You know that being an entrepreneurial leader is hard. It comes with its own rewards, to be sure, but it can be exhausting. Once you're in the thick of it, the weight of meeting payroll and keeping people happy can take a toll -- no matter how successful your business is.

If you're the spoke that the whole wheel turns around, you can't afford to lose your sanity. In the midst of a mental health crisis in entrepreneurship, your ability to keep it together deserves attention. A 2015 study of nearly 350 participants from researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University found that entrepreneurs are 50 percent more likely to suffer from mental illness. They're also twice as likely to grapple with depression and three times as likely to suffer from substance abuse.

With lots of people pulling at you -- from your investors to your spouse -- it pays to protect your sanity from the get-go.

Some mental health challenges crop up unexpectedly, whether because of genetics or a life event. But you can take steps now to keep yourself in a good spot overall:

1. Create non-negotiable time for yourself.

If you have a family, you may decide you want to make it home for dinner every night at 6:00. If you're a fitness fanatic, you might book a weekly yoga class you refuse to miss. If several college friends live in your area, you might set Friday happy hours to ensure you leave the office.

Whatever is important to you outside of work deserves your time. Without talking to your kids, training martial arts or laughing with friends over margaritas, you won't know who you are beyond your business. That's not healthy, and it makes everything at work take on catastrophic proportions. If one thing goes wrong, you have no other identity.

2. Get comfortable asking for help.

Most high-performing leaders I've met have a know-it-all mentality. They don't necessarily know it all -- they just feel like they should. They think that with everyone relying on them, they can't ask for help. They should have all the answers if they're running a company, right?

I set a limit on how much time I invest before asking for help. If I'm researching, writing or developing a framework for coaching, I'll spend an hour brainstorming. If I'm still stuck, I'll research a very different approach to crystallize my thinking. Then, I'll reach out to my wife or another colleague to test ideas. If a bigger problem needs some sort of resolution before I take action, I'll reach out to a mentor. I never trick myself into thinking my way is the only way -- or even the best way.

3. Determine how you'll act if the worst happens.

One way I've coached several leaders out of crippling stress is to nip anxiety in the bud. For many people, the worst part of leadership is knowing that bad things will happen -- but not knowing when. Outlining what you'll do if those things happen takes away the stress of making decisions when you're down. 

Create worst-case scenarios and appropriate responses. How much will you spend on a certain initiative before you stop? In what order will you cut costs if needed? What will trigger layoffs? How would you stagger them? What resources will you pull on if you need a loan or consulting help? Having an emergency plan in place will alleviate half your worries.

4. Grow a spine, but maintain your heart.

One thing I highly recommend all entrepreneurial leaders to do is feel confident in determining what behavior they will accept -- or won't. One entrepreneur I know fired an employee for "jokingly" throwing a book at him. Another entrepreneur I've worked with has parted ways with employees who talked back in ways that were insubordinate, not just questioning. And I know a CEO who fired an employee who implied women couldn't understand his work -- so he didn't have to justify what he did all day to her. All were good moments of keeping a stiff spine.

But that doesn't mean you don't give leeway to employees dealing with bigger issues. Grieving, depressed or financially struggling employees may need some grace while they resolve or heal from distractions outside work. If they push your limits of acceptable behavior, have a conversation about what you need during trying times. You want to reflect the kindness you'd want while struggling, but it's OK to issue reminders about what's acceptable.

You need every ounce of mental strength while building a business. Set boundaries to keep yourself in a good spot. These can't necessarily fix anything that goes wrong, but they'll ensure that you can.

Published on: Oct 16, 2019
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