'I couldn't sleep unless I felt broken by work': Preston's Entrepreneur Mental Health Association tackling an epidemic
There is a mental health crisis amongst entrepreneurs.
An infamous work-til-you-drop culture and a fetishisation of long, arduous hours is borne out in the statistics - according to the National Institute of Mental Health, 49% of entrepreneurs struggle with mental health compared to 32% of the general population.
And not many people are better placed to comment than Kelly Bolton.
The founder of the Preston-based Entrepreneur Mental Health Association, Kelly is herself an award-winning entrepreneur and successful business owner who has had a job since she first got a paper route at the age of 11.
Eschewing university to go into freelance marketing before setting up her own company, Aggressive Marketing Growth (AMG), in 2016, Kelly has also grappled with mental health issues herself, as well as more than her fair share of hardship.
Just over 10 years ago, Kelly’s husband Stu was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour, with Kelly fitting her work around hospital appointments. Compounding tragedy upon tragedy, the couple also lost their first child halfway through the pregnancy as well.
“I got to the point where so much horrible stuff that was out of my control was happening that I reached rock bottom and I had nothing to lose,” explains Kelly, 32, who gave birth to her and Stu’s now-six-year-old daughter Anabelle in 2014. “So I went for it and I put my everything into my work.”
Built on the back of Kelly’s excellent work, AMG’s growth was meteoric, with the company soon doing business with the likes of private jet firm Vertis Aviation, transport provider Arriva, and voice-over agency Inter Voice Over.
She went on to be named Young Entrepreneur of the Year for the North West, Ireland, and Wales at the 2019 Forward Ladies Awards.
“I’ve always been a bit of a workaholic,” explains Kelly, who says the just an hour after Annabelle was born via C-section, she was on her phone working again. “It got to the point where I was doing 16-hour days and I couldn’t get to sleep unless I felt broken by work, only then did I feel like I’d had a productive day.
“I wish I could go back and tell myself I was going to make myself unwell, which is ultimately what happened,” she adds. “People look at business owners with rose-tinted glasses, but it’s like seeing the tip of an iceberg - you don’t see everything below the surface: the sleepless nights, the tears, the long hours.
“And, when you’re feeling the pressure, it comes out in your work. It got to the point where my personal problems were having an impact on my business and my business problems were having an impact on my personal life.”
It was around this time that Stu’s health took a turn for the worse. After a decade of treatment, he died in May last year at the age of just 36.
“I founded the EMHA as a result of my own experience in building a business whilst also dealing with my own personal circumstances,” says Kelly of the non-profit organisation. “After my husband passed away, I was determined to make it a success to help other entrepreneurs with their mental health almost as a tribute to him.
“Being able to not only empower people but also give them non-judgmental support from their peers is invaluable because, when you’re speaking to other business owners, you want to talk about how great everything is, not about how you’re struggling,” she adds. “Talking honestly about something which is natural isn’t admitting failure, it’s empowering.
“I think something like this is needed now more than ever and I can’t put into words what it’s like to help people,” Kelly says, with the EMHA running a 24/7 phone line and donating 5% of funds raised to mental health charities. “It’s extremely rewarding and, as much as I love my business, I love this more because of the impact you can have on people.
“It’s as if this has been my calling. Life has prepared me to do this.”