Social entrepreneurs and mental health: are we being honest enough?

Life can be stressful for everyone. For the typical social entrepreneur, the strains of modern living come with a particular kind of pressure: keeping a business afloat while fulfilling a deep, often unforgiving, personal dedication to a cause. In our new series on mental health, we’ll be exploring how this affects our entrepreneurs, who’s doing something about this, and what needs to happen next. This month we ask: is it time to open up?

“People rely on these services in a visceral way and we have a real ability to create long-standing change – I can’t justify stopping that.”

That’s the overriding thought running through Neil McDonald’s head. The 35-year-old co-founded Stour Space in 2009, a multi-purpose hub that supports the local community through exhibition, performance and studio space for creative enterprises. Ten years on, and he still feels the pressure; faced with possible eviction from their canalside venue in east London’s trendy Hackney Wick, McDonald is urgently trying to fundraise to secure a longer lease. The strain, he says, has felt at times like “a vicious circle”: you know you should take a break “for your own sanity”, but you can’t.

That feeling appears to be all too common. Last year, three-quarters of Brits were so stressed at some point that we felt overwhelmed or unable to cope, according to the Mental Health Foundation.

It’s not clear if the figure is higher among social entrepreneurs. What is clear is that they face a very particular pressure: maintaining a financially sustainable business while fulfilling an acute personal dedication to their cause. Numerous people rely on them to deliver: employees, investors, and those directly benefiting from their organisation.

The weight of all this can create what Baillie Aaron, founder and CEO of Spark Inside, a charity providing coaching to prisoners, calls a “martyrdom complex”. “The more [entrepreneurs] sacrifice their personal life and priorities, the more they believe they can achieve for the organisation,” says Aaron, who is herself a trained life coach. “But when there’s a martyr, there’s also a victim.”

The founder’s struggle

Stour Space is now a thriving creative venue; last year it welcomed over 50,000 people through its doors. But when McDonald first came across it, it was an abandoned dump.

The transformation, over an initial period of six years, saw McDonald and his partner working 120-hour weeks. As a startup on “zero budget”, paying others to do work wasn’t an option. “You suddenly become everything: the lawyer, the accountant, the architect, the project manager, the builder, the event manager, the bar staff, the cleaner,” he says.

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‘Being everything’ is slightly complex for him. Based on initial assessments, he sits on the higher end of the dissociative spectrum, somewhere between PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and DID (dissociative identity disorder). One way this had manifested itself positively was in how McDonald dealt with feelings of stress and anxiety when problem-solving, helping him to park unproductive feelings and get on with tasks. But the pressures of running a social enterprise have meant that over the past few years, he’s been experiencing anxiety and panic attacks, as well as physical indications of stress, such as back pain.

Aaron’s tale is different, but she also felt the physical effects of overwork. When she started her coaching venture in 2012, at the age of 26, she was living, sleeping and breathing it. “The organisation was only growing as fast as I could work on it. So I was the limiting barrier to achieving more – at the time every minute was vital and valuable.”

The organisation was only growing as fast as I could work on it. So I was the limiting barrier to achieving more

Aaron attributes this attitude to her time in the US, where she worked for three years before moving to the UK in 2010. American culture provokes a strong sense of your self-worth being directly related to the number of hours worked, she says. Rationally, she knew that this wasn’t true – yet somehow, she says, “it was a belief I held onto.”

She’s probably not alone in this. Today’s narrative of success appears to celebrate, above all, stories of highly-driven founders who seem to work an impossible number of hours each week and barely sleep.

For Aaron, though, it simply didn’t add up. Four months after setting up Spark Inside, she woke up in London one morning with an overwhelming urge to just ‘get out’, and booked a flight out of the country that day. When she returned, she decided to practice what she preached, and got herself a coach to help manage her work-life balance.

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Burnout, typically a response to chronic stress, is often described as feelings of exhaustion, cynicism and detachment. But it can also have more serious consequences. Jane*, a social entrepreneur who agreed to speak to us anonymously, left the social enterprise she founded after 15 years, following a prolonged period of stress. “It then tipped into something more serious,” she says. She was diagnosed with reactive depression in 2011.

Opening up: worth the risk?

Research by We Are 3Sixty, a UK-based founder-led community, showed that 77% of founders have felt negative effects on their mental health due to running a business. The organisation aims to help founders (of all businesses, not just social ones) “thrive, not just survive”, and is part of a growing wave of recognition that founder wellbeing matters. But when it comes to social entrepreneurs, how honest can they really be about their experiences, both past and present?

“Two weeks ago, I was looking out of the window wondering how people were outside and getting on with life. People who have experienced depression first-hand know it’s not linear, it’s up and down,” says Jane. She has previously spoken publicly about her mental health experiences, but as she was going through a depressive episode at the time of our interview, preferred to remain anonymous. “You’re worried what other people’s reaction will be. Will they see it as a business risk? That’s what stops you talking about it.”

By people, Jane largely means investors. “I may be doing them a huge disservice, but I’m thinking about whether this is going to change how people view me. My number one asset is my mental capacity, so I can't risk anyone doubting that.”  

McDonald echoes this same conundrum. He feels as though he has an obligation to talk about his mental health, but has to weigh up the possible consequences. “I’m kind of conflicted really. Is it more beneficial to speak about it and build general awareness, or is it more important to hide it, in order to get funding and increase our impact as an organisation?”

My number one asset is my mental capacity, so I can't risk anyone doubting that

Perhaps there is some truth in this. Why would someone invest in an entrepreneur who may suffer from stress, anxiety or depression, rather than someone who’s apparently stable and secure?

The answer, suggests Aaron, is that there’s no such thing as the perfect founder. “Every organisation goes through very similar challenges. If a funder just wants to hear about martyrs, then they’re not open to honesty,” she says.

McDonald highlights the need for a shift in mindset – and the positive impact that could achieve. “If our perceptions can change to see mental health as something that’s not shameful… we’d become more able to use it as an amazing skill in the right environment and addressed in the appropriate way,” he says.

And this perception change needs to filter into the relationship between entrepreneur and investor, says Aaron, who says she now has “healthy” relationships with funders. By that, she means partnerships “where you can share challenges openly… and that openness is rewarded with trust.”

A space where vulnerability is valued and making mistakes considered normal might sound like a distant vision to some. But until then? Let’s talk about it. “Although I don’t feel like doing it right now, there is huge value in breaking down the stigma. It takes brave people to put their name to it,” says Jane. And McDonald has resolved his inner conflict by deciding to be open about his experiences. “I think it’s so important to talk about it, not only for your own sake, but to make it more widely acknowledged.”

*Name has been changed.

Thank you to all those who contributed so honestly to this article, named or unnamed.

We’re going to continue talking about mental health on Pioneers Post, so if you have an experience you’d like to share, please get in touch. We’d also like to feature some of the support networks, services and platforms available to social entrepreneurs – send your suggestions to

Header photo by Trung Thanh on Unsplash