with burnout, stress, and depression

A man in a green short with dark hair and a beard sits talking with a woman with short red hair in a black dress and glasses. She is taking notes.

Nadia Ladak is the co-founder of Marlow, a growing business that makes tampons.

She's well connected in the startup community, has been featured on the Forbes 30 under 30 list, and had a winning pitch on the hit show Dragons' Den.

But the high achiever is also human.

"While all these successes were happening, I was really struggling with anxiety and burnout."

Ladak has since recovered after getting help, but the mental health struggles of entrepreneurs have inspired business organizations to provide free therapy and other support to business owners in need.

The Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), a federal Crown corporation that provides loans for small and medium-sized businesses, and two Calgary-based entrepreneur groups now offer mental health programs.

Fewer Canadians are starting companies, potentially stalling economic growth, innovation and job creation. With that in mind, the business world is increasingly recognizing how mental health issues can derail entrepreneurs.

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Entrepreneurs face unique mental health challenges

According to a recent BDC survey, 24 per cent of small business owners are struggling with mental health. The online survey was conducted in February and March, with 1,500 Canadian entrepreneurs answering questions about mental health challenges they're facing, if they had sought professional help and more.

Among some groups, it's even worse.

For entrepreneurs from diverse groups, such as immigrants, 2SLGBTQ+, people and Indigenous people, it's 28 per cent. For women, it's 32 per cent. Mental health concerns were reported by 35 per cent of owners under 45 years of age, and for entrepreneurs with businesses less than three years old, it's a whopping 38 per cent.

There are varying estimates on the rate of mental health issues in the general population, but a Statistics Canada report found that 13 per cent of Canadians (about five million people) met the diagnostic criteria for a mental disorder.

"Entrepreneurs as leaders do have very unique challenges," says Maja Djikic, a psychologist and associate professor at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management.

Djikic says business owners can experience high levels of stress, burnout and emotional extremes. And, she adds, if the entrepreneur breaks down or lashes out under pressure, it could trigger a "ripple effect," which could drive their workers to quit, upset their investors or otherwise hurt their business.

Hundreds of studies have been done about entrepreneurship and mental health.

An often-cited 2018 survey about entrepreneurs found they were more likely to "report a lifetime history of depression (30 per cent), ADHD (29 per cent), substance use conditions (12 per cent) and bipolar diagnosis (11 per cent)" than a comparison group of demographically matched non-entrepreneurs.

Pilot programs providing therapy and more

The BDC has been surveying entrepreneurs on their mental health since 2018, and last year it also released a report showing that "despite a population of 40 million, Canada has 100,000 fewer entrepreneurs than it did 20 years ago," a trend it described as alarming.

This year, the BDC created its first-ever mental health program for clients.

The pilot program, offered to a targeted group of the bank's 100,000 users, provides three hours of free virtual therapy through Inkblot, an online counselling company.

A woman with dark skin aand dark curly hair wearing a red blazer smiles at the camera.

Sandra Odendahl, senior vice-president of sustainability, diversity and partnerships at BDC, says that with new businesses responsible for almost all new job creation in Canada, "we definitely want to make sure that entrepreneurs have what they need to succeed."

BDC does not know which of its clients register for therapy with Inkblot, and just over half of 550 slots available have been filled so far.

It says that early results from small sample of participants suggest it led to a 44 per cent reduction in the severity of their symptoms.

In addition to the initial free sessions, the BDC is subsidizing the cost of additional therapy so those who want to continue can do so at a discounted rate.

Help tailored to entrepreneurs' issues

This spring, Innovate Calgary, a business incubator at the University of Calgary, launched a year-long program offering free one-on-one counselling sessions for entrepreneurs, as well as group workshops.

The program is the only other example of entrepreneur-specific free therapy CBC News could find. A grant from the City of Calgary is covering its costs.

"Founders need to protect their No. 1 asset, which is their mental health," says Jerome Morgan, an associate director at Innovate Calgary.

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Morgan says the program is meant to be as relevant to entrepreneurs as possible. The fact that it's free is also a key for bootstrapping business owners.

"We know that less than one in five entrepreneurs seek support from professionals," he said. "We have to ask the question of why — yes, stigma is a big piece. But it's also cost."

Leading the program is Keara Gillis, herself an entrepreneur.

Gillis co-founded Collectively Tangled, which provides mental health counselling, workshops, and consulting to startups.

"We are living the challenges, the ups and downs alongside our clients," she said.

Issues like depression from setbacks or funding challenges, conflict between partners and isolation are common problems entrepreneurs face.

She says counselling and group workshops can help resolve problems before they're overwhelming.

Gillis is also providing free group mental health workshops for entrepreneurs at another business incubator called Platform Calgary.

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Going to therapy should be like going to the gym

In recent years, highly successful Canadian entrepreneurs have opened up about their mental health struggles, as have the founders of big-name American brands like Bonobos, and Kayak.

Gillis says that's crucial for everyone, not just entrepreneurs.

"If someone says, you know, 'I'm taking the time to look after my mental health, I'm seeing a therapist regularly,' that sometimes comes with worry," she says, when it should be applauded, "like going to the gym regularly."

For Ladak, making so many important choices for the business led to burnout in the form of "decision fatigue," and an overwhelming exhaustion every morning when confronted by things like what to have for breakfast.

She recovered by turning to her co-founders and family for support, seeing a therapist and scheduling time for exercise.

She speaks out about mental health issues to "normalize the topic of conversation," but she mostly wants to talk about how she and her partners are growing Marlow.

"I'm really excited about the future."

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