Why mental health matters for business owners

It is common to hear about businesses implementing mentally healthier workplaces, but what can owners do to make sure their personal mental health is just as well looked after?

Previously, My Business has looked at business owners making sure to consider mental health issues in the workplace for employees. Yet the overall health and wellbeing of the business owner themselves can have a big impact on the success of the business and its entire workforce.

Mental health

Small business owners are some of the most important workers in Australia, says Patrice O’Brien, head of workplace engagement at beyondblue.

“About 60 per cent of [small businesses] are sole operators, so you’ve got lots and lots of people that are actually working on their own,” she says.

While it may be obvious, small businesses consist of few people, and as such can foster feelings of isolation.

A businesswoman looks stressed at a collection of receipts and credit cards“[One] of the challenges that we know small business owners [face] can be a sense of isolation if they are a sole operator, or even if they’re not, even if they’re in a microbusiness,” Patrice explains.

“We have to be ever-mindful that for some people, that might be within their van or in their home office or whatever it might be, on their own.”

Another issue that small business owners can face is a skewed work/ life balance.

“Often, small business owners are so focused on keeping the business running so that they can pay themselves and pay their staff, that it’s really hard for them to have that opportunity to break away from the business, and the boundaries between their business and their leisure time and non-work can become really blurred,” she says.

Patrice sees family-run businesses facing big challenges. For example, if an employee has a bad day at work, they can vent at home to their family, but when family is part of the business it makes things more difficult for both the individual and the family.

The dynamics can be similar for small businesses that aren’t made up of blood relations.

“Often small businesses have really small teams who work really closely together, and it becomes like family,” says Patrice.

“If the business is going downhill and decisions have to be made about possibly letting someone go, then it becomes a lot more difficult, because it’s like making that decision with a family member.”

What can you do?

“Some of the worst [scenarios beyondblue sees] are from small business owners themselves not seeking help. Often the coping strategies we see are people throwing themselves into work even more, and the problems can really spiral out of control,” says Patrice.

“It’s also really difficult when you talk about small business owners’ own mental health and you think about them needing to disclose about their own mental health … who do they disclose to; where do they go?”

According to Patrice, the best places small business owners can go to for help are their networks.

“[Small business owners] are asking, ‘When we’re working in an isolated way, what sort of things can we do to look after ourselves?’. We’re really encouraging small business owners to consider what kind of network they have around them, so that if they are finding that they are struggling, they already have networks set up and people they can turn to and talk to.”

Patrice also suggests that “the more that [small business owners] are coping well, the more they can create a good environment for their staff”.

Managing stress

Of course, poor mental health is an illness like any other. But you don’t need to be mentally ill to feel the adverse effects of stress, isolation and burnout.

It is a lesson Stuart Taylor, founder of The Resilience Institute in Australia, knows all too well.

A businessman relaxing on a loungeHaving survived brain cancer 14 years ago, Stuart abandoned corporate life to teach others about managing stress and maintaining a healthy body and mind – a state of being he likes to call ‘resilience’.

As defined by The Resilience Institute, resilience is “the ability to bounce, have courage, be creative and make connections”.

“Our approach to resilience ... it’s beyond ‘bounce back’; we see it very much also about bouncing forward. So it’s not actually a coping construct, but resilience is actually about how you thrive, and you do that with courage and connection with others and creativity,” says Stuart.

There is also a spiritual element to resilience, which he suggests can help when dealing with stress.

“We talk about this ideal of how do you master stress; how do you energise your body; how do you work with your emotions in a better way; how do you optimise your thinking; how do you work with your spirit? ... When you are playing in all of those areas, you come out of it with a much better outcome.”

Stuart took away three key lessons about resilience from his experience of dealing with cancer while working in a corporate environment:

  • Be clear on your purpose;
  • Understand where stress comes from;
  • Making investing in yourself a top priority.

Resilience in practice

This notion of resilience has been proven to be beneficial to the owners of both large and small businesses.

“The most common question is … ‘Is there any evidence behind the practices around working with meditation, for example, or having more realistic optimistic thinking; what will that actually do, or is it just a really nice thing to do?’,” Stuart says.

“The evidence now is just so substantial, at the physical and physiology level, as well as at the neuroscience level, that supports these practices.”

The other question Stuart is often asked is whether resilience is something people are born with, or something that can be picked up.

“There’s been a lot of research done on this and the prevailing view is convincingly that while we are born with greater or lesser resilience, most of our resilience is developed through our lives and it’s a learned behaviour,” he says.

Stuart suggests that meditation is a good starting point for anyone attempting to become more resilient.

“I believe an ideal way to learn to meditate is a face-to-face environment, or in a class. It is certainly one way to build self-sufficiency, which is how I learnt to meditate,” he says.

“But there are so many fantastic apps now that you can use that can allow access to the practice, with some focus on the individual – I can build that into my physical practice and find that even if I only did five minutes a day, it would be a starting point for going down that journey.”

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