In the first of a Sifted series about founder mental health, we hear from Alex Depledge, 38, the cofounder and chief executive at British architectural startup Resi. She previously built and sold cleaner marketplace Hassle.com for £27m. Here is her story about her burnout, the symptoms she experienced, and her road to recovery.
I was always an anxious child with a tendency to overthink things. As I grew older I had an instinctive understanding that things could get on top of me if I let them. However, it wasn’t until I was working as a management consultant for Accenture that this happened.
I ended up burning out in a spectacular fashion.
I developed an array of bizarre physical symptoms, including crippling sciatica and ocular migraines that were so debilitating that the first time I had one I ended up in A&E convinced I was having a stroke. I also had persistent insomnia — that terrible feeling of going to bed and knowing that I wasn’t going to sleep a wink.
It all came to a head on the day of the Grand National. I love horse racing and had been looking forward to spending the day with my husband and friends, but when it came to it I was so anxious that I couldn’t stop crying. I didn’t understand what was wrong with me, but that’s when I realised that I needed to seek help. I was lucky enough to have private health insurance, and I saw a doctor who diagnosed burnout. She joined the dots in my physical symptoms and helped me see the bigger picture. She signed me off work for a fortnight, which ended up turning into three months.
This gave me a chance to assess my life and think about what had triggered my burnout. I did go back to Accenture and ended up leading a really successful project, but I knew by then that I needed to work for myself. Shortly afterwards I left to set up Hassle.com.
There is a burnout stigma in startups
Things are much better than they were.
Authenticity is increasingly valued in the corporate world and increasingly people understand that mental health problems happen can to anyone. But there is still some stigma, which can make it difficult to seek help as a founder.
The ‘hustle’ culture of start-up life, where everybody has to seem passionate and constantly switched on, can conspire to trigger issues. In many ways, we are more culturally articulate about problems like anxiety, but at the same time, we are all under pressure to present a persona — digital and otherwise — of success.
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Mental health is front and centre in tech right now, as the overload culture thrives in the tech world. Examples of companies that take it seriously include Sanctus and TryDawn.
At Resi, I’m applying what I’ve learnt from my own burnout and mental health struggles. One of my key mantras is that there is no such thing as a work / life balance. It’s all just life at the end of the day. People have things going on and they don’t just leave them at the office door. So I make sure I talk to my team often about what’s happening to them outside of work.
We also have a management coach who comes in to talk to staff and make sure they are coping. And there’s lots of opportunity to work flexibly and remotely. As long as the job gets done, I don’t see why someone needs to be chained to their desk. At Resi, we also offer equal maternity and paternity leave. I’m keen for fathers to be hands-on in raising their children and to fully understand the juggle.
How to heal heartbreak
I’ve always been pretty good at being open about my emotions. That’s part of the reason I’ve been so frank about my past burnout and mental health struggles — I’m terrible at hiding things.
I’m quite extreme in my feelings: I get hugely excited about things, but I can also get really down. Just recognising that has been useful. I know that I’ll probably struggle with feeling down again, but I also know that I’ll get through it.
I have become very good at saying no, I don’t work on Fridays and I’m strict about maintaining that. I also find boxing is very useful for my mental health. I can really switch off when I’m doing it — I try and keep social media off my phone, too.
The importance of reaching out and looking for support also cannot be overstated. Being a CEO can be a very lonely experience. You’re under a lot of pressure and juggling lots of things, it’s no wonder that many people in that position struggle.
Acknowledging the unique stresses is important, but also looking for a community of other people in the same position. I’ve got some brilliant friends who are also CEOs. Meeting with them and letting off steam is a great way of putting things in perspective.
Your first burnout is a bit like your first heartbreak: life is never quite the same again, but you develop the tools to cope.