Mental health & wellbeing, Workplace Health & Safety

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

Broede Carmody /

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.”

Taylor says isolation is another factor that can have negative consequences for sole operators. While other business owners might have an employee or two who they can rely on to tell them to go home when they’re not up to the job or to cover them.

“It’s very easy to have cash flow figures bouncing around in your head if you have no one to talk to,” she says. “It can start to feel overwhelmed or like you’re not doing a very good job.”

Unrealistic expectations

Many small businesses fail within the first four years of operation. Despite this, the media likes to focus on the success stories: the woman who starts her own cake-making business while juggling four kids, or the young tech whiz whose company has expanded into overseas markets.

Faulkner says when things started taking a turn for the worse she simply had to unsubscribe from every magazine and business publication for a while.

“I unsubscribed because every time I read any entrepreneur’s profile on BRW, all it did was reinforce that I was a failure because nobody was saying they were struggling with the types of realities I was struggling with,” she says. “It is mainstream media in this country that has a large hand to play in this.”

Faulkner says it’s a shame the Australian media doesn’t normalise failure for small business people more often.

“In the Australian media what we tend to do more than anything is perpetuate this myth that a successful business person is our own version of a Richard Branson,” she says. “It is very much akin to seeing Jennifer Hawkins walk down a runway. Yes she’s beautiful and she’s great and she’s lovely, but she is not the norm. She is actually the exception.”

Taylor agrees, and says we need to have a robust discussion about the culture around failing as a business owner.

“I do think stories of failure can be equally as valuable as stories of resilience,” she says. “Something that is a little bit warts and all so it is a little bit relatable.”

Taylor would like the media to focus on the fact that sometimes – even when a business owner is doing everything right – things can go wrong that are outside their control.

“I started my business at the point where I had the worst depression and didn’t have any money,” she says. “It did work but it was a very hard year. Even if you are skilled in various other ways, running a business is its own skill set and getting used to that and the lifestyle attached to it can take at least a year.”

The key thing, she says, is to not fall into the trap of thinking everything will “flow perfectly overnight”.

Talk to people

After seeking counselling, Faulkner went back to work part-time. Although she has since sold the business, she emphasises that at the time it was a huge adjustment period for her staff because they had to keep working when she wasn’t.

“There’s a lot of resources out of there that help an employee come back to work, but there’s nothing out there that says, well, if you own the company this is how you can get back to work,” she says. “There is a lot of opportunity there.”

Faulkner says this is why the Council of Small Business Australia and Beyond Blue’s Heads Up campaign is so important.

“The small business sector is spread across all various employment sectors,” she says. “We employ about four million people and contribute about 20% of GDP to the country – so we are a major player but we are never seen as a major player because we’re so diverse and that has to change.”

Unlike large corporations, small business owners are unlikely to have a human resources department or the money to develop their own tools to foster a mentally healthy workplace.

“We’re the largest group and we need it the most,” says Faulkner. “I think we need to talk about how we target and look at who is the face of business in Australia.”

Taylor says in the three years she has been running her business she has had little exposure to mental health resources for small business owners. Her advice for SME operators is to have a business mentor or develop a network of people who are going through the same thing.

“Talk to other people to get out of your own head,” she says. “When you work from home it can be very isolating and you don’t have those external points of reference.”

If you need to talk to someone about depression or anxiety, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. If you are a small business owner and have a story to tell in regards to mental health, please get in touch by emailing [email protected].

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Broede Carmody

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

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