Taking care of business means taking care of yourself

When you own a small business, it is just as important to spend time working on you as it is to spend time working on your business.

The identities of small and family business owners are interwoven into their firms and the stakes are so much higher than just a job. Many people have invested a lifetime – and put their family home on the line – in building up their business, amplifying the emotional challenges.

Too often the daily quest to keep the doors open and manage the many immediate demands prevents time being spent thinking about the health, future and goals of their business. And for that matter, their own health.

That’s why it is vital that those running or managing a small business look after both their mental and financial well-being.

It all rests on me

Research published by Australia’s Treasury Department in December 2022 confirmed that many small business owners struggle with mental health challenges. One-in-five of those surveyed had been diagnosed with a mental health condition by a doctor or health professional. In some industries such as manufacturing, retail trade, accommodation and food services it was one-in-three. A key cause of stress was finding a balance between the demands of work, family and personal life.

Australian mental health organisation Beyond Blue says when faced with turbulent economic trends or changes in personal circumstances, small-business owners are particularly vulnerable given that business performance is so closely linked to their financial security, identity and sense of self-worth. And it is common for small-business owners to be working long hours, feeling isolated, worrying about cash flow and decision-making and experiencing market pressures all of which makes them susceptible to financial and mental distress.

One of the insights of the study was that small-business owners feel acute pressure to “do it all” and to keep up the appearance of being fine even when they were struggling with their mental health and well-being. They feel that others – family, business partners, employees and suppliers – depended on them. One of the respondents to the survey said openly, “It all rests with me“.

Tried and tested methods

Being able to speak to someone who understands the mental load of running a small business makes a big difference and is why the joint Australian Government-Beyond Blue initiative New Access for Small Business Owners is so important and valued.

It is free and offers six one-on-one telehealth sessions with specially trained former small-business owner “coaches” that work with empathy and knowledge to equip small-business owners with straight-forward approaches to managing stress and the feeling of being overwhelmed. We have developed good techniques for managing the stress, including:

  • Structuring your day by pro-actively scheduling time for important stuff; time-blocks for calls, follow-ups, emails, social media engagement, admin tasks; timely reminders for compliance tasks; and setting clear boundaries, including all important “breaks”/get away time.
  • Self-care through a personal wellbeing plan. Stay healthy (sleep, exercise, diet, water); set aside thinking time while walking/exercising; find ways to relax, clear the mind and unwind; lock in family time; tactics to “unplug” from the business, release and connect with family and other interests; not regularly taking the work of the business home; and set times to turn off the tech.
  • Prioritise what matters most; cut unnecessary tasks; delegate/out-source where possible; don’t be afraid to ask for help; write down what is on your mind so not everything is being processed at once; and say “no” sometimes so you do not overcommit.
  • Focus on what can be controlled; on positives like what is being achieved, things ticked off the “to do” list/milestones reached; remember the “joy” that drove the business motivation; on implementing business systems and processes to allow for short breaks and holidays; and a hobby or enjoyable ways of being involved in your community that helps you “recharge”.
  • Seek support through business groups or industry associations; build support group of peers to share and discuss daily challenges; engage with trusted advisers; ask for help for both yourself and the business; and don’t sacrifice key relationships.

Sadly, most of the small-business owners who responded to the Treasury study said they had not used any of the support services available. Some 58% of business owners said that they would not consider turning to a doctor or mental health professional for help.

Barriers to getting help cited by owners included the cost, lack of time, embarrassment and that awareness among mental health professional of the challenges in running a small business. The fear of stigma was even more pronounced among small business owners who are culturally and linguistically diverse.

Changing perceptions

One positive finding was that 37% of business owners felt more comfortable talking about their mental health since COVID-19. I can’t urge strongly enough the need for small and family business owners to take advantage of the many free support services provided by small-business experts.

Being able to speak to someone who understands the mental load of running a small business makes a big difference.

Small-business leaders are innovators, producing new ways of delighting customers and new ways of creating wealth and opportunity. They find solutions to problems. But they must also make time for themselves – to put some extra wind in their sails and not in their face.

The Hon. Bruce Billson is the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman, an independent advocate for small and family businesses. The mission of the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman is to help ensure Australia is the best place to start, grow and transform a small business and family enterprise.

Read more on the OECD work on SMEs.

Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman | + posts

Bruce Billson commenced his role as Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman (ASBFEO) in March 2021. The Ombudsman is an independent advocate for small and family businesses. Bruce brings three decades of experience, knowledge, commitment and an understanding of the issues facing small business. Bruce was a 7-term member of the Australian House of Representatives (1996-2016) and held various Ministerial portfolios including the Australian Government Cabinet Minister for Small Business from 2013-2015.  He was a founding Director of Judo Bank and has held various board appointments, including the Franchise Council of Australia, Deakin University Business School and Australian Property Institute. Bruce has also owned and operated a number of small businesses, and knows first-hand the joys and challenges this involves. The mission of the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman is to help ensure Australia is the best place to start, grow and transform a small business and family enterprise. ASBFEO understands the challenges facing small and family business and provides advice and research to improve policies, access to dispute resolution services and mental health support should the need arise.