Mental Health Tips for Small Business Owners
Written by Tim Russell
Running your own business may be exciting, exhilarating and liberating. But it can also be very damaging to your mental health if you’re not looking after it. The stress of trying to make a business successful, the anxiety of being responsible for both your family and your employees. And the isolation involved in devoting a huge number of hours to starting and running a business can cause numerous mental health issues. This can lead to entrepreneurs burning out before they have a chance to succeed.
A 2019 University of San Francisco study found that entrepreneurs were twice as likely to suffer from clinical depression. And ten times more likely to have bipolar disorder; twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts or require psychiatric hospitalization; and three times more likely to engage in substance abuse. Overall, 49% of entrepreneurs were found to have at least one mental illness of some kind. With as many as 80% exhibiting personality disorders such as narcissism or impostor syndrome.
We wouldn’t try and talk you out of starting a business. But entrepreneurs need to be aware of the risks and, most importantly, learn how to deal with them. So here are our 8 mental health tips for looking after yourself whilst starting and running a small business.
Take Care of Yourself
Firstly, and most obviously for mental health tops, living as healthy a lifestyle as you can manage is the most essential way to ensure both your mind and body stay in top form. When you’re busy, things like exercise, eating properly, and getting enough sleep tend to fall by the wayside. But if you grab fast food on the go, don’t make time for exercise, and don’t get enough sleep, the effects will soon mount up and you’ll start to feel physically and mentally tired.
This is where discipline and regularity are important. Make sure you allow yourself at least half an hour for a lunch break away from your desk or office. And try to eat a healthy lunch as often as you can. Establish when the best time of day is for you to exercise – for me it’s mid-afternoon, and then take a break to work out. Even if it’s just a daily 20-minute walk around the block or the nearest park, or a few stretches on the office floor. And make sure you’re getting all the quality sleep you need by going to bed at a reasonable time. And resisting the temptation to have a last look at your phone before you drop off!
Get Your Finances in Order
In the vast majority of cases, businesses aren’t an overnight success. It may take months, years even, until your company makes enough money for you to be able to make a living from it. Remember, your salary comes last, after you’ve paid the office rent, utility bills, and employees or freelancers. So you need to make sure you can support yourself through those lean early times.
It may be that you’ve been saving for this very contingency. Perhaps you have generous and helpful family members to support you. Or maybe that your investors are happy for you to take a salary out of the money they’re putting in. Whichever it is, make sure you have as clear an idea as possible as to when your company will become profitable. And that you have enough funds to get you there. If you need help with understanding this, Booming Businesses is always here to help you plan. There are enough stresses involved in running a small business. So make sure that feeding and housing yourself and your family isn’t one of them. Nothing kills off more small businesses than the founder having to quit and go back to the day job because they’ve simply run out of money.
Use a Support Network
It’s absolutely vital that you have at least one person – ideally more – outside the business, and outside your family, who you can talk to about the problems and stresses you’re facing. It should be someone who is in a similar situation to you who can empathize with your problems. Who understands exactly what you’re going through, and can share stories and advice. It could be an experienced mentor or advisor who has been through it all and is now happy to share their knowledge and experience. Or it could be a local entrepreneur group, co-working space, or accelerator. Getting a problem off your chest always makes you feel better and makes the problem feel smaller. And doing it in a supportive environment away from the office prevents any negative vibes or rumours seeping into the business itself.
Beware, however, of networking events or groups, as they aren’t always the ideal forum for sharing problems. Most people are there to make contacts and promote their businesses, not listen to your problems. And any entrepreneur who overshares and brings some negativity into the room may not be very popular. And do you really want other, possibly rival, businesses hearing about your problems? I don’t think so.
Leave Some Free Time
When you’re running a business, especially in the formative stages, it can be hard to find any free time at all. You’re working long hours, probably weekends too, and holidays are just a distant memory. But it’s vitally important for you – and your loved ones – to take a break now and again to wind down and de-stress. You can do it daily, by scheduling a half hour or so of private time. Maybe at a local coffee shop with a book to help you get your mind off work; you can force yourself to keep the occasional weekend free; or you can delegate for a few days and take a short holiday somewhere.
You need to remember that the business won’t fall apart without you. And that going to work totally stressed and frazzled because you’ve been working non-stop for weeks on end is far more damaging to the business than disappearing for a few days. So make sure your workload is managed so that you can occasionally take a break. And that your partners or employees understand the importance of this.
It’s very important that everyone involved in the business – yourself, your partners, your employees, your investors, even your friends & family – are fully aware of what you’re trying to achieve and what success will look like. The chances are that your business won’t be another Uber or Amazon so don’t encourage people to think it will.
Be honest in your goal-setting and your projections and make sure everyone has realistic expectations of how the business will perform. Setting unnaturally high targets and continually failing to meet them is a recipe for frustration and unhappiness. Both for yourself and for others who are involved in the business, which will create additional and unnecessary pressures on you as the founder.
Handle the Highs & Lows
There are various versions of this graphic doing the rounds online, all of which point at the same truth. That running a business is a mix of euphoric highs and devastating lows, often in the space of the same day or even the same hour. It’s no wonder so many entrepreneurs have a bipolar condition.
The secret to handling this daily rollercoaster is not to get too excited by the highs nor too depressed by the lows. As Rudyard Kipling wrote in his poem If, you need to ‘meet with triumph and disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same’. So if a potential investor responds to your email with a request to meet, that’s great of course. But equally, it’s not the moment to rush off to the nearest bar and order a bottle of champagne; likewise, if that same investor later decides you’re not for them, there’s no reason to shut up shop and slope off to that same bar to drown your sorrows. It’s all part and parcel of running a business. And keeping a balanced, objective view of these daily highs and lows can help keep you sane.
Identify Warning Signs
At some point, you will inevitably feel some stress, anxiety or even depression. Your friends and family may notice changes, in which case you’ve already let things go too far. And it’s important that you’re able to identify the signs before others do. Here are a few indicators that you may be suffering from stress:
- Constant fatigue, even after a long sleep
- Sleeplessness or disturbed sleep
- Irritability, with colleagues and/or family
- Bowel problems – stress is a leading cause of IBS and other bowel conditions
- Trouble concentrating or focusing on the task in hand
- Lack of sociability and a ‘disappearance’ from your usual social circle
- Sexual dysfunction or lack of interest
- Weight gain or loss – stress can cause you to either skip meals or overeat
- Procrastination or absenteeism – taking time off sick or cancelling meetings
If you’re experiencing one or more of the above, it may be that stress is starting to show itself and it’s time to take a breather and rethink your approach. It’s easy (and all too common) for people to be in denial about mental health issues and attribute them to other causes. But the longer you ignore them the more serious they will become. Remember, these days the stigma around mental health issues is gradually disappearing. And there is a lot more support and help available. So if you spot the warning signs, get help as soon as you can.
Remember Why You’re Doing This!
Finally, when you feel things aren’t going as planned, when you’re stressed, when you’re having a bad day, or when the rollercoaster seems to be on a permanent descent, it can be helpful to remember why exactly you quit the 9-to-5 and started your own business in the first place! You may not remember why. But at some point, it seemed like a great idea and you need to get yourself back into that mindset.
It could be that you hated your previous job, or it could be that you felt unfulfilled or undervalued. It could be that you wanted a more flexible routine or working arrangement. Or it could be that you simply wanted more freedom and independence. When I went solo back in 2015 it was mainly because I’d spent three years working for an employer who made me feel devalued and unappreciated. And where I could barely even blow my nose without getting it signed off beforehand. So whenever I had bad days whilst running my own business, I simply reminded myself of how good I felt when I walked out of that company’s office for the very last time into a new and frightening – but also liberating – world of self-employment.
So when it all gets too much, simply remember why you did this in the first place. And maybe make a list of all the positives of your new working life and what you’d have to give up if you went back to working for someone else. I guarantee you’ll see things in a more positive light!
Running a business is always going to be stressful and often discouraging. That’s inevitable and there is simply no getting away from it. But by preparing yourself and those close to you, by identifying the warning signs, and by looking after yourself properly, you can ensure that you deal with the stresses and don’t let them affect your work or your personal life. Remember, a business is only as good as the person who is running it. So make sure that person is on tip top form both physically and mentally to give your business the best chance of succeeding .