With massive pressure on owner-managers, how should they protect their mental health? What are the warning signs something is wrong? And what practical techniques can be used to protect the mental health of small business owners? Dave Howell reports

Running a small business is stressful. Managing cashflow, customers and commercial partners can increase anxiety, which if unchecked, can become a more chronic mental health condition. And with the current Covid-19 crisis placing even more uncertainty on the shoulders of owner-managers, paying attention to your overall mental health is now more critical than ever.

In 2018, NatWest Great British Entrepreneur Awards conducted its Mental Health in Entrepreneurship survey concluding that over half (58%) of respondents experienced some form of mental health condition. Stress was by far the most debilitating condition (41%) with anxiety (21%) and depression (19%) also being cited by respondents to the survey.

“Everyone is very unclear of what the business world will look like at the end of the COVID-19 crisis,” says Alison McDowall, the co-founder of The Positive Planner “This in itself is anxiety-inducing. It is an uncertain time to be a business owner; many people are working long irregular hours to try and accommodate other factors of life that have collided with our work.

Alison continued: “This pressure of the unknown is a genuine factor in our mental health, that coupled with some owners taking on roles of others in their team that they have had to furlough, means the workload has grown significantly along with the amount of stress. Mental and emotional wellbeing tends to be affected quite a lot in times of worry and intense working hours, that's why we suggest implementing healthy 'mental fitness' activities to help you be more resilient in your home life and your business.”

Some level of stress and anxiety is inevitable for all small business owners. How you identify, manage and treat any changes to your mental state are critical to understanding. Those business owners who pay attention to how they are feeling and, take practical action, will be able to weather the storm and remain strong successfully – meeting each challenge as they present themselves.

Paying attention

We spoke with Daryl Woodhouse, mental fitness and productivity coach who has just launched a new app to help business owners improve their work-life balance, reduce stress and boost productivity at work.

Why do small business owners often ignore their mental health?

“Small business owners are usually spinning multiple plates, dealing with the day-to-day running of their business alongside aspects like marketing, HR, finance,” Daryl explained. “They may be experienced at all of these things, but the sheer amount of work they have to undertake means they prioritise what they believe to be most important.

“Sadly, their own mental health often comes at the bottom of the list of priorities. What I try and encourage business owners to realise is that their own mental health needs to become before anything. When they are mentally fit, they are fit to tackle the many challenges of business life and, they will be more productive.”

Has the current Covid-19 crisis just placed more pressure on the mental health of small business owners?

“Before the pandemic, one in four of us were predicted to suffer a mental health issue over the next 12 months. Post coronavirus, even more of us will experience mental health issues. Small business owners are particularly at risk as they struggle to deal with the day-to-day financial pressures of keeping their business afloat and the associated mental, emotional and physical strain this brings.

“From considering the needs of their employees to those of their customers, devising new strategies for their business to adapt to the pandemic and financial planning, small businesses may be feeling overwhelmed and finding that their mental fitness to effectively manage these issues is impaired.”

As many small business owners work alone, how can this environment potentially lead to mental health issues?

“The danger to mental health for small business owners who work alone could be that they isolate themselves from others, don't have an appropriate outlet to discuss concerns and worries, and develop habits that are not conducive to mental fitness, such as poor boundaries between work and home.

“All business owners can be at risk of this because most wouldn't, rightly, take all of their concerns and worries to their employees. It’s often about finding that suitable outlet to talk about concerns out of work, whether to a therapist, a good friend or loved one.”

What is your essential advice to small business owner/managers to look after their mental health?

“One of the keys to mental fitness is regular, bite-sized doses of those activities that help you to relax, working towards the best version of ourselves. For me, and for many, this means exercise, eating well, a good sleep routine and prioritising time with family and friends. It also means being kind to yourself and, recognising the signs that show you are working too hard, not taking on too much work and finding a network of other professionals you can utilise in your small business to help to lighten the load.”

All business owners have a level of anxiety. How important is it to realise when anxiety is becoming a potentially chronic mental health issue?

“This is something that I have personal experience. My career in corporate leadership and talent development led me to start my first business in 2012, Advantage Business Partnerships. I pushed myself to such an extreme that I suffered a major burnout. I knew at the time that I was pushing myself too much and not looking after my mental, emotional and physical health yet my desire to grow the company overrode this.

“The burnout was the wake-up call I needed to make changes in my life and change my focus to helping others with their mental fitness. I’d say to anyone who is reading this to read the signs; listen to your body if it’s telling you it’s tired, listen to your brain if you’re finding it hard to focus, listen to your emotions if the stresses of running a business are getting you down.”

Are there any tools that small business owners can use to keep an eye on their mental health?

“The biggest and best tool for me is a routine because the daily acts of looking after your mental fitness become ingrained into positive behaviours that will assist you in your business life, and your personal life too, and it’s easy to notice when you skip them. Make that commitment to your daily 15- minute run or yoga session on rising, to stopping for 20 minutes for a healthy lunch, to eating dinner with your family each weeknight. Tick each one off mentally and know you are doing the right thing for your mental fitness.”

Taking action

Small business owners have to wear many hats. The uncertain trading environment they also now find themselves within has amplified their potential risk of developing a range of mental issues. However, deteriorating mental health is not inevitable. You can remain fit and healthy by paying close attention to your mental state and, watching for the warning signs you are under too much pressure.

The Positive Planner’s Alison McDowall notes: “Self-care can be seen as selfish or time-consuming, but it's an act of generosity to yourself and your business. Different things bring different people joy. Plan in these moments of joy to help you reset your mind. You will be more productive in the long run if you allow yourself this time.”

Alison concluded: “Mindfulness definitely has a place in your working day, even three mindful breaths can help you get into the right state. Find an app or online meditation you can do once at your desk to help you find these moments of calm. When we feel in fight or flight mode all the time, we can make knee jerk business decisions and not work at our optimum performance which is no good for anyone.”

Looking after your mental health is now more imperative than it has ever been. Small business owners, in particular, are more at risk than any other group. Paying attention to the warning signs and then taking practical action, is the key to ensuring you and your business stay healthy.

Further information

  • The Federation of Small Businesses has a range of guides and other materials to help business owners manage their own and their employees’ mental health.

  • Mind has developed WAPs (Wellness Action Plans), which all small business owners can use to support their mental health.

  • The Leapers Working Well Calm Edition is a free downloadable guide with insights on how best to look after your mental health while running your business and coping with the Covid-19 crisis.

Last reviewed 19 June 2020