There is mounting evidence that starting a business reduces stress–and persistent myths that are stopping employees from taking the plunge

In 1989, a 39-year-old executive found herself at a crossroads. After 17 arduous years of climbing the corporate ladder at Vogue, she lost the editor-in-chief position to a rival, Anna Wintour. One day, while struggling to find the right gown for her upcoming wedding, she spotted a business opportunity: designing dresses for others. Hesitant, she wasn’t sure she’d make it: “Maybe it’s just too late for me,” the executive wondered. Still, she took the plunge, and one year later, she opened a boutique at New York City’s Carlyle Hotel.

Fast forward to 2024, and that executive is Vera Wang, one of the most successful fashion designers in the world, with a net worth of over $650 million. It’s easy to marvel at Wang’s financial success. But as new research reveals, the real reward of starting a business extends well beyond money–it also means lower stress, better health, and a more meaningful career.

The burnout that drives successful people to leave corporate America has only intensified in recent years. During the height of the pandemic, Gallup recorded record-setting stress levels. It would be easy to dismiss this figure as an unavoidable byproduct of COVID-19, except for one excruciating detail: We’re just as stressed out today. 

Why entrepreneurs report less stress than the average worker

As someone who has helped thousands of entrepreneurs, I know firsthand the benefits of–and misconceptions about–taking employment into one’s own hands and starting a business. After a year filled with record-setting layoffs, return-to-work mandates, and the looming threat of AI, it’s time to take research on worker welfare seriously, and debunk the myths that keep employees from healthier, more satisfying, and less stressful lives.

In recent years, a new wave of peer-reviewed research indicates that launching a business can dramatically reduce stress and improve physical and mental health. That revelation first gained traction with a groundbreaking paper published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. In it, researchers compared a nationally representative sample of employees and entrepreneurs on various health factors, including blood pressure, physician visits, physical and mental illness, and overall well-being. The results overwhelmingly favored entrepreneurs, who evidenced significantly lower blood pressure and hypertension rates, fewer hospital visits, and reduced incidence of physical and mental illnesses. 

How can starting a business, which many justifiably consider a massive and nerve-wracking undertaking, possibly reduce stress? 

A 2020 study offers important clues as to why entrepreneurs report less stress than the average American. Economists at Colorado State University and Florida Atlantic University concluded that founding a business fosters a greater sense of purpose as entrepreneurs experience more autonomy and competence at work.

And although we’ve been taught that being an employee is the safer financial path, a 2022 JP Morgan report indicates that the median self-employed household has a net worth more than four times greater than the median worker. Counterintuitively, launching a business yields greater financial stability than working for an employer.

What’s keeping more employees from launching their own businesses

I recently commissioned a proprietary study of 1,100 current and prospective entrepreneurs, asking about their perception of entrepreneurship, motivation for starting a business, and experiences at work. We then compared those who recently started a business against employees who have considered doing so but have yet to take the plunge. We uncovered three key barriers, all of which are grounded in erroneous assumptions about entrepreneurship. 

First, aspiring founders believe they need significantly more experience, industry knowledge, and financial savings to launch their business than actual business owners possessed before starting theirs. In other words, they impose higher, often unrealistic standards upon themselves.

Another major barrier deterring people from starting a business is the fear that entrepreneurship will demand excessively long hours, severely impacting their personal lives and relationships with family. Our research tells a different story. As it turns out, most new entrepreneurs work the same total hours they did before starting their business, with one notable difference: they do so while experiencing less work-related stress. At the same time, over twice as many entrepreneurs report that starting a business has positively impacted their family relationships than say it has damaged them. 

A final myth preventing people from starting a business is the belief that successful founders tend to be young. Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates may have both launched their companies while still in college but research conducted at Wharton indicates that they are the exception, not the rule.

In our study, aspiring entrepreneurs guessed the average age of a successful founder to be 35. Wharton’s analyses indicate the actual average is 42–but even that figure may paint an unrealistic picture. That’s because when you exclude the software industry, the average founder age is closer to 47–older even than Vera Wang when she opened her flagship store.

Not only is youth not a requirement for starting a business but if you’re striving for success, age is an asset. According to Wharton’s analyses, founders between the ages of 40 to 49 tend to vastly outperform younger founders. In fact, their companies are more than three times as likely to rank among the top-performing startups.

For those at a crossroads, the path to overall well-being may lie in the very idea you think is the biggest risk. For those aiming to secure greater wealth, better health, and deeper personal satisfaction, the entrepreneurial leap might just be the right move. It’s never too late to pivot to a more positive work life–the data is on your side. 

Ross Buhrdorf is the CEO of ZenBusiness, which has empowered over half a million individuals to launch and scale their businesses.

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