Why Your Mental Health Is Key To Your Survival In A Family Business

A look at why one of the most effective interventions to mental health issues can be found within the family itself, especially in places like the MENA region and India.

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Over the last couple of months, the stresses of COVID-19 have brought to the fore the importance of our individual and family wellbeing. During this time, many have physically lost a loved one to the virus. Many more have seen their loved ones figuratively disappear through a host of mental health disorders. These individuals, in spite of possessing strong character traits, have fallen prey to the uncertainty and chaos that thrives in COVID-19’s shadows.  

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As a clinician who works with high performance individuals and families in the MENA region and around the globe, I’ve been deluged by requests for direct clinical services by families in need of culturally competent and clinically effective mental health services. The majority of these individuals are suffering from a host of conditions that fall under the diagnostic umbrella of anxiety disorders. Over the decade and a half that I’ve worked in the realm of anxiety disorders, I’ve heard my patients who suffer from them complain of the following symptoms:  

  • Feelings of impending doom 

  • “Knots” in their stomachs, headaches, and back pain 

  • Feelings of inadequacy 

  • Fatigue or restlessness 

  • A constant and unforgiving sense of being judged 

  • Irritability and irrational anger  

  • An inability to focus and carry through tasks to completion 

It’s important to note that anxiety, like other mental health disorders, falls along a spectrum of severity that ranges from mild to severe. On the mild side of the spectrum is what is known as generalized anxiety disorder. This condition manifests in a chronic sense of “dis-ease” and impending doom.  

On the more severe side of the spectrum are what are known as obsessive compulsive disorders. These result in people compulsively engaging in a host of destructive behaviours that most frequently include hording, sexually acting out, destructive spending and disordered eating.   

Fortunately, there are highly effective strategies for dealing with anxiety at every point on this spectrum. From a clinical standpoint, these include empirically proven interventions such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and a host of psychopharmacological interventions that address a person’s neurological imbalances.  

One of the most effective interventions, however, is found within the family itself. I have found this to be especially true of families from the MENA region, India, and other cultures where strong family, community, and religious traditions remain. For these families, anxiety treatment is not something to be blindly relegated to lettered professionals. It’s seen as a collaborative process that integrates family support with culturally competent and empirically proven treatment strategies. 

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting Priyanka Gupta Zielinski, a Dubai-based CEO of her family’s steel manufacturing business, who recently authored a book entitled The Ultimate Family Business Survival Guide (PAN, 2021). What distinguishes her book from the legions of other family business guides that have come before it are her insights into successfully managing the mental health issues that arise in family businesses and family succession planning. Through her writings, Priyanka addresses the biggest pressure points facing the next generation of India: career, love, and marriage. By exploring the role of Indian traditions and repositioning them with a beneficial, modern twist, Priyanka seeks to empower India’s next generation in their pursuit of new opportunities and fulfilment in their lives and careers. 

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Priyanka Gupta Zielinski, author, The Ultimate Family Business Survival Guide. Source: Priyanka Gupta Zielinski

As the executive director of MPIL Steel Structures Ltd, Priyanka has led her family business to exponential growth and diversification. She has previously worked with financial institutions such as Women’s World Banking and the Fund for the City of New York. In 2012, she was named Woman Entrepreneur of the Year by ET Now. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Economics and Gender and Women’s Studies from Connecticut College, a Visiting Fellowship in Development Economics with the University of Oxford, and a master’s degree in International Public Finance from New York University.  

In the following interview, Priyanka discusses the role of women in family business and succession planning, how intergenerational anxiety impacts family succession, why families need to expand their definition of success to include issues related to mental health, the value of humility in family enterprises, and how families can harness relational conflicts to improve individual and family functioning. 

Your book, The Ultimate Family Business Survival Guide, is unique in that it's written from a woman’s perspective. How did your upbringing as a daughter in a traditional Indian family inform the book? 

When I was an undergraduate student at college in America, I realized that while our family business was traditionally Indian, our family was not. My parents have been rather progressive in their approach to raising my brother and me, offering us a unique platform to express our individuality. That is why I was keen to share my story and my journey in family business in India, because it is filled with champions from inside my family and from the larger steel industry, who have carved out a path for young women to claim their rightful place in their businesses.  

When we first talked, you mentioned how anxiety is an epidemic in family businesses that value cultural and religious traditions such as those found in the Arab nations and India. Can you expand on this? 

Despite being independent and assertive, I found myself surrounded by social pressure when I joined my family business. To be a single woman in family business can be a severe cause for anxiety in young women in India and the Arab world, because there is always the expectation that your role at work is temporary, something that occupies your time until you get married.  

For women who are married, responsibilities of the home do not always allow for the support needed to excel at work. Anxiety and self-worth are also affected when, as women, we are not sure of which family business we belong to; our father’s or our husband’s? There is very little room to accommodate women who digress from social expectations ever so slightly.  

To navigate conflicting viewpoints on cultural and religious expectations, to find a way to ground modern views in traditional understanding is a battle most of us are trying to win.  

Mental health has become an important topic for millennials and women around the globe. How are these issues relevant to micro, small and medium enterprise (MSME) businesses in the Arab nations and India?  

Just like the rest of the world, mental health issues are rampant and severely underaddressesed among MSME businesses in the Arab nations and in India. In these pandemic times, especially, we are all struggling to situate ourselves in our families and in ourselves, to find meaning in our contributions, and to seek meaningful relationships.  

Financial pressures on our businesses have put everyone on edge to the extent that we are unable to act in a mindful manner. There is almost no recognition that this mental health crisis requires attention and requires a commands support system. Furthermore, MSME businesses operate on very thin margins and suffer from a chronic shortage to be able to dedicate any resources or time to address mental health issues in their next generations.  

I believe this a gross negligence, and one of the biggest deterrents in family businesses. It’s a shortcoming that prevents them from fully involving their next generations in the business.  As large economies, we have a lot to lose if we don’t find ways to deal with such mental health challenges.  

Source: Priyanka Gupta Zielinski

Related: Destigmatizing Conversations Around Mental Health At Your Workplace: The How-To

I was pleasantly surprised to discover in reading your book that you place great value on humility as a family and cultural asset. This runs counter to traditional Western cultures such as those found in America and the European Union, where narcissism is celebrated and rewarded.  How did you come to see humility as an asset rather than a liability? 

I am embarrassed to admit how long it took me to come to this understanding myself that humility is a family and a cultural asset. My father has always been unapologetically true to himself, always very comfortable in his skin. He taught us that no one is perfect and that everyone makes mistakes, although there maybe someone who will do a better job of hiding it.  

Despite this regular boost of confidence, during my early years in business, I would project an image at work just for the sake of appearing more capable than I actually was. I learned that as you gain more experience, you realize the realistic rates of success and failures and grow more comfortable. When you level with people in the industry, they appreciate it.  

Humility and admitting to my limitations opened me up to learn better and also released some of the unnecessary pressure I was putting on myself. My father led by example and showed us how we have to trust our clients and stakeholders in the industry. I really believe that all cultures are forgiving to those who make genuine mistakes, and I hope that through my story encourages all millennials and women to not fall for the narcissism trap projected in the media.  

One of the many things I appreciated about your book is that it is accessible and easy to read. You have a wonderful talent for digesting complex issues into simple strategies. In this spirit, leave us with three takeaways we can make meaning out of the conflicts inherent in family businesses.   

In my book, The Ultimate Family Business Survival Guide, I offer a toolkit which can be used in many ways to address key conflicts in family businesses. Here are my three takeaways for those in the struggle to situate themselves in their family business:  

1. The Flashlight Tool The flashlight illuminates complex matters, encourages deep understanding, teaches us to step back and listen, and identifies what is important by helping us focus on the people around us. While it is hard to always keep it in the forefront of our thoughts, it can be empowering to remember that we are deeply loved, cared for, and wanted by our family members. Many seemingly irrational actions of our family can be explained by their devotion to our safety and wellbeing. To better understand the source of their fears can help us level with them better.  

2. The Parachute Metaphor Family-owned business owners regularly confront risk, threat, and anxiety. The stakes are seemingly higher when there is the potential that you could let down those you care about the most. As you mentioned in the beginning of this article, feelings of inadequacy can shadow our efforts constantly telling us we are not doing enough, or that we are not enough. The parachute helps us recognize these deterrent feelings and take charge of our emotions.  

3. The Multipurpose Hat We all play multiple roles in our family businesses: we can be a single woman and still hold a leadership position, we can feel differently about cultural issues or experience different social realities, but we can still contribute in a meaningful way at work. In order to carve out a place for ourselves, we need to remember the hat metaphor, and design a positive and cohesive identity expression for ourselves.  

Related: Four Ways Businesses Can Support Employees' Mental Health Amid COVID-19

Dr. Paul Hokemeyer

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Dr. Paul L. Hokemeyer is a fellow in the Global Leaders in Healthcare program at Harvard Medical School. A licensed marriage and family therapist, consultant and author, he is one of the world's foremost experts on resolving the complex, sensitive and highly nuanced issues that arise among the world's most prominent families and is listed as one of the world's top "Problem Solvers" in Tatler's High Net Worth Address book.  

He founded Drayson Mews International in London to provide direct services and strategic solutions to high profile and high performance individuals, couples, and families around the world, and he is also the author of Fragile Power: Why Having Everything is Never Enough (2019, Hazelden). In this groundbreaking book, Dr. Paul sets forth a new standard of culturally competent and clinically effective care for UHNW individuals and families who struggle with mental health, personality, relational and addictive disorders.  

A believer in education as a lifelong process, Dr. Paul holds a Ph.D. in psychology, a doctorate in law (J.D.), a M.A. in family dynamics. During the pandemic, he studied how to optimize the use of digital technologies in the delivery mental health services at the Yale University School of Management.