Small business owners: It’s time to talk about mental health

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Mental health costs Australian businesses an estimated $10.9 billion annually. According to research by Beyond Blue, one in five Australian workers has taken time off work in the past year due to feeling mentally unwell.

But the cost isn’t just an economic one. As the saying goes, businesses are people. And while there is a lot of progress happening in the mental health sector thanks to organisations such as Beyond Blue, small business owners can often be left out of the equation.

Managing people or dealing with the overarching stress of cash flow problems can be the catalyst for mental health issues and exacerbate any underlying conditions. This is the unpleasant side to owning a business, the side that needs to be talked about.

Finding it hard to separate yourself from the business

Leanne Faulkner founded Billie Goat Soap in 2004 because she wanted soap that could be used by people with sensitive skin. She sold her first batches through her local health food shop. In the next few years, Billie Goat Soap was being sold in around 2000 stores all over the country – including major department stores like Myer and David Jones. However, with the economic downturn in 2011, Faulkner says business slowed significantly.

“That was a big shock to the system for me because we had such great success in every other consecutive year,” she tells SmartCompany. “When my business was slowing and I felt like I had tried everything I could to pick it back up again and it didn’t seem to work… I didn’t cope very well with that.”

In March 2011 Faulkner stopped going to work. She was subsequently diagnosed with situational depression which had been triggered by her business.

“I physically couldn’t go into the office anymore,” she says. “I was lucky in that when I could no longer work John [her husband] and I virtually swapped roles, so John went into work and I stayed home.”

However, looking back, Leanne says there were a lot of “downhill things” that had happened before she recognised she needed help.

The warning signs

When business started to slow down, Faulkner found herself driving to work in tears. She would have to compose herself in her car and reapply make-up before walking into work. Once there, she would put on a smile and pretend everything was fine.

But Faulkner says everything was far from fine.

“I had disengaged from any social activities I would normally do outside of work,” she says. “I pretty much became obsessed with Billie Goat 24-7.”

Faulkner stopped going for walks, couldn’t sleep at night and had pains in her chest. Looking back, she says these are things small business owners should look out for if they are undergoing stress and anxiety due to their business.

Another small business owner who has come to understand the warning signs is Alex Taylor. Taylor has run a resume writing business for just over three years and is a sole operator.

“I have mental health issues that pre-exist my business, but I would certainly say it’s a bit of a struggle to say the least as a business owner to be dealing with things like anxiety and depression,” she told SmartCompany.

While Taylor says being a sole operator has its perks – such as being able to choose what hours you work – there are also downsides. A major issue is cash flow, something all business owners lose sleep over but one which is particularly stressful for sole operators. If a sole operator becomes sick then there is no one else to pick up the pieces and make sure money is coming in. Taylor says she has experienced this firsthand.

“Cash flow is down to you,” she says. “So if you’re not performing well it can be that you are worried about a whole business collapsing – as opposed to talking to your boss and saying you’re having a rough week and finding some leeway.”

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Broede Carmody is SmartCompany's senior reporter. Previously, he was a co-editor of RMIT University's student magazine Catalyst.

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