Many entrepreneurs are struggling with the psychological impact of navigating their businesses through the pandemic, according to a survey commissioned by accounting software company Xero. The emotional fallout is actually more difficult to manage than the more prosaic but necessary task of getting their businesses back on solid financial footing. The question is, how can they best help themselves?
According to surveys by the opinion research institute Opinium and the Center for Economic and Business Research, 92 percent of small business owners have had mental health problems in the last two years. Perhaps even more worryingly, 40 say overcoming their mental health issues will likely take longer than financial recovery.
The psychological well-being of entrepreneurs is something of an ongoing topic. Even in the best of times, small business founders are faced with making difficult decisions — affecting not only themselves but their employees — often with very little practical or moral support. This takes its toll and depression and anxiety are not uncommon.
An emotional toll
But the pandemic got things going. Decisions on whether to cut staff, close down altogether, or just carry on as usual were made against a backdrop of rising death tolls, restrictions on movement and reunion, and an all-pervasive fear. By any standards, entrepreneurs worked in extreme conditions. It is hardly surprising that quite a few are still processing the emotional consequences.
Push too hard
As the report highlights, one of the biggest problems founders have faced has been the relentless pressure — whether self-imposed or not — to battle their way through the pandemic. The majority did not take sick leave, and even when it became apparent that their mental health was suffering, only 21 percent took time off. Not only did this lead to short-term burnout, but also potential long-term mental health problems.
It is now questionable whether the pandemic is really over. What is less up for debate is that businesses are facing a whole new set of problems, ranging from inflation and staff shortages to disrupted supply lines.
So if the problems don’t go away, what’s the best way to deal with them?
The lessons of burnout
Jessica Rose was there, saw it and bought the t-shirt. As the founder of Jewelers Academy, she runs an online business offering jewelry making classes. She also ran a sports school in the London borough of Hatton Garden until the pandemic struck.
Unsurprisingly, the future of physical business was immediately called into question. “At first we didn’t know if it had to close. It was very difficult,” she says. “There were a lot of frustrated people (the students) and the staff didn’t know if their jobs were safe.”
A decision was made to close the school and move the tutoring jobs to the online academy. “Once I made the decision, things got better,” adds Rose.
lessons from the past
It could have been overwhelming. That wasn’t the case was largely because Rose had previously suffered a burnout when the pressure to build a business became too great.
“I’ve had a year without my business where I didn’t eat properly, exercise properly, or sleep properly,” she says.
As she remembers, the pressure was very high. The sports school was in Hatton Gardens, an area with high rental prices. “So there was always pressure to get enough bookings.”
Then there was the fact that this was what Rose describes as a “passion shop,” not only for herself but for the staff as well. The temptation to work too hard was always there.
learn to stop
Simply put, like many people running small businesses, Rose was burned out. The question is how to get there.
In Rose’s case, the answer was simple. You have to allow yourself to stop. Take a break from work. Take a break from constantly answering the phone. Restrict email. “You have to do everything in your power to quit,” she says. “Remember, if you don’t reply to an email, it’s not the end of the world.
Additionally, Rose worked to ensure she was getting enough exercise, eating healthily, and engaging in practices like meditation.
Taking a break will go against the grain of many entrepreneurs and – depending on the support in the company – will be difficult to delegate. This is especially true for very small companies. But Rose’s experience shows it’s worth taking a step back. The alternative could be that burnout symptoms persist and develop into even more serious mental health problems.
A different perspective
Rose thinks the burnout experience gave her perspective that helped her deal with what were arguably even more difficult issues the pandemic posed when they emerged.
Part of that was the understanding that even the most intense periods of hard work pass. After that you can take a break. Likewise, Rose believes that the ambition to grow a business doesn’t have to be all-consuming. There should be time for outdoor life and vacations. Importantly, she also encourages employees to take time off and avoid burnout issues.
All this does not necessarily make difficult decisions easier. But you might be able to step back and see a bigger picture. During the pandemic, for example, physical school staff have been offered jobs in the virtual store. In that regard, Rose says she tried to take care of her team. But, she says, it’s important to realize that you can’t be responsible for other people’s lives.
One impact of the pandemic is that companies are more aware of and investing in the well-being of their employees. According to the Xero poll, this is a win/win as it correlates with improved performance. Investing in wellbeing may not translate directly into the bottom line, but it can pay off later.