According to a survey commissioned by accountancy software company, Xero, many entrepreneurs are struggling with the psychological impact of navigating their businesses through the pandemic. Indeed, the emotional fallout is proving harder to deal with than the rather more prosaic but necessary task of getting their companies back on a sound financial footing. The question is, how can they best help themselves?
Conducted by polling organization Opinium and the Centre for Economic and Business Research, 92 percent of small business owners have experienced mental health problems over the past two years. Perhaps more worryingly, 40 say that dealing with their psychological problems is likely to take longer than financial recovery.
The psychological well-being of entrepreneurs is something of a perennial topic. Even at the best of times, the founders of small companies must make difficult decisions – affecting not just themselves but employees – often with very little in the way of practical or moral support. This takes its toll and depression and anxiety are not uncommon.
An Emotional Toll
But the pandemic kicked things up a gear. Decisions on whether to cut staff, close down altogether or simply carry on as normal were being made against a backdrop of rising death tolls, restrictions on movement and association and an all-pervading anxiety. By any standards, entrepreneurs were operating in extreme conditions. It’s hardly surprising that quite a few are still processing the emotional fallout.
Pushing Too Hard
As the report points out, one of the biggest problems facing founders was the relentless pressure – self-imposed or otherwise – of managing their way through the pandemic. The majority didn’t take any sick time and even when it became apparent their mental health was suffering, only 21 percent took any leave. That led not only to burnout in the short term but potential long-term mental health problems as well.
Now it’s debatable whether the pandemic is really over. What’s less up for discussion is that businesses face a whole new set of problems ranging from inflation and staff shortages to disrupted supply lines.
So if the problems aren’t going away, what is the best way to deal with them?
The Lessons of Burnout
Jessica Rose has been there, seen it and bought the t-shirt. As founder of the Jewellers Academy, she runs an online business that provides tuition in jewellery making. Up until the pandemic struck, she was also running a physical school in London’s Hatton Garden district.
Not surprisingly, the future of the physical business was immediately in doubt. “ Initially, we didn’t know whether it would have to close. It was very difficult,” she says. “There were a lot of frustrated people to deal with (the students) and the staff didn’t know if their jobs were secure.”
A decision was made to close the school, with tuition jobs moving across to the online academy. “Once I’d made the decision, things got better,” Rose adds.
Lessons From The Past
It could have been overwhelming. The fact that it wasn’t was largely down to the fact that Rose had previously fallen victim to burnout when the pressure of growing a company had became too much.
“I had a year out of my business when I wasn’t eating properly, exercising properly or sleeping properly,” she says.
As she recalls, the pressures were very great. The physical school was located in Hatton Gardens, a high rent area. “So there was always the pressure of getting enough bookings.”
Then there was the fact that this was what Rose describes as a “passion” business, not just for herself but also for the staff. The temptation to work too hard was always present.
Learning To Stop
Put simply, like many people running small businesses, Rose was burnt out. The question is how do you get past.
In Rose’s case, the answer was simple. You have to allow yourself to stop. Take time off work. Have a break from constantly answering the phone. Limit email. “You have to do everything in your power to stop,” she says. “Remind yourself that the world won’t come to an end if you don’t answer an email.
In addition, Rose worked on ensuring she got enough exercise, ate healthy food and engaged in practices such as meditation.
Taking time out will go against the grain for many business owners and – depending on how much support there is within the company – it may be difficult to delegate. This is particularly true of very small businesses. But Rose’s experience suggests that if you can step back, it’s worth doing. The alternative may be that the symptoms of burnout persist and evolve into even more serious mental health problems.
A Different Perspective
Rose feels the burnout experience provided her with a perspective that helped her cope with the arguably even tougher problems thrown up by the pandemic when they arose.
Part of that was understanding that even the most periods of intense hard work pass. Afterwards, you can take a break. Equally Rose feels the ambition to grow a company doesn’t have to be all-consuming. There should be time for outside life and holidays. Importantly, she also encourages employees to take time off and avoid the problems of burnout.
All of which doesn’t necessarily make hard decisions any easier. But you can perhaps step back and see a bigger picture. For instance, during the pandemic, physical school staff were offered jobs in the virtual business. In that respect, Rose says she tried to look after her team. But, she says, it is important to realize that you can’t be responsible for other people’s lives.
One effect of the pandemic is that firms are more aware of and investing in employee wellbeing. This, according to the Xero survey is a win/win as there is a correlation with improved performance. Investment in well-being may not go straight to the bottom line, but it can dividends further down the line.