Business owners “running on empty” as ongoing COVID-19 uncertainty takes a toll on mental health


Olivia Waters, owner of Olivia Waters Couture. Source: supplied.

When COVID-19 came to Australia in March, nobody thought we would still be grappling with the worst of it six months later.

But, in Victoria at least, that’s what’s happening. For business owners, that means six months of sustained stress, uncertainty and anxiety. And with no end to the turmoil in sight, business owners are feeling the effects on their mental health.

If there’s one thing for certain, it’s that the world is changing. But, if the new normal means bouncing in and out of lockdown, with trading restrictions coming and going by the month, that is not going to be sustainable for business owners.

Mick Owar has been running his construction business Universal Tradesman for two years now.

While things slowed down at the beginning of the pandemic, they were starting to pick up again when Melbourne’s stage three restrictions came into effect.

When stage four hit, however, the business had to stop working on anything but emergency jobs — repairing broken windows and doors, fixing leaks, and the like.

“We can’t do much,” Owar tells SmartCompany.

“Like most, I’m starting to find it increasingly difficult to maintain any resemblance of my lifestyle,” he says.

“For somebody who doesn’t know the meaning of ‘give up’, I’m literally running on empty here.”

While Melbourne’s stage four lockdown was scheduled for six weeks, there’s no guarantee it won’t be extended. And after that, there’s no knowing when things will start to get back to normal.

Even New Zealand — which had 100 days with no new COVID-19 cases — is back in lockdown this week, Owar notes.

“I just have no idea what’s going to be happening in the future,” he says.

“We’re trying to pay everyone, and money’s not coming in … I’m a bit behind with the money that I need to take from the company,” he adds.

“There’s not much you can plan for at this point in time. Damage control is the only thing you can really look at doing.”

At a time like this, Owar says he feels pressure to put on a strong front, both for his employees and his family.

“Without sounding too old school, I think that’s the duty of the man,” he says.

“It seems to be a skill that’s lacking these days from most people … it’s kind of a missing art to be able to hold shit together.”

When asked whether that burden adds even more pressure at an already difficult time, Owar says that’s just the way it is.

“When you’re that person, it feels normal that you’ve got that pressure,” he says.

“But it can feel like I’m running on empty some days.”

“Absolutely exhausted”

Vivienne Kane and her husband Nick own a printing business, Minuteman Press Prahran, in inner-suburban Melbourne, and are currently under stage four restrictions.

While there’s an understanding of the effect the pandemic has on cafes and restaurants, Kane says the effect of COVID-19 on businesses like hers can fly under the radar.

The couple also saw business pick up as the first lockdown measures were eased.

“There was a sense that things were slowly starting to return to normal, there was a glimmer of hope,” Kane tells SmartCompany.

But that means going back into an extra-strict lockdown scenario has been all the harder.

“I just sense that people are absolutely exhausted,” she says.

While the government’s JobKeeper and grants support offer a lifeline, there’s the so-called ‘September cliff’ to worry about.

Kane says she would almost rather not qualify for JobKeeper going forward. She would prefer to be bringing enough revenue to sustain the business herself.

On the other hand, there’s a fear of only just missing out on the subsidy, leaving the business “between the devil and the deep blue sea”, she says.

“Trying to intelligently plan in a landscape where there are just variables that are completely abnormal is really, really difficult,” she adds.

“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t anxious about the future.”

Vivienne and Nick Kane, owners of Minuteman Press Prahran, in more care-free times. Source: supplied.

At the same time, Kane is also feeling the pressure of putting on a brave face. Business owners are optimists, she says. They have to be. But at the moment, that’s not easy.

“One of the reasons I’m really tired … is that there’s this constant need to maintain a level of optimism,” she says.

“With so many unknowns, that takes an awful lot of effort.”

In order to take care of their mental health, the Kanes have become much stricter about work talk at home, particularly at the weekends.

Being switched on all the time can interfere with your sleep, Kane notes. And no one makes good business decisions when they’re sleep-deprived.

“You have to make quite concrete efforts to let your brain have a rest,” she says.

Life in limbo

Olivia Waters has been running bridal brand Olivia Waters Couture for three years, and was gearing up to launch her own collection of sustainable ready-to-wear bridal gowns.

With no weddings taking place and all existing orders on hold, however, those plans are on ice.

Many of the brides Waters was working with pre-pandemic have postponed their big day, and have yet to settle on a new date. One was supposed to have family travelling from overseas for the wedding. Now, it might be a matter of years before it can go ahead.

The uncertainty makes business planning almost impossible, Waters says.

“You aren’t sure what that will look like,” she says.

“Will elopements be more common because people aren’t able to have more than, well anyone, [at their wedding] at this present moment?

“With the number of people who are losing their jobs as well, will this alter how people will get married and what we previously saw as a traditional style wedding be a thing of the past?

Will people wait just that little bit longer to get married, which will then drag out this process of getting the wedding industry back on its feet for a bit longer?”

On the other hand, this could pose an opportunity for smaller businesses, who can conceivably offer slightly cheaper services that the bigger brands. And, with a lack of international imports, Australia-made bridal brands could see a spike in popularity.

These are the questions that are spinning around Waters’ head day after day, she says.

“I look at this as an opportunity on some days and then other days I look at it as a never-ending limbo.”

small business mental health

One of Olivia Waters’ bridal gowns. Source: Trewbella Photography. Model: Angel Robertson.

Like many others, Waters has temporarily pivoted to making face masks, partly to make some income and partly to help support her fabric wholesalers who also rely on the wedding industry to survive.

But, there’s no knowing how long demand for masks will continue, she says.

And, as a creative, she’s feeling the highs and lows of COVID-19. In one particularly productive week, she created patterns for nine new gowns, she says. But, she had no customers to dress, and hasn’t seen any income from them.

“It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster mentally,” Waters says.

“Limbo is not a creative’s friend,” she adds.

“You feel like you need to be productive, but at the same time you think, ‘why?’

“You don’t know when everything will be normal again.

“Then you get these creative spikes and just want to do a photoshoot or something amazing and remember you can’t. Then it’s back to feeling ‘blah’.”

At this point, Waters has practically written off 2020 altogether.

“This year is almost like it shouldn’t count,” she says.

“One day we will all be normal again and won’t have this time to be as creative as possible. But also we shouldn’t feel guilty when we just sit and stop for a moment.”

Beyond Victoria

This ongoing uncertainty isn’t unique to Victoria, either. While the health crisis may be abating in other parts of the country, the economic outlook is as uncertain as ever.

And, the situation in Melbourne shows just how quickly the virus can spread a second time.

As New South Wales fights to contain its own smaller outbreak, Emily Townsend, co-founder of Sydney-based co-working space Workit Spaces, is trying not only to get her business back on track, but to continue growing it too.

But that doesn’t mean there’s been time to relax. Townsend recently took a week away from the co-working space, allowing herself more time to go for walks, to meditate and read, while cutting back her workload a little, and doing any work she did from home.

For a business that is so heavily reliant on leased space, the initial COVID-19 outbreak in Australia was “really scary”, Townsend tells SmartCompany.

“Your physical space is such a crucial part of your business, but you don’t actually own that physical space,” she says.

“We’ve done all the modelling we could possibly do … but no one could have foreseen a pandemic like this.”

In the short term, you can react to the environment, get creative and make quick pivots, she says, and the additional pressure can be manageable.

But, that’s been the reality for months now. Constantly being on your toes, looking for new opportunities, trying to get your head around support and stimulus packages, all while running the day-to-day operations, is becoming unsustainable.

“These are all just so many additional stresses that I found, personally, after three or four months of it, are just exhausting,” Townsend says.

“What does the future hold? Is my business doomed? Have I just been ruined by this? Those kinds of thoughts start going into your consciousness.”


Workit Spaces co-founders Emily Townsend and Talea Bader. Source: supplied.

Workit Spaces has actually done remarkably well over the past few months. A re-focus on the business’ digital assets led to a significant increase in demand.

But, while that’s certainly a welcome development, there is no room for complacency. Townsend is constantly questioning how long that demand is going to last, and wondering what could be coming around the corner at any time, she says.

“That constant uncertainty is exhausting mentally for business owners — just not knowing how the economy is going to change.”

At the same time, many of the businesses in the hub import goods from overseas. If they’re negatively affected by fluctuating exchange rates, that could cause problems for Townsend’s business too.

Her livelihood is reliant on the success of other small businesses, at a time when there is no guarantee of success for anyone.

“What is demand going to look like a year from now, or six months from now?

“Those are the questions I’m thinking about all the time.

“For me personally, from a mental health perspective, that definitely increased my anxiety levels significantly,” she adds.

Keeping the economy afloat

As the crisis continues to drag on, Kane would like to see more acknowledgement of the mental health challenges facing small business owners, who are under “a particularly intense form of stress”.

It’s not necessarily about additional funding, she says. Rather, she would like to see the government actively reaching out to entrepreneurs as a vulnerable group, to highlight the support already available.

That said, the thing that would help the most, she says, is some certainty about the JobKeeper package, and the ongoing support.

“The idea that businesses are resilient and will just trade out of this is just fanciful,” she says.

If there was a strong and concrete support package for businesses that were viable before COVID-19, to make sure they emerge viable again, that would lighten the load a little, she says.

“There’s been far too much uncertainty, and that just adds to the stress,” Kane says.

“My biggest concern is that I don’t think the government understands small business, and it’s small business that actually keeps the economy afloat, and it’s small businesses that don’t have the capacity to absorb something like this.”

If you or someone you know need to talk to someone, contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Headspace on 1800 650 890.

You can reach Beyond Blue’s COVID-19 support on 1800 512 348, or find mental health resources for small business owners here

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