Poland family business conference

Despite the stigma attached to it, mental illness is part of the human condition. According to the World Health Organization, approximately one in seven people have a mental health or substance abuse disorder – about 15 per cent of the global population.

“Normal” is a relative term, and one that’s fallibly subjective; instead, equilibrium is the goal. That said, some suffer more acutely than others, and that distinction depends on many complex factors, both environmental and inherent. Mental health is complex, but mental health professionals generally agree: in an era defined by blurred boundaries, hyper-connectivity, lack of face-to-face interaction and skyrocketing stress level, maintaining that stasis – keeping up with mental hygiene – is harder than ever before.

Needless to say, in a family business context, the mental health of family members is directly correlated to the health of the business itself. Both family business and entrepreneurship, however, come with a unique set of stress factors that others typically do not have to deal with.

Entrepreneurs, in particular, are at risk of developing mental health issues brought on by the emotional strain and chronically stressful lifestyles associated with growing businesses. They are nearly twice as likely to suffer from depression and over six times more likely to experience ADHD than the general population. Moreover, entrepreneurs are 30 per cent more likely to struggle with addiction than other types of workers.

With regard to family businesses, the evidence suggests that the unique operating and emotional dynamics that define them can have both advantages and disadvantages when it comes to addressing mental health-related issues. However, a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers survey suggested that over 70 per cent of family businesses do not have any procedures in place for dealing with conflicts among family members. The trauma of leaving these conflicts unresolved can lead to anxiety, self-medication and addiction.

As family business members, awareness is the most effective tool on our collective journey towards better mental health. To spread that awareness, give voice to the struggle and start the conversation, we spoke to three experts with very different backgrounds about mental health in the family business.

Mental Health and Addiction in the Family Business: The Silent Threat

Jan Gerber, CEO of Paracelsus Recovery in Zurich, Switzerland, leads his family-owned clinic in the fight against addiction. The services they offer, tailored specifically to entrepreneurs and family business members, address the underlying issues behind addiction because, as Gerber notes, addiction is symptomatic of a much deeper dissonance. In a family business context, the cycle of addiction often starts with family conflict or feelings of inadequacy and isolation. The first step towards recovery is breaking the silence and reaching out for help – something that family business members and entrepreneurs struggle with. However, as Gerber points out, family business, by definition, is a communal activity. As such, help is all around us.

Conflict Resolution and Mental Health in the Family Business

Ken Kaye, a psychologist and author from the United States, was one of the first in his field to specialise in family business dynamics; notably, the conflicts that impact those business and how their constituent members solve them effectively. Often, these conflicts have their root in what Kaye refers to as “the benefits” of the business: who gets compensated for what and for how much. When family business members feel these benefits are meted out unfairly, problems significant enough to impact their mental health arise. In solving these conflicts – a critical task when it comes to ensuring the sustainability of the family business – Kaye’s research ranks honest communication as the highest ideal in helping family members move forward.

Surviving Entrepreneurship

Jeffrey Markus, an itinerant entrepreneur, owns and operates one of Toronto’s most profitable eateries: Daddyo’s Pizza and Pasta. His journey, however, has not been straightforward. Markus got his start in the casino industry but, by his mid-twenties, was forced to quit. The long hours, incessant travel and stress load were causing the failure of his marriage and exacerbating his depression. Later, when his first venture as an entrepreneur in the hospitality industry failed, he took the blow personally. His life began to unravel, and he became an addict. However, his determination to succeed would eventually carry him through rehab, and he went on to found a second business with a partner, this time in the restaurant industry. This venture was more successful, but still, Markus and his associate were forced to part ways and sell the business. However, this time he was more resilient and, soon after the split, got back on top founding Daddyo’s, which has become an institution in downtown Toronto. Looking back on his long journey to success, Markus describes himself as a survivor. He says there are some things he’d do differently, but he doesn’t regret his self-described compulsion for entrepreneurship – nor could he change it.