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Running your own business can be richly rewarding. When I talk to people who have made the brave step, they give me a number of reasons for doing it – the ability to realise a dream, employ people in their local community, achieve a better work/life balance, or simply be their own boss. Despite all the positives, the reality is that it does bring challenges that can make it harder to look after your mental health or cope with poor mental health – and when poor mental health affects you, or your staff, it can be difficult to know where to turn.
I know, all too well, the impact this can have. My own father suffered from depression for many years, something which impacted his ability to run and manage the family business. In fact, it was partly due to this that I decided to leave school when I was only sixteen in order to help run the business. Although, I have no regrets about that decision - and have enjoyed a very rewarding career running my family business - it has made me very conscious of the impact poor mental health can have on small business owners, as well as employees.
Mental health is a huge challenge for society. Government, business owners, and each of us as individuals can work together to help destigmatise mental health and create an open environment where we can all talk about, and take care of, each other’s mental health.
An estimated 300,000 people lose their job each year due to a mental health problem, something no employer – most of whom rightly take great pride in their role employing people – should want.
Despite this, many employees are still reluctant to talk about mental health at work. I believe that we, as business owners, must play a critical role in talking about mental health in the workplace and lead the way in both destigmatising mental health in the workplace and acting to help our people when they are struggling. By both talking about it and addressing it, we can help promote an open environment where people feel comfortable talking about the issues that are affecting them, work out what positive changes we can make in the workplace, and make some progress to help each other.
What follows in this short guide is information to help you gain a better understanding of mental health and how it can affect you and your employees. It aims to provide you with some simple ideas and actions that you can take to help destigmatise mental health and address it in your workplace.
Alongside this practical advice, you will find a number of stories from small business owners talking about their own experiences with poor mental health and how they have tried to promote good mental health in their businesses. You will also find great links to free resources from organisations including Heads Together, Mind and Mental Health First Aid.
It is my hope that this guide will empower you to learn more about mental health, your role in challenging stigmas, and show that it’s OK to talk about mental health in your business.
It's ok to talk about mental health: a guide for small businesses
Our guide offers advice and tips on how small business owners and teh self employed can approach mental health in the workplace. It also provides further information to organisations that can provide detailed information and advice on mental health in the workplace.
Small Business Stories
Working with anxiety is extremely difficult, especially when you work for someone else. Mental health is still not talked about or understood as much as it should be and whilst smoking breaks are deemed acceptable, a 5 minute mental break is often seen as slacking (one of the many reasons I continued to smoke for so long). Eventually the stress and pressure of working for someone else got to me and I quit my position at a small publishing firm with no real back up plan, just an extremely supportive and understanding partner.
I now use a variety of techniques to help me deal with my anxiety when I do have a panic attack as even though I feel less anxiety, it is still present in my life and I don’t think it will ever truly disappear. When I feel like I am getting in a cycle where it will eventually mean a full-blown panic attack, I take some time to practice mindfulness and work on my breathing. This only takes me five to ten minutes but means I can then face the day again and continue working. I
also practice yoga, which reinforces breathing, being in the moment, and also is a means of exercise which can help with anxiety. I once had a panic attack at our opening event, which was hard to deal with.
To anyone thinking of starting their own business who suffers from anxiety, or to anyone who runs a small business and is struggling to cope with their anxiety, I would recommend visiting your doctor and asking for Cognitive
Behaviour Therapy (CBT). It is extremely helpful and gives you a sort of mental tool kit to enable yourself to see your anxiety through and continue with your day. I would also say to be kind to yourself, give yourself a five-minute break if you need it and make sure you manage your time effectively so you can do so. Running a small business with anxiety is difficult at times, but with the right tools, the right mind-set and a supportive network of people around you, it can be a joy and can (in my case) be preferable to working for someone else.
Zean Maskell, East County Classics
Having experienced the impact of external factors on my own mental health, I have become more attuned to the visible signs of the same in my team and others around me. This helps me to open up discussions before those signs develop in to a problem for the individual. We have introduced employee health care plans - costing just £13 per employee per month - that enable employees to stay healthy and to seek help where necessary.
That said, you don’t need to have experienced issues to identify them. Raise awareness of the signs amongst your teams so that they can support one another too. Publications such as those provided here are exceptionally helpful. Or why not make The Mental Health Foundation one of your nominated charities? They have a payroll deduction arrangement for staff to donate too. Combine activities such as sponsored events that help to raise money, awareness of mental health and team collaboration.
Marsha Ward, The Number Hub
As an industry, the design world can often be high-pressured and fast-paced. Client demands, tight deadlines and creative barriers can all trigger feelings of anxiety and stress. These are the times when we need to remember to talk to each other. I usually find that once I’ve talked things through with my team, wife, or best friend, I’m able to regain clarity and come up with an effective plan of action. They help so much more than they ever realise.
At United by Design, we are really keen to develop our staff in an open, honest environment and have recently pledged to do so with Sanctus. This simply means that we aspire to bring our full selves to work, where all mental health is supported, on a daily basis - allowing us to concentrate on doing truly great design work.
Over time, as I’ve become more aware of my own mental health and that of those around me, I have consciously tried to maintain a realistic, yet healthy work/life balance. Some days this is easier to achieve than others. Being a business owner naturally comes with its own challenges but I find that taking ownership of my mental wellbeing and normalising conversations around it, are definitely a step in the right direction!
Owen Turner, United by Design
I have suffered with depression and anxiety for significant periods of my adult life. Both have been incredibly debilitating and I have spent days in bed paralysed by sadness and fear. But, for the majority of the time I function at a very high level and often exceed the productivity of my peers. When I was in employment I was undergoing counselling and I didn’t feel I was treated supportively by my employer, despite the fact I had been a hard-working and loyal member of the team for seven years. So when I became an employer myself I vowed that I would approach mental health differently.
My role as an employer is to create an environment that empowers individuals to take care of each other and themselves. I like certainty so my colleagues are aware I like to be given realistic deadlines and plenty of notice if, for any reason, they cannot be met. For another colleague with depression, regular exercise is important and he needs a flexible work pattern to ensure he can walk, swim, and run when he needs to. Even with the best intentions we don’t get it right 100% of the time but the key is that we all keep talking and understand when people are starting to struggle. We all need support at different times and in different ways and we all need to be aware of that as a collective. Openness and honesty is the foundation and that means I have to lead from the front and admit when I am struggling too and be prepared to ask for help and to say sorry when I have overstepped the mark. We’re all human after all.
You never know what someone has gone through just to turn up so my mantra is to always be kind. There is no magic formula or magic wand but people who struggle with their mental health are resilient, tenacious, and often very high-performing. I also think my struggles make me more empathetic to others which definitely makes me a better business leader. Offering a little flexibility as an employer is nothing compared to what I get back in return from my team.
Sarah Windrum, Emerald Group