Navigating Mental Health for Small Business Owners

3 min read
26 March 2024

Take outs:

  • Small business owners face unique challenges, including longer working hours and isolation, which can significantly impact their mental health.

  •  Early signs of mental health strain in small business owners include constant fatigue, emotional upheaval, and an increasing reliance on stress relief remedies.

  • It's crucial for small business owners to establish work-life boundaries, seek support when needed, and implement strategies to manage mental health proactively.

Running your own business can be a dream come true. You’re the boss, you make your own decisions and get to do something you love while making money at the same time. 

However, being your own boss also comes with its own set of worries and concerns. Because the ‘buck stops with you’, it can be difficult to separate yourself from your business. And if you don’t manage things properly, it can all quickly spiral out of control.

Let’s look at some of the unique challenges faced by small business owners, early signs of trouble and what small business owner mental health support is available.

Run your own business they said...It’ll be fun they said. 

And depending on the day, week or month you’ve had, you might laugh, roll your eyes or even cry. Because running your own business isn’t the same as working for someone else. There’s a lot of unexpected items you don’t have to deal with until, well, you have to deal with it. 

Some common challenges faced by small business owners:

Longer days – it can be hard to switch off, to work ‘standard’ hours and walk out at the end of the day. This is especially true if you’re a start-up, or facing issues from outside forces, such as a global pandemic. For those working from home who don’t have a separate space for work and living, this can further exacerbate this challenge. 

Working out of hours – just answering one more email. Just following up one more invoice. Just checking in with one more supplier. It won’t take a minute. Does any of this sound familiar? When you’re your own boss, everything can seem urgent and important, so boundaries are a must to avoid burning out. 

Worry about the next job – even without lockdowns and ongoing supply issues related to the coronavirus, many small business owners worry about the next job or project. If the pipeline isn’t looking too healthy, this alone can induce anxiety or set your stress levels to high. 

Isolation – if it’s a one-person show or you don’t have a healthy support network to rely on, owning your own business can be lonely. 

Responsible for everything – from cash flow, project management, compliance, training, chasing up invoices, lead generation, client retention or just making sure there’s enough milk (and the right sort) for everyone in the office, the list of responsibilities is never-ending.

Small business mental health matters

In December 2019, the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources commissioned research on small business owners in Australia. The aim of the report was to:

  • Inform policy to determine service needs;
  • Determine the stressors affecting small business owners, and;
  • Identify existing gaps in the provision of support for mental health and services to small business owners. 

Released in July 2020, the Small Business and Mental Health: Supporting Small Business when they are Facing Challenges report asked small business owners to rate, on a scale of 1-10, their main stressors. Not surprisingly, financial issues were of greatest concern. Small business owners worry about:

  • Accessing or securing finance
  • Receiving payments on time
  • Maintaining cash flow
  • Ongoing profitability or survival of business, and;
  • Attracting and/or retaining customers.

What about me?

Australian small business owners are a pretty resilient bunch. However, as the following table shows, 21% of small business owners interviewed rated concern for their own mental health as 7/10 or more. 

Business owners who were significantly more likely to rate their concern for their mental health higher than average were:

  • aged 18-39 years 
  • female 
  • in start-up stage and pre-profit stage 
  • established and stressed.

Business owners who were significantly more likely to rate their concern for their mental health lower than average:

  • aged 65 years or more, and;
  • male.

Trouble on the horizon

When you’re super busy working in your business, you may not notice when things start to overwhelm and your mental health begins to suffer. In fact, it may be a partner, spouse, or close friend who raises the alarm. But some of the early warning signs of possible trouble on the horizon are:

  • being constantly tired or fatigued
  • unfocused and struggling to concentrate on even simple tasks
  • unusually emotional, either upset or angry (or both)
  • turning to stress relief remedies, like alcohol, more than usual
  • unable to make decisions
  • avoiding social situations
  • the joy of running a small business just isn’t there anymore. 

Not sure how you’re feeling? Try completing this simple anxiety and depression checklist. If you need help, call your GP and take the checklist with you.

While every person and business is different, there are a few strategies that can help small business owners positively manage their mental health. Don’t ignore it – don’t