This article is part of our Future of Business series, where we explore how founders can build purposeful businesses which consider the impact their startups will have on people, planet and profit, equally. 

James Routledge has built a business based on the foundations of well-being. His company, Sanctus, helps employers talk better about mental health at work, working with them to improve their approaches to employee well-being. But, as a founder, James is not immune to the pressures of work. Here, James draws on his personal experience and expertise to offer us his top tips for managing your mental health as a founder, and how to boost the well-being of your employees. 

James Routledge

“I put a lot of myself into my work and often use work to define myself,” James Routledge says. “I attach myself to my work, which means when business is bad, I feel bad. Or if business fails, I feel like a failure. The majority of my mental health challenges have arisen whilst at work and whilst I wouldn’t say they were caused by work, I was confronted with them there.”

Being a founder is hugely rewarding, but it is challenging. Being an employee is hugely rewarding, but is also not without its challenges. All too often, the narrative in business is about the successes and the wins - but we don’t talk enough about the difficult times. At Virgin StartUp, we’re there for founders at all stages, and we understand the importance of normalising the concepts of ‘failure’ and ‘challenges’ - because they’re a part of the startup life. 

After the close of his first startup, James struggled with his mental well-being, and has learnt over the years to control his symptoms as best as he can. These challenges led him to start Sanctus, his thriving business, which helps other businesses tackle mental well-being head on and provide better support for employees. 

As an employee, it can be hard to speak up when work is the cause of poor mental well-being. But, James knows it’s important to do so. “Find a space that you feel safe and comfortable beginning to open up and share. This doesn’t have to be at work, or with family, it can be whoever or wherever you feel most safe.

“For me, when I first began opening up about my mental health - when I was really suffering - the first place I went to was my journal and it was just me writing on the page. After that, I actually opened up to someone at work who I trusted.” 

Working apart, but together 

Liha Beauty founders
LIHA Beauty's founders

With working from home the norm, the ways founders may have supported their team in-house now poses challenges when the team is working remotely. How do you create a great employee culture when working from home? “I honestly don’t think anyone knows the formula just yet. We’re all still trying to figure it out,” James tells us. 

“The key is communication! Lots of communication.” 

We don’t have all the answers yet. During a year of acute and dramatic change, founders and employees alike have had to become increasingly adaptable, and it can feel a burden as a founder trying to reassure your employees - when you don’t yet even have all the answers yourself. How do you support them? 

“Again, it’s hard to know the right way to go about things,” James says. 

“But, there’s a fine line between honesty, vulnerability and over-sharing. Ultimately, some stuff is beyond what people are paid to be responsible for. Remind yourself it’s okay not to know all the answers right now.” 

All of this is a learning curve. But how as a founder can you support yourself as well as your teams?

Founding strength

Founders of Denzel's
Denzel - and his founding team

James has two main tips for founders trying to separate themselves from their startups - because separation from work is crucial in maintaining positive well-being. 

“Firstly, I had to do a lot of work in therapy and coaching to help let go and heal from some of the stuff in my past that was holding me back. That was the foundational step for me.

“And secondly, I also find that trying new things helps me separate myself from work. Having other hobbies, interests and passions makes me much more centred and rounded. It also provides me with a sense of safety to help me realise that if my business dies, I’ll still have all this other stuff in my life.” 

Supporting employees

Hey Girls founders
The founding team at Hey Girls

One of the biggest concerns as a founder of a startup is ensuring you’re supporting your employees adequately. You want to ensure your teams know they can alert you to any challenges or issues. For founders wanting to become more approachable, James has this advice: “Practise being vulnerable and sharing more of yourself. Share a photo of your dog; don’t just talk ‘work’ all the time; show that you are a human being.”

Pets aside, James has plenty of expertise in building businesses. He has worked incredibly hard to build Sanctus as a workplace that is people-centric. “I really don’t believe you have to leave your humanity at the door at work and, in fact, I believe when we bring more of ourselves to work, we create lots of potential for diversity, challenge and creativity. 

“There are a million different ways you can design your business to be more people centric. It starts in the DNA of the business, in the role-modelling of leadership and the culture of the company. You can see it in how people are able to show up. This is in our DNA at Sanctus, so it’s been easier for us to rationalise why it’s important to put people first.”

For startups that are looking to get better at putting employee well-being front-and-centre, especially in these challenging times, James’ biggest tip doesn’t just begin with the structure and DNA of your company, but with the personalities within your team. “I’d recommend that the people in a business who are looking after well-being really start to look at their own mental health and lead by example. 

“Leaders, managers, HR, mental health champions… All have a responsibility to get comfortable with their own mental health first, so that they can develop empathy, confidence and literacy when talking about mental health at work.”

A founder toolkit

Roshanne Dorsett, founder of The Glowcery
Roshanne Dorsett, founder of The Glowcery

To lead by example, you need to look at yourself before you can help others. More importantly, you’ve got to support yourself first, before you are in a place where you can actively support others. 

James offers us 5 ways you can help yourself, and your teams: 

  • Mindfulness, through journaling, meditation and other forms 
  • Spending time in nature every day 
  • Physical exercise 
  • Connecting with loved ones as often as possible 
  • Undergoing coaching and/or therapy

Mental health as a founder: the path forward 

As we look ahead to 2021, where does James Routledge feel he is with his mental well-being? How would he like to improve? The answer is one lots of founders will be able to relate to.

“I feel uncertain at the moment. If I could work on anything it would be to be more comfortable in uncertainty.”

Mental well-being as a founder is always a work in progress. So is being able to adequately support your employees. But by actively taking small steps to get on track, it’ll promote a greater working culture across your organisation and will benefit the business immeasurably. 

If you’re struggling, please reach out to organisations such as Mind and Samaritans. You can call 116 123 today to speak to Samaritans for free. And if you’re a founder looking to better support your employees, find out how Sanctus could support your organisation.