Enhancing social entrepreneurs’ wellbeing: The role of support organisations

Social entrepreneurs work to improve the wellbeing of communities and the planet, but what about their own wellbeing?

Wellbeing is not just the absence of illness, but a state where individuals can cope with the normal stresses of life, realise their potential, and contribute to their community with a sense of vitality and authenticity. As much as these individuals work tirelessly to make a difference, the demands of running a social venture can be overwhelming and lead to ill-being, including exhaustion and burnout.  While research on social entrepreneurs’ wellbeing is still emerging, broader research shows the importance of wellbeing for entrepreneurs’ persistence, creativity, and the performance of their organisations.

It’s time for support organisations, such as business schools, ecosystem builders, incubators, accelerators, to step up and play a role in enhancing the wellbeing of social entrepreneurs. While these organisations mostly focus on supporting the development of sustainable social ventures, they also need to support the wellbeing of social entrepreneurs because it is essential for the sustainability of social ventures and for the talent pipeline in the ecosystem. There are many ways support organisations can take action to enhance the wellbeing of social entrepreneurs, which is required to fuel social change in the long run. Here are five actionable steps:

Photo by J W on Unsplash

1.     Change the narrative

There are two sides of the same coin. One celebrates the work of successful social entrepreneurs with admiration and enthusiasm and portrays them as heroes, and the other in which social entrepreneurs are exhausted, often from the less glamorous work of maintaining their organisations. The former is highlighted by the media and even by support organisations when they invite as guest speakers and mentors only successful social entrepreneurs. The latter is usually concealed and known only to the social entrepreneurs themselves. This lack of balance in how social entrepreneurs are portrayed can result in social entrepreneurs feeling pressured to do more as well as ashamed and lonely in their experiences of ill-being, thus creating a vicious cycle of silence and heroic portrayals of social entrepreneurship. In response, support organisations can contribute to a more balanced narrative of social entrepreneurship that moves beyond the heroic portrayal. This can lessen the pressure social entrepreneurs impose on themselves and make it easier for them to seek support when struggling.

2.     Set holistic expectations

Support organisations, even business schools, require achievement of milestones and thus impose expectations on social entrepreneurs related to the success of the social business. Yet, they fail to set realistic expectations of the wellbeing and emotional aspects of the work of social entrepreneurs, including challenges related to emotional labour when supporting beneficiaries, training new employees, and balancing mission and financial sustainability. Consequently, many social entrepreneurs start their journeys unprepared for these important aspects of their work, which can result in disappointment and depression. Therefore, it is important for support organisations to share the emotional aspects of social entrepreneurs’ work as well as to help individuals craft more realistic and holistic expectations of what is involved in the social entrepreneurial role. This can help social entrepreneurs to avoid discrepancies, set more realistic workloads, and invest in developing the soft skills required to successfully engage in the role.

3.     Integrate wellbeing skills and tools into support programmes

While many programmes emphasise business-relevant skills, such as building business models and creating financial projections, and impact-relevant skills, such as crafting a theory of change and implementing impact measurement plans, wellbeing skills are often neglected. This means that support organisations support social enterprises, but not social entrepreneurs as individuals. Yet, this neglect leaves social enterprises vulnerable. Support organisations need to play a role in increasing awareness of the importance of wellbeing as well as equip potential and current social entrepreneurs with the skills and tools to maintain their wellbeing throughout the entrepreneurial journey. This can be done as stand-alone modules and workshops or integrated into other programmatic components, such as reflective practice and coaching. An important aspect of this work is to invest in evaluation of these tools and approaches to ensure their effectiveness as well as to invest in research so that tools appropriate specifically for social entrepreneurs and their needs are developed.

4.     Support the multiple identities of social entrepreneurs

Social entrepreneurs’ sense of self is strongly tied to their social businesses, while other aspects of their identities, such as being a sister, a runner, a Muslim, may be neglected and enacted infrequently. Identifying closely with one’s work is not necessarily bad, however, blurred work-life boundaries and the loss of other identities may lead to devastating consequences, such as conflict in one’s personal life, additional pressure, and lack of authenticity. Nurturing multiple identities is also important because it creates a buffer against challenges at work. When things are not going well in the social enterprise, social entrepreneurs with multiple identities have more opportunities to detach from work and recover, to experience the challenges as less personally painful, and even to identify novel solutions. Thus, support organisations need to support social entrepreneurs’ multiple identities and encourage the nurturing of these identities by creating space for these identities. For example, by being more family friendly and organising family and friends events or by helping social entrepreneurs to reflect on and review their values along their entrepreneurial journeys.

5.     Provide access to mental health support

Support organisations can provide access to mental health support for social entrepreneurs. For prevention and enhancement, peer support groups allow for a safe space for social entrepreneurs to reflect and share with like-minded peers. This approach can also have ripple effects by lessening the stigma around mental health and reducing the occupational loneliness that social entrepreneurs can experience. For treatment, we advocate for a pathway to professional mental health support. In many parts of the world, mental health is still a taboo and professional support is a privilege to access. As such, support organisations are a good starting point to bridge such gaps.

Looking after one’s wellbeing is not selfish or a sign of weakness. It is a radical act of challenging social norms that are harmful. However, social entrepreneurs do not need to be alone in this lifelong process. Support organisations can play an active role in equipping social entrepreneurs with the tools and creating a culture of wellbeing for all.