Stressed out: A mental health guide for business owners
NZBusiness identifies the triggers that can lead to depression and anxiety amongst business owners, demystifies the subject, and shares some expert coalface advice.
Long hours, excessive stress, uncertainty, lack of support, financial pressures – they all take their toll on the mental health of our nation’s business entrepreneurs. NZBusiness identifies the triggers, demystifies the subject, and shares some expert coalface advice.
It’s tough at the top. Owning and managing a business is also hazardous to your mental health.
But there are ways to prevent or minimise mental health issues.
It’s a fact that our mental health can deteriorate, for a number of reasons, and left unchecked can lead to mental illness or mental disorders. The most common disorders are depression and anxiety – which is the focus of much of this story. However, it’s important to remember that mental illnesses come in many forms.
Bob Weir is an ex-business executive who experienced declining mental health a number of years ago and has documented that whole experience in his book Why Businesses Fail .
“Excessive stress, a toxic work environment, poor leadership, uncertainty, long hours, a lack of sleep, and so on, saw me burn-out and then, depression and anxiety followed,” recalls Weir. “The result was that I simply could not go back to those roles and I spent the next four years managing my way back to health.
“Mental illnesses are not something you get over quickly,” he says. “The impact can be devastating and long lasting.”
Weir acknowledges that small business [ownership] can be tough because there are few support structures for owners. “They are responsible for everything. The lines between personal and family pressures and work are blurred or even non-existent,” he says. “And financial pressures are very real as it is the owner’s money [at stake], not a large company’s money.
“In saying that, many of us are drawn to small business because working for others provides its own stresses – the feeling of lost control as others make decisions one can’t influence,” he adds. “Small business offers a level of freedom and control that people thrive on.”
A decade ago, when the GFC was in full cry, it was a particularly challenging time for the mental health of business owners and entrepreneurs. Business coach Zac de Silva, who organises the annual Nurture Change Business Retreat, remembers that time well and believes it correlates to present day as well.
“As a business coach, I am seeing more mental health challenges today than post GFC,” he says.
“Arguably, with each year in business, the more competition there is – meaning you really need to be on top of your game to stand out and be financially successful. Costs of running a business are rising, often faster than the ability to increase sale prices.”
“Many [business] owners are reluctant to talk about [mental health] as they need to be perceived as having everything under control. Showing vulnerability is still not the norm.” – Zac de Silva
De Silva believes the current and anticipated softening in the New Zealand economy is likely to exacerbate the issue of mental health in business.
“Many [business] owners are reluctant to talk about it as they need to be perceived as having everything under control,” he says. “Showing vulnerability is still not the norm.”
As de Silva points out, a large proportion of business owners effectively end up in a rather stressful job. “Most employees have no real idea of the stress attached to owning a business and how challenging cashflow can be. Paying weekly wages can be very stressful. Some owners forego their own wages too often. I remember hearing a successful business speaker at Nurture Change share how they had put their fortnightly wages on their credit card as they did not want to let their staff down.”
Business owners also feel the heat and stress of knowing that their staff’s families are reliant on them. “Business owners should be hailed as heroes given the good they do for the local economy and the employee population,” says de Silva.
It’s true that business success stories are much easier to find than examples of failure, but Sarah Trotman – who managed the Bizzone Business Expos for ten years and was heavily engaged in coaching and mentoring – created a series of “Stuff Ups” videos around eight years ago.
“Six courageous business leaders shared what their darkest days in business were like, and there were some hard-hitting stories,” she recalls.
Trotman knows of payrolls being covered by owner’s credit cards too – “or worse, asking a friend to cover it on theirs!”
“When I was running the Business Mentor Program with the late Sir James Fletcher, I once had the partner of a business owner call me to say [the owner] was curled up in a ball in the office, immobilized by the complexity he faced in his failing business,” she says.
Trotman believes it’s the incredibly long hours that impacts the most on business owners’ wellbeing and their families – “something that a business mentor can assist with by helping you find ways of being more effective with your time”.
“I’ve often mentored husbands and wives who are in business together. When the house is mortgaged to the hilt and the business is costing three times as much and taking three times longer to build, that can bring a great deal of pressure to a marriage,” she says.
Worry about cashflow is a common cause of low mental health in business owners, Trotman adds. “Failure can have long lasting, devastating impacts on self-esteem as well as financial wellbeing.
“I’ve experienced business failure and it hurts. Craig Heatley, who brought Sky TV to New Zealand and was Entrepreneur of the Year, once said ‘one feels the pain of failure ten times more than the joy of success’.”
Addressing the wider issue
So what can businesses do about the wider issue of mental health and wellbeing in the workplace?
According to Bridget Jelley, owner of The Effect and a trained psychologist who runs mental wellbeing education programs for business owners, it’s imperative that you don’t do nothing.
“We need to give mental health and wellbeing the same amount of air time that we give physical health and safety,” she says. “The two go hand in hand so we must make sure that we are addressing both.”
Jelley offers a list of things a business can start doing right now at an individual and organisational level. They include:
- Know the risks to mental health and wellbeing in your business – what are the triggers?
- Talk about mental health and wellbeing – this helps to normalise it.
- Leaders in your business need to be on board; they must send the message to all staff that the business takes mental health seriously. Role model what good mental health looks like and what we do when someone needs our help
- Get some education around mental health. The reason that myths and fear exist is because of lack of awareness and knowledge. There are workshops, coaches and even online courses now which help plug this knowledge gap.
- Have the conversation with your people. Not saying anything to someone who is struggling is not the way to go. Simply asking ‘Are you OK?’ is a really good start and shows the person that you have noticed and do care.
- Sleep, nutrition, relationships and exercise all correlate with mental health, so check in on your people to see how they are going with these areas. For example, if someone tells you that they have not been sleeping for two months, that is going to take its toll and something needs to be done.
- Know who to go to. Have an accessible list of contacts that you can call on for a range of different mental health and wellbeing matters.
Jelley says it’s important to seek support from someone who has received the correct training, is a registered practitioner and has frequent supervision.
She’s noticed that business men especially tend to just ‘suck it up’ and not seek support until it’s too late.
“I understand that going to a psychologist, even a business psychologist, is not comfortable for everyone – however, there are some online resources available now. We have created one for business owners where they can get real practical advice and tools to not only assist with their own mental health but also of their team members.
“We hope that the online platform will warm them to the idea of mental health just being a normal part of running a business.”
Bob Weir says while the symptoms of mental illnesses may be similar between different people, the triggers can be very different. “It is no different to stress and, in fact, excessive stress can be a precursor to mental illness,” he says. “What triggers our stress could well be the triggers for mental illness.”
Weir sees common stressors in business. “Staff and cashflow would be the two most discussed topics that create the greatest stress for small business owners. However, everyone deals with these in different ways.”
“A critical lesson for us in pursuing good mental health is understanding our stressors, naming them, admitting they exist, and then aiming to avoid them. If they can’t be avoided we should attempt to better manage them.
“Denial that we’re struggling never ends well.”
Put yourself first
We’ve identified some of the stressors or triggers for mental illness, but as Zac de Silva points out, for business owners a major one is not being able to completely switch off due to 24/7/365 connectivity. “Where has the chill time gone?” he asks.
Business owners must admit that they’re not ‘superman’ or ‘superwoman’. “This is what Sir John Kirwan shared about mental health at Nurture Change 2017, and it resonated with so many attendees,” says de Silva. “Owners are so busy trying to keep their business running that they forget to take personal care of themselves.”
For clients suffering stress and mental health issues, de Silva recommends they talk to an expert or counsellor as opening up about the challenging, stressful things in your business and personal life can have a dramatic impact.
“Of course, being less ‘busy’ in business is likely to help your mental health too – it is not a badge of honour to not take holidays and work 60 hour weeks,” he says.
De Silva says one practical thing business owners with employees can do is reduce the reliance the business has on them. “How can you better systemise your business and share knowledge with your team?
“Growing a culture where your team really cares about your business – as if it were their own – makes a big difference.”
The best piece of advice Sarah Trotman has come across from business owners who have battled with mental health-related issues, is simply the fact that “you are not the business”.
“Learn to separate who you are, as a person, from the business.
“Don’t be too shy about sharing the challenges you face – we all have them or know someone with them. And there is so much truth in the old adage ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’.”
Sarah Trotman believes it’s common for people who’ve never owned a business to underestimate the challenges of business ownership.
“Networking with other business owners is important. As soon as one business owner is honest about the challenges they face, other business owners are more open to discussing a wide range of issues,” she says.
“My pet dislike is government officials involved in economic development or business support saying “we need to move beyond being satisfied with the three Bs. We need to be more aspirational than achieving a bach, boat and BMW”.
“Well, show me a government employee who says that and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t understand the blood, sweat and tears that’s gone into achieving that success.”
Trotman says the government encourages entrepreneurs to risk everything to set up a business that will generate wealth for the country, but where are they when that business fails?
“Smita Singh, an academic from the AUT Business School has a PhD in entrepreneurial failure, and says something like this: ‘A society that does not support it’s entrepreneurs in hard times cannot expect to reap the full rewards of entrepreneurial successes’.”
Bob Weir believes the discussion on mental health is aligned with the discussion about pursuing happiness. “We know we will have bad days where we are not at our best. Some will be more significant than others. That is simply life. Our challenge is to build up our internal mental strength – our resilience – to bounce back from the setbacks,” he says.
“Depression is where we don’t bounce back, cycle ever deeper and remain this way for extended periods of time.”
Weir says improving one’s resilience, and therefore mental health, comes down to a combination of loving and caring relationships, giving and caring for others, good exercise and diet, sleep, mindfulness (being in the moment and not worrying about the future or ruminating about the past), and feeling in control of one’s circumstances.
He says seeking help is imperative – talk to your GP or a trained psychologist or psychiatrist. Or search for useful online tools (The Effect website is a good place to start).
As for your staff’s wellbeing, there are a number of simple things you can do in relation to identifying and managing mental health. “The more you know and care about your staff the more likely you’ll be aware of deteriorating mental health,” says Weir.
He says look for changes in your staff’s behaviour – especially prolonged changes. Are they no longer enjoying things they loved? Are they withdrawing? Snapping at people when normally they don’t? Not eating? Always tired? All these are warning signs.
“These people need the business’s help but it can put huge pressure on a small business and impact other staff,” explains Weir. “The sufferer needs to work with the owner to deal with the issues, as a small business can’t cope with the damage if left unchecked or if the person refuses to seek help or manage their way back to health – something I’ve experienced with my clients and my own businesses first hand.”
The last word on resiliency goes to Zac de Silva, who believes there should be formal resiliency training for all people who go into business to help them handle the pressures.
“Owning a business requires bravery. One of the bravest things you can do as an owner is to acknowledge when your mental health is challenged.
The sooner you do something about this, the lesser the impact it will have on you, your business and those around you. I have witnessed those who let their challenges go on too long and they reach breaking point. There is help out there – take the first step sooner rather than later.”
Article by Glenn Baker, editor of NZBusiness.
The true extent of the impact that running a business has on people’s mental health and overall wellbeing was highlighted in the MYOB Business Monitor survey in February this year. Almost a third (31 percent) of the small and medium sized business owners surveyed reported experiencing a mental health condition since starting or taking over their business.
Of those who have been affected by a mental health condition, 59 percent said they experienced depression, while 41 percent said they had anxiety. And just over a quarter of those surveyed say stress from their business has a large-to-extreme impact on other aspects of their life and relationships.
 The Mental Health Foundation defines “Mental Health” as: “the capacity to feel, think, and act in ways that enhance our ability to enjoy life and deal with the challenges we face. It is a positive sense of emotional and spiritual wellbeing that respects the importance of culture, equity, social justice and personal dignity.”
 Mental disorders are a diagnosable illness and listed on the international medical register. There are 297 diagnosable conditions.