May 3, 2021

“You Usually Don’t Notice Too Much Stress Until It’s Too Late”

What can founders do to stay healthy and happy? On the occasion of Mental Health Awareness Month, we sat down with psychologist and founder Joscha Hofferbert to talk about detours, mistakes, and resilience.

About Joscha Hofferbert

Joscha Hofferbert holds a degree in psychology and neuroscience from the University of Heidelberg and has 7 years of experience in the innovation and healthcare industry. He has co-founded the startup incubator Vision Health Pioneers, supporting healthcare innovators in the early-stage in developing their product and founding a company, and is the co-founder of Hacking Health Berlin, connecting innovators and healthcare experts to develop innovation.

When starting a business, stress can arise, for example, when mistakes happen or deadlines occur. What can we do to stay mentally healthy?

Let’s look at stress from an evolutionary perspective. When you’re facing a saber-toothed tiger, trying out new and creative ways to get out of the situation (like convincing the tiger to not attack you for example) might not be the most promising solution. Instead, the human brain applies the fight or flight principle: you either fight or run. Your entire body puts all his energy on this one task. The same mechanism takes over in stressful situations. The brain draws on learned structures and enters a tunnel vision. This is not necessarily a bad thing because it automatically leads stressed people to focus on work only. The downside however is that they lose their creativity and no longer see what is happening around them.

When we have been in stress mode for too long, how can we disconnect and relax?

According to psychology, the best way to escape the tunnel vision effect is a change of perspective. That is to be taken literally because the perspective in the brain is connected to the visual perspective. A change of location creates new food for thoughts. Therefore, it is important for founders to take some time out, exercise, clear their heads and unwind. This in return allows more space again for different perspectives, ideas and creativity.. Time out does not always need to be for long. Even a regular walk after lunch with a friend, a 10 minutes mindfulness exercise or yoga in the morning might help.

In busy phases, it might not be possible to change the perspective. Do you have any other tips for keeping a clear head?

Exchanging thoughts with other founders can be very helpful. Every founder can confirm that founding a company is a lot of work and the project piles up in front of you like a huge mountain. They all face similar challenges and you can learn from each other how to better deal with such situations. At the same time, dealing with stress is not only a question of attitude, but also a question of structure. Try to set up a clear structure right from the start, prioritize, and see how you can distribute tasks in order to clear some headspace.

Nowadays a huge factor for stress also is the fear of missing out. Therefore, prioritization is crucial for success and helps to focus on the important aspects without being distracted.

Which alarm signals indicate that I put myself under too much stress?

As the person concerned, you usually don’t notice when the stress level becomes too much until it’s too late. Your brain maintains the tunnel vision and blocks out everything but work. You don’t notice that you are neglecting your friends or putting a strain on your family. Feedback from the people around you can be a helpful signal helping to realize that something is going wrong. But you also need to be open for this feedback and listen to it, even when times get tough.

It can also be a warning signal if you notice that you no longer have the time or motivation for your usual activities, for example sports, friends, hobbies etc. Many founders would disagree and insist that they enjoy making their company their purpose in life. Nevertheless, you have to develop a good sense for yourself and reflect on your behavior to notice when work is taking up too much space.

As a friend or relative of a founder suffering from too much stress, how can I best support?

On the one hand, through help. If I notice that someone has too much going on, I take something off their plate without being unpleasant about it. On the other hand, through honesty. The environment should openly address the fact that someone is working too much. Even if the person is not always open to this feedback, it is important to still share it.

After founding a company, the responsibilities usually get bigger over time when employees, customers, and investors make demands. How can founders deal with the sudden pressure?

When the pressure increases, it becomes even more important to communicate. It can always happen that an investor makes demands or you lose a customer. The problem with these situations is that they often result in founders suddenly changing their behavior towards their team. The tone gets harsher, the attitude becomes more unfriendly, and they expect their team to work overtime. If employees don’t understand the reason for this behavior, conflicts arise. Therefore, founders should communicate the situation transparently and share info with their team. Most employees won’t have a problem with working overtime for a certain period when supporting the success of the company and team once they understand the situation. Especially in a small team, it is important to involve and support each other. The team needs to be aligned on the mission of the company and have a common understanding of the tasks, responsibilities and strategy.

And one last thing that I would like to point out: the same advice applies to working with investors. Here, too, you should honestly say as and when you screwed something up. Most of the investors I know want an honest, open relationship with their founders. They don’t only invest in the product bust most importantly in your team. In the end, you and your investor want to succeed as a team.

Would you like to read more about the highs and lows of being a founder? Julian Feser, Co-Founder of Einfach E-Auto, has shared his experiences with us for our series The Tough First Years As a Founder.

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