Building a business can be stressful. Long hours and stretched finances are just two of the myriad challenges, many uncontrollable, faced by small business owners.
The burden can be especially heavy for small business owners who often have sole responsibility for success or failure. When times get tough, many turn inward, feel ashamed, and blame themselves.
Strategies to tackle mental health struggles in the workplace will vary with context, but there are a couple of things everyone can do, according to entrepreneur Leanne Faulkner. Faulkner emphasises taking time for yourself, to care for yourself, such as through regular networking, exercise and mindfulness meditation.
Be prepared to admit when you need help and someone to talk to, whether it’s a counsellor, doctor, a small business community or network. Admitting that you need help is the key, according to Faulkner, and requires the most bravery.
“The image of an entrepreneur or a small business person is that you are successful, you are resilient, you are creative and you are able to overcome anything. So to suddenly admit that you aren’t coping goes against the stereotypical image,” Faulkner, who now runs a consultancy business in the area of small business and mental health, said.
Faulkner has first-hand experience with the strain that can come from running a struggling business. After starting and selling several businesses, Faulkner created Billie Goat Soap in 2008. But after several years of rapid growth, Billie Goat ran head first into the global financial crisis. As consumers became more conservative, the business started to suffer.
“As our business slowed, which it inevitably did, because we were dependent on retailing, I was becoming increasingly unable to cope and took that really personally,” Faulkner says.
Pressures on the retail sector forced Faulkner to lay off some staff and negotiate financing with a bank. Aware of how her struggles would impact her employees, suppliers and customers, Faulkner started to spiral and eventually had to stand down from the business entirely.
“I was disconnected from everybody and everything. All I could think about was work,” says Faulkner. “I couldn’t sleep properly at night. I had a knot in my stomach. And I just didn’t want to do anything.
“I didn’t want to see friends. I didn’t even disclose to friends or family this is how I was feeling. I just stopped doing the things that I loved.”
Faulkner sought counselling and took a program aimed at entrepreneurs with mental health struggles. She returned to work, but eventually Billie Goat Soap was sold. She has since become an advocate for creating mentally healthy workplaces, and has tips for even the most time-poor entrepreneurs.
Many small business owners are sole traders, and often work from home. Instead, Faulkner encourages working out of a co-working space, where you are surrounded by like minds.
For those that are time-poor, online forums abound for entrepreneurs to support each other. And there are now plenty of apps for nutrition, meditation and networking. Perfect for those in-between moments.
“The media tends to spend more time glorifying the achievement of a number of very successful entrepreneurs rather than normalising what small business life is really like for the rest of us,” says Faulkner.
“The Richard Bransons of this world, and even the Janine Allis’s of this world are probably more the exceptions rather than the rule. And trying to be like the exception was probably a great contributor to my undoing.”
More information and resources on creating mentally healthy workplaces are available at Headsup.org.au