Being your own boss, working on something you feel passionately about, being able to set your own hours, having some control over who you work with – there are many reasons people choose to have their own business. Yet the reality many small business owners face is far less appealing – financial stress, professional isolation, long hours and blurred boundaries between home and family life. And all of these factors can have a huge impact on your mental health. Leanne Fawkner, entrepreneur and founder of an award-winning skin care range, knows first-hand the impact a small business can have on your mental health. When her successful business struggled in the wake of the global financial crisis, she took it personally. “I was a go-getter and an entrepreneur. But as business slowed I was more and more affected,” she says. “I couldn’t separate myself from my business. It was the worst experience of my life. I could no longer go to work and was on the lounge all day crying.” Fawkner was diagnosed with depression and had to take several months off work. Fortunately, her husband was able to keep things going while Fawkner recovered. She saw a counsellor for help and took part in a workplace mental health promotion program designed for small to medium enterprise owner/managers. “The stories on the DVD in the program were so helpful. I was crying because I didn’t feel so alone.” In her view small business owners are overlooked when it comes to providing support for people in the workplace. While employees in larger organisations often have access to human resource support or employee assistance programs (EAPs), business owners and entrepreneurs are floundering on their own.
Not like big business
Associate Professor Angela Martin from the Tasmanian School of Business and Economics University of Tasmania has undertaken research into mental health in small business owners. She agrees with Fawkner that small business owners are not well supported if they start to have mental health issues. “Small business owners need access to support but the current workplace mental health programs are missing all of these people,” she says. There’s a growing awareness of providing mentally healthy workplaces in larger businesses, but Martin says these measures often don’t work in smaller settings. “These same models don’t work in small business as they do in a larger organisation. They don’t translate to a single person.” Martin’s research has been used to develop the program Fawkner took part in, which helps small and medium business owners recognise the signs and symptoms of mental health issues in themselves and their employees. But she admits there’s very little data on the topic. “There is no big systematically collected data, so we don’t know how many people are affected and what impact it is having on small and medium business,” Martin says.Another issue is that while small businesses are often referred to as a single entity, in reality they are a diverse group, ranging from building contractors to health professionals, artists, retailers and online retailers. “A solution needs to have strategies tailored for different needs and settings.” There are also time and cost constraints faced by small business owners in participating in mental health promotion programs. Judy Swan is a Special Counsel at KWS Legal and specialises in employment, family and business law. She says compliance obligations, particularly for those businesses with employees, already pose an enormous stress to business owners. “The Fair Work Act has 800 sections. It’s very daunting and you need to know it backwards and forwards. There is a real need to provide services to assist people to manage their liabilities and burdens. Small business owners are gutsy people who need more support than they are getting,” she says. In her experience, the number of small business owners in distress is high. “People are borrowing against their homes which can cause marital issues. Many marriages break down when husbands and wives work together in the same business.”
Why are small business owners stressed?
Martin says there are a number of unique risk factors for mental illness faced by small business owners. These include:
- financial stress due to unpredictable income
- high levels of uncertainty where you don’t know where the next job is coming from
- high job demands and multiple responsibilities in the workplace
- isolation and lack of social support
- high level responsibility to others including employees and family
- presenteeism where you continue to work even if you aren’t well, because if you are away the business doesn’t happen
- long hours which may be even a bigger problem than in the corporate world
- blurring of boundaries between home and work, finding it difficult to separate yourself from your work and not taking time out for yourself
- business failure, which also carries a suicide risk.
These types of factors can result in job stress or strain, which pose a high risk factor for the development of depression. And depression hits small business owners further, especially if they’re unable to work and lose their source of income.
Making small business work for mental health
Small business can also be challenging for those with pre-existing mental health conditions. Rebekah Lambert has generalised anxiety disorder and has learned to run her freelancing business around her condition. “I need to make sure I have time in the sunshine, eat properly. I had to reframe my thinking and approach to things. I had to get the freelancing life to work for me not against me.” She has learned simple things like saying no, remembering to leave time for relaxation, how to stand up for herself and practising being kind to herself and others. Lambert says community and peer support is important for business owners. In response to the loneliness she experienced with freelancing, Lambert started The Freelance Jungle. This is a freelance community focused on helping people manage their stress, rather than focusing on their business per se. “I found a lot of people are having a hard time. I saw a lot of them spending money to be a business person, but not on getting proper support. “Everyone is flying by the seat of their pants, desperate for information, and yet feeling fairly vulnerable for the most part.”
Helping business owners
Martin agrees business owners need better access to support, and it’s even more important because business owners with poor mental health can affect the mental health of their employees. She says potential small business solutions may include:
- seeking out opportunities for peer support through business associations and networks
- mentoring with people who can provide emotional as well practical support
- a business support telephone line
She notes access to websites and apps are an important part of the solution and may be helpful for many people. “But they can’t replace human contact,” she says. With a lack of formal programs, it’s important business owners learn to look after themselves. Beyondblue says there a number of things business owners can do.
Tips for managing stress include:
- making time for enjoyable activities.
- looking after yourself, getting enough physical activity, sleep and eating a healthy diet.
- learning some relaxation techniques, such as simple breathing exercises.
- building friendships and work relationships.
- looking for creative or practical solutions to problems.
- trying to accept the things you can’t change or control, so you can focus on changing the things you can control.
- changing the way you think about things causing you stress can change the way you feel about it, and the way you respond. Cognitive behaviour therapy approaches can help with this.
Tips for a healthy work-life balance include:
- taking regular breaks. Setting an alarm is one way you can use to remind you to have a break.
- taking a lunch break – don’t just keep on working.
- scheduling holiday breaks through the year.
- learning how to say no and outsource tasks. You don’t have to do everything yourself.
- having set times when your phone and email are turned off
Mental health crises don’t always happen during office hours. But if you find yourself having to help someone there are people who can help – at any time. National crisis and counselling contacts available 24/7:
- Ambulance/police/fire – 000
- Lifeline – 13 1114
- Kids Help Line – 1800 55 1800 – Provides counselling and support for young people aged 5-25.
- Men’s Line Australia – 1300 78 99 78 – Provides counselling and support services for men – especially those involved in the breakdown of relationships.
- Suicide Call Back service – 1300 659 467 – Provides free nationwide professional telephone or online counseling.
This article first appeared ABC, 5 March 2015.