People & Human Resources

A blueprint for a happy business: Four ways to get beyond deadlines and put wellbeing first

Emma Koehn /

The stereotype of a modern entrepreneur is the go-getter; never sleeping, never stopping. They go from pitch meetings to staff meetings, to coffee, to evening presentations, not bothering to draw breath in their quest to take their venture into the realm of an Amazon or Facebook.

However, it’s well known from from both research and the anecdotes of countless company founders, that this approach can come at a cost. Multinationals spend thousands of dollars trying to stop the burnout of chief executives, while mental health groups plead with business leaders to move towards some semblance of balance in their lives.

Whatever your business goal, you know there’s more to life than hitting sales targets. But what tangible steps can you take to protect your wellbeing and that of your staff when you feel the most useful thing for productivity would be to simply stop the clock?

This week we’ve spoken to experts, business owners, bosses and trainers to discuss how to build a blueprint for a more open, happier team — no matter what’s happening in your business.

Know how to have a tough conversation

Whether it’s discussing the failure of a venture or the performance or health of a staff member, as a company founder you can’t avoid tough conversations.

You can, however, create a more productive workplace by learning how to have these conversations well, says chief executive of workplace wellbeing training provider AccessEAP, Sally Kirkright.

“The key thing is about preparing. This sounds basic, but at the end of the day, you know you need to have the conversation and listen — and then you have to follow up,” Kirkright says.

Whether the chat in question is around how a staff member has been performing, what might be affecting their work outside of the office or another tough topic, approaching communications with a plan will lead to confidence and a better outcome overall, she says.

“The preparation is about having specific, relevant examples to discuss, and thinking about how you’re going to manage your own emotions,” says Kirkright.

Often bosses can fail to protect or predict their own emotional responses when facing difficult conversations, Kirkright says. The art of raising difficult issues in the workplace has become harder as concerns about offence and potential bullying claims have come up, she says.

While honest communication at work is a learned skill, it can be honed by keeping your eye on two things: what you want out of a conversation, and the long-term benefits of having a workplace that is open and honest.

“Think about and focus on what the impacts of [a situation or behaviour] are on the work, and stick to that,” Kirkright says.

“If you’re talking about people’s emotions and behaviours, the end game might be just that. But if you’re trying to create an environment that’s more open and honest, I think it’s important you sit back first and think about what you’re trying to achieve. These conversations often get derailed.”

Be authentic, and draw boundaries

Creating a high-performing team is also about ensuring you have a diverse and inclusive workforce where everyone feels welcome.

If you’re authentic about your desire to meet these aims, other elements of staff welfare fall into place, says Patrick Guerrera, co-founder and managing director of branding agency Re.

Guerrera has made it his mission to create inclusive workplace teams; he believes building spaces in which workers from a variety of different backgrounds can feel comfortable results in better projects.

However, he says businesses can only reap the true benefits of this approach if everyone is serious about the goal.

“More and more, there’s this focus on being real and not getting caught behind corporate IP,” he says.

“I think authenticity is the turnkey.”

An authentic interest in these principles helps with with both staff welfare and finding the right people in the first place, Guerrera says, because bosses that are truly focused on the stories of their staff get the most out of them.

“The interesting thing for me is that I always hire people not in the likeness of me, but people who have an intensity and curiosity. I think there’s a hunger in people who have pushed through from different backgrounds,” he says.

Once you get a team that gels well, however, bosses have another responsibility to their workers when it comes to welfare: ensuring balance.

Because startup cultures and creative industries so often attract those that “live and breathe” their work, it’s important to make sure your teams don’t overindulge in either the work or social side of your business, Guerrera says.

“It can lead to too much drinking, so, for example, I’ve stopped all alcohol [for the team] during the week,” he says.

“You should ask, ‘this is a highly social culture, but are we actually getting the work done?’ It’s up to the leader to ask ‘are we delivering?’”

Look after yourself, it’s a learning process

Guerrera says many conversations you have as a boss “takes up your own emotions”, and it’s been a process for him to learn to talk about things like failure with his staff.

“For the first three of four years, I probably didn’t do too well,” he says.

‘There was a deep sense of failure sometimes, but I think being able to fail, and working through those failures, has actually made me more resilient. It really is a journey through different phases.”

Managing the needs and emotions of your team is one thing, but the most important thing is taking care of yourself first, says Council of Small Business Australia mental health ambassador and founder of Billie Goat Soap, Leanne Faulkner.

Faulkner believes that given the numbers, not enough is being done to protect the mental health and wellbeing of small business founders, and self-care falls by the wayside for far too many.

“Most small businesses in Australia are sole operators, over 60% in fact, so finding time for self-care can be hard, especially in the start-up phase. It’s critical to have a mentally healthy founder because then it becomes easier to support others when needed,” she says.

Faulkner says not enough is actually known about the mental health needs of small business and startup owners, because while 96% of Australian businesses are considered “small”, Australia has never tracked the needs of this group of entrepreneurs in a sustained way.

“We really don’t have substantial mental health research done annually that specifically focuses on small business owners. I think this is critical because we all need to be working to keep this sector successful and contributing to the nation’s economy,” she says.

However, thinking about taking care of your own emotional wellbeing during the earliest possible stage of starting your business can help down the line, Faulkner says.

“Small business is a roller coaster; we all go through challenging times. We just don’t discuss that enough. It’s critical to know your own mental health signals before starting business, or as the business grows,” she says.

“It always amazes me that people will write a strategic plan for their sales or finances but neglect to do one that plans for their ability to cope in the workplace.”

Don’t be afraid to get training

Developing a mental health or staff wellbeing plan for your business is not something you have to do alone, says Faulkner.

“We have some great campaigns that help with this to get the conversation happening at work like ‘RU Okay Day’ and the Lifeline Stress Down day,” she says.

Founder of Meditation Revolution, Stevie Rose, went from studying meditation to being a small business owner herself, and she says entrepreneurs need to let go of the idea that taking a few minutes of time out of the workday means they are not being productive.

“We feel guilty about stopping and sitting down,” Rose says.

“We’ll never stop thinking, because that’s our nature, and, well, business ideas come to you as a thought or a feeling. But all the thoughts we have are not always possible.”

In her work with entrepreneurs, Rose says she encourages the use of tools like meditation not just to calm overthinking and anxiety, but also to encourage better business decisions.

“You’ve got to be all things to all people, especially in small business — then you have to make decisions on the spot. If you feel good and are in a good space, you generally make a good decision. That’s where meditation comes in.”

While many entrepreneurs might not have been exposed to tools like meditation before, Rose says they shouldn’t be afraid to call in the experts to help their team learn relaxation skills.

“It’s something that’s got to be taught, and the best thing about having a teacher for these kinds of things is you can check in with someone. And generally, business people will do that … if they need the skills for something, they’ll find a course,” says Rose.

There’s another reason taking the time to learn skills like this is important: it can bring teams together in a casual way to do something other than work.

“It’s something you can do together — you can all just go and sit down and meditate together. It’s not competitive, and you don’t have to buy special clothes or do anything like modify the office,” Rose says.

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Emma Koehn

Emma Koehn is a former senior SmartCompany journalist.

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