Mental Health

Exhaustion is expensive: Coworking founders need ROI for mental health

72% of entrepreneurs suffer from one or more mental health issues. And in honor Mental Health Awareness month, we’re going to take as unflinching a look at that as we can.

The data is from a research study by Dr. Michael Freeman. Is that surprising to you? Does it sound like you or someone you know? After all, coworking founders are entrepreneurs. Coworking spaces are often filled with them. That’s why this stat matters to this industry. And that’s why we wanted to sit down with Laura Shook Guzman for a conversation around mental health and the practices that the coworking world can integrate to combat it.

“There’s an unspoken agreement in the entrepreneurial ecosystem to not share our vulnerabilities,” Guzman shared in a pinned Tweet. “And it’s costing us our mental health.”

The coworking space as a hub of self-actualization

In a broad simplification, self-actualization is the process of becoming everything you are capable of being. It is the pinnacle of capability, but according to American psychologist Abraham Maslow, only possible once underlying needs are met and provided for.  

“The model of coworking is a systemic tool for the self-actualization of entrepreneurs,” Guzman further clarified. “It isn’t about the office. It isn’t about the desk size. Those are the basic needs — wifi, a water cooler, a roof over your head. And once those are met, as in Maslow’s hierarchy, people can go further and cultivate that sense of belonging. So community managers aren’t just making sure members have their basic needs. They’re curating an environment where people have psychological safety.”

Guzman notes that coworking itself is a system that has the potential to help entrepreneurs and operators go through a transformational process — which is more than serviced offices provide. “The infrastructure of the community is what helps founders and members transform through the experience.”

The negative impact of 'hustle culture' 

You’ve seen the memes and the motivational posters:

Crushing it. Killing it. Nailed it.

These rather violent visualizations are how pop culture often talks about success, particularly in the world of startups, small business, and freelancers. The world of ‘rise and grind’ doesn’t leave space for rest and recovery. And Guzman notes there is a price to pay for that, and as she tells the founders she works with, ‘exhaustion is expensive.’

To that end, Guzman created and shares a resource called Tools4Founders, especially for coworking space managers to use freely. “I hope they encourage conversations around mental health, but not just during May,” she said.

Are you bringing your trauma to work?

Trauma is a massive word. We use it and misuse it all the time. 

“What is it like to bring awareness to your own trauma to become a more conscious leader?” Guzman asked. “The answer is going to surprise you — I’ve seen it happen with my clients.”

This is one of the questions asked during a program called the Resilient Community Builder, led by Guzman and co-creator Iris Kavanagh, also the founders of Women Who Cowork. 

“We're honing our Resilient Coworking Method, which emphasizes the importance of the ‘inside out.’ The program provides tools to help meet the psychological needs of the founder, and we explore how that ripples out a sense of community and belonging for the members.”

Kavanagh coaches on resilient team building, energy management, and operations of the space, then Guzman works one-on-one with participants to explore how that work sits with each person. It’s a 12 month program designed around a cohort.

But trauma isn’t just something people bring to an environment. A physical space can trigger or ignite strong sensations. That’s why Guzman learned about and became involved with the Trauma-Informed Design Society (TID).

“Trauma-informed design incorporates interior design and the built environment — it’s an emerging field where programming based on mental health is applied to a physical space.”

The society itself defines trauma-informed design as “as a design process for the built environment based on trauma-informed care principles. All decisions about the physical environment are filtered through the overlapping lenses of ​environmental psychology, neuroscience, physiology, and cultural factors. The intent is to create uniquely-designed spaces where all users feel a sense of safety (both real and perceived), respect, connection and community, control, dignity, and joy.”

Coworking spaces are ideally configured to deliver an experience to members — one where they feel relaxed and safe to achieve a state of flow, deep collaboration, or high innovation. Guzman saw it in her own space.

“There's this way in which people started to accelerate their work, because they were doing it together and they had that safety and self actualization. I don't know anywhere outside of coworking that that really existed for individual entrepreneurs.” 

Coworking as organized community

Carolyn Chen spent more than five years in Silicon Valley conducting numerous in-depth interviews and gaining unparalleled access to the world's best and smartest technologies. The resulting book is called Work Pray Code. and it’s an insightful account of how work today fulfills workers' needs for belonging, identity, purpose and transcendence, which religion once did.

“We’ve seen a decline in participation with institutions that gave people meaning, such as churches,” Guzman explained, talking about the book. “Big tech companies started to really step into becoming an institution that gave people a sense of meaning.” Implications of that side, Guzman noted that this need is a natural inclination, and one that coworking communities can serve as well. 

“This has always happened with human beings — we've needed a certain container to help us come together and self organize. We need the collective organization to help us self-organize. So religion did it for a long time. After the recession of 2008, all these people were fleeing big companies where they had put all their heart and soul. And so coworking started to emerge. It was created along the needs for individuals to find a place where they were not only going to go do their work, but they were needing to step into a deeper sense of themselves, and the purpose of that work and the meaning.”

Of course, the pandemic further emphasized our need for human connection, for community, in light of a “work anywhere” culture.

So what can coworking managers and operators do today?

The ideal result of this conversation isn’t complicated: take time to think about your mental health. As a founder. As an entrepreneur. As a community member. Because the cost is real: in a world where we value productivity and achievement, sacrificing the time and energy for care of self has financial and professional consequences.

Plus, here are some actions and resources you can use right away:

  1. Attend Full Transparency: Ending Mental Health Stigma in Entrepreneurship for an interactive panel discussion with founders and leading mental health experts about ending mental health stigma in entrepreneurship.

  2. Leverage the Tools4Founders as resources to start conversations around mental health within your community.

  3. Reserve a spot at the Resilient Business Leader’s Mental Health Retreat on June 16 to discover practical tools and practices rooted in neuroscience. Elevate your ability to navigate stress, connect with others, access creativity for problem-solving, and increase happiness and productivity. 

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