A Harvard Business Review survey suggests that half of CEOs report experiencing feelings of loneliness in their role.
It was a gloomy summer morning when Leah Fuller woke up to see that the sun wasn’t beaming through her bedroom window. She rolled out of bed and opened the curtains to grey clouds which mirrored the darkness and sorrow she was feeling inside. The isolation she felt gave her little motivation to go out into the world, so Fuller snuggled back into bed.
After watching Netflix for a few hours, Fuller, 24, slowly got ready to go to the community vegetable garden in Hamilton. She slid her feet into a pair of white tennis shoes and as she walked along the wet grass, she could feel dew soak through her shoes and into her socks. She looked down and put on her sunglasses to hide the tears in her eyes caused by the loneliness she felt within.
Fuller is the founder of Alegria Dance Company– a ballroom dancing studio in Hamilton. She has studied under world-renowned coaches since the age of six and trained rigorously in salsa and bachata. In October 2014, she came in 3rd place at the Canadian Salsa and Bachata Championship and 2nd place at the Baltimore Salsa and Bachata Congress in 2015.
Despite always being around people between training or teaching at her studio at least 64 hours each week, Fuller says she is one of many entrepreneurs who experience loneliness and isolation in the early stages of starting a company. A Harvard Business Review survey suggests that half of CEOs report experiencing feelings of loneliness in their role, and of this group, 60 per cent believe it hinders their performance.
This state of isolation, Fuller said, began after a business relationship fell apart with another dance school she was connected to. She went through three or four months experiencing a lot of loneliness and said it was one of those moments where she had to acknowledge, “it was a shitty time because I didn’t have my group of friends anymore.
“I remember my phone not buzzing and thinking nobody really cares about what’s going on with me,” Fuller said. “There was this sense of the world is happening around me but I am just going through the motions completely separate from everyone else. It seemed like everyone else was just doing their thing and they seemed to have it figured out but I was in this little bubble of fog.”
First-time CEOs are particularly susceptible to this isolation. Nearly 70 per cent of first-time CEOs who experience loneliness report that the feelings negatively affect their performance.
Morgan Kate, the founder of a women’s fitness and weight loss facility in Hamilton called Morgan Kate Fitness, said she felt lonely when she took the first step into entrepreneurship because the people who she had known her entire life, did not support her as her company became successful.
She says she quickly realized that people struggle to celebrate other’s pursuit of happiness. Her friends, who she thought would support her, were only available to her when she was fearful or scared in the early stages of her business which she said was “very alienating.”
Kate, 31, said it was saddening when she celebrated the one-year anniversary for her company because none of her friends congratulated her.
“As my company becomes more successful and my engagement on social media grows,” she said, “I’ve received a lot of negativity from the people I thought would support me. I recently had a very close friend send me a message telling me she had to unfollow me because she finds my content unrealistic because I only show the good side. It was so hurtful.”
It can be especially alienating for entrepreneurs who do not have partners or a team. In Canada there are over two million businesses without employees and with annual revenues greater than $30,000, according to Statistics Canada.
Michael Burgess, the CEO of Nerpy’s Inc., says it is very isolating to run a business without a partner to share ideas with. At the start of his business, he travelled to Florida to visit a friend– who is now the graphic designer for his company, and told him about the idea to start a business. But his friend said he didn’t think the idea would work.
“I would really like to have other’s ideas and input but I am alone in terms of thought process and without a partner,” said Burgess, whose company has produced hot pepper sauces, seasoning rubs and marinades since 2008, “there aren’t a lot of people to bounce your ideas off of. A lot of times during development, planning and when making decisions, it is a sole process.”
Entrepreneurs say that loneliness and isolation may also lead to mental illness and cause them to retreat from the outside world.
Jenn Donaldson, the co-founder of Steel City Studio, said she feels lonely when she compares herself to other successful companies– which then leads to anxiety.
“I’ll be working on something and think it is great,” said Donaldson, who is also the founder of an interior design company called Holistic Design Solutions. “But then I will have moments where I start comparing to other businesses in the same industry who are successful and then there is a pivotal turning point in my thinking where I get ‘comparisitis’. I become crippled by the success of other entrepreneurs and I begin to doubt my ability.”
Donaldson, 31, said this state of isolation is a dark place and she fears that she is not strong enough to overcome it.
When Donaldson is anxious and in a bad state, she says she will hermit and retreat from others because she feels sorrow and loneliness: “I am just coming out of one right now where I have been retreating for the past two weeks and I was avoiding projects and networking opportunities.”
Diana Brecher, a clinical psychologist based in Ryerson University, said that entrepreneurs who experience loneliness should read The Happiness Equation written by Neil Pasricha. The author discusses four things people get from the workplace and refers to them as the “four S’s– social, structure, stimulation and story.”
“Our social contacts at work are usual and meaningful and we can count on talking to people everyday,” said Brecher, who studies positive psychology. “We know that there is structure to our work whether it’s the beginning or the end of a work day. We know that we are going to get stimulation from what we’re doing. We have a sense of story which he referred to as being apart of something larger than yourself which gives meaning and a mission statement.”
Entrepreneurs who work a lot, however, do not necessarily get all of those things. Brecher said they may struggle with the social and structural aspects because they mostly work independently and their hours are not consistent.
Brecher says social connection is important to an entrepreneurs well-being and will help them cope with isolation and overcome loneliness.
“Entrepreneurs need to be aware that they have a social need and build it into their lifestyle,” she said. “Having regular coffee meetings with other entrepreneurs or joining a networking group that meets on a regular basis to share ideas. So they have to build in the social and structural together on a daily basis.”
Brecher says entrepreneurs need to make a commitment to do four things every day– do something physical, something social, learn something new and do something for someone else.
To cope with loneliness and isolation, Morgan Kate said she tries to meditate and read to refocus her energy on love by opening herself to relationships that will serve her better rather than focusing on those who do not support her.
In order to cope with loneliness and isolation, Kate says entrepreneurs need to remember they are not alone in this battle.
“We all experience loneliness,” Kate said, “so you need to get involved in entrepreneurship groups so you have people who are going through similar things to support you and provide emotional support while you grow your company.”