Inside Australia's crazy, high intensity and stressed out startup world

  • Overworked and stressed startup founders are the target of a new program at Stone & Chalk.
  • They will get access to a new portal by mental health and well-being company, Mindstar.
  • The Christmas period is notorious for adding new pressures to already overworked startup founders.

The romance of the startup, with an aura of exquisite coolness, and the promise of riches ahead, soon turns into soul-grinding days, merging into nights, struggling with limited resources to create a product that actually does what it’s meant to.

Anyone who has started a business will tell you that it takes more than a good idea to succeed. A startup needs resources and a lot of dedication to push through to something resembling success.

Often the fall-out for the startup founder and their helpers will be a creeping deep bone tiredness, and a slide into serious health problems.

Multiple studies show founders neglecting their mental and physical health. Founders work 50% more than the standard Australian work week, according to a 2018 report by KPMG High Growth Ventures.

Many pride themselves as harder working and more productive than their peers. Half say they never switch off, and 41% feel stressed every day, 72% take work to bed, and 40% took no days off over the last three months.

Australia’s Stone & Chalk, Asia’s largest fintech hub, is launching a mental health initiative for its 650 residents ahead of Christmas, a difficult time for founders and their employees because output tends to slow and cash flows shrink, causing more worry and stress.

Nigel Lovell, Founder of fintech OpenSparkz, says the outwardly fun, creative, and dynamic nature of startup land can often mask the fact that working in a seriously high-pressured environment can also have an enormous impact on mental health and physical health.

“The usual rules of a 9-5 workplace simply don’t exist, and the stakes are much, much higher,” he says.

“When things don’t pan out the way you want, it can be hard to refrain from negative self-talk, and from putting the needs of the startup ahead of your own.

“The isolation, lack of sleep, and long-term overwork this often results in then negatively affects your mental clarity, making it even harder to get things done – and so it becomes a reinforcing cycle.”

Lovell, when he first started out, found he was driving himself into the ground and reacting emotionally to his work mates, which only created more issues.

“My family suffered as well, because I didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to be as supportive as I would have otherwise, as a loving partner and parent,” he says.

“For this reason, it’s important that founders take responsibility for their own well-being – for themselves, for their work partners, and especially for their family. This means putting yourself first sometimes, and recognising when you need to reach out for support.

“My personal red flag is when I notice I’m emotionally disconnecting, and withdrawing from others. That’s when I know I need to be kinder to myself.”


Alex Scandurra, the CEO of Stone & Chalk, has suffered what he describes as “complete burnout”.

Things weren’t going well on a major project. He was putting in his personal best but he felt responsible for all the factors outside his control.

“My anxiety was so extreme for so long that I hadn’t been able to fall asleep for months, I couldn’t eat and had lost a very large amount of weight,” he says.

“Eventually my body went into shutdown — what I have since learned is that this is called extreme burnout — and I started having what felt like continuous extreme panic attacks.

“I felt like I had sunk to the bottom of the ocean. I managed to completely hide it from my workplace for about seven of those nine months until I reached shutdown.”

A key lessons was that he had to become more aware of the way in which his beliefs about himself impact overall mental well-being.

“I didn’t realise that subconsciously, ingrained in the back of my mind were destructive thoughts and beliefs that were pulling me down — a kind of self-sabotage. They were also making me keep pushing at all costs,” he says.

“For me, what really helped me pull through, was really getting to know myself, understanding how I got there in the first place, and being patient with myself as recovery doesn’t happen overnight.”

Regaining control

It took months to recognise what was making him worse, such as not getting enough sleep, not exercising and not feeling good about himself.

He then used therapy, meditation, yoga and regular exercise to regain control over his mental and physical well-being.

Maxine Sherrin, Program Director at Spark Festival, a series of events across the entire innovation and startup ecosystem, was diagnosed with breast cancer mid 2017, and facing two major surgeries and six months of chemotherapy.

That came three months out from delivering the second edition of Spark Festival and, like many startups, there wasn’t anyone to step in and fill her role.

“Somehow I got there, but it was really tough,” she says.

“The mental health aspects of a cancer diagnosis and treatment can’t be under-estimated. At times I would be hit with intense feelings of depression, isolation and hopelessness.

“When I was feeling good I would get as much as I could done, and when that freight train of depression would hit, I’d try not to fight it, but rather just go where it wanted to take me.

“I’d done a lot of meditation and yoga in the decade before this, and that was certainly very helpful in maintaining some equanimity. It wasn’t always pretty though.”

Life is a rollercoaster

Every Stone & Chalk resident and employee across Sydney and Melbourne will receive free access to a portal specifically by mental health and well-being company, Mindstar, to provide extra support during the holiday period.

“What people need to understand is that life is a rollercoaster,” says Aaron Williams, Co-Founder of Mindstar.

“It has its ups and downs, that’s just real life. But that is especially true for people working in the startup world. Startup life involves uncertainty and anxiety on steroids.

“The secret to dealing with uncertainty and anxiety is that in the same way we can train our lungs and muscles to become physically fit and healthy, we can also train our brain to be mentally healthy.

“This is important so that when we do experience the low points on the rollercoaster, or tough times in our life, we sail on through rather than spiralling further down.”

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