Going it alone: Tackling the stress and loneliness of being a small business owner

Brendan Street, Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing, Nuffield Health, considers how small business owners can tackle stress and isolation to maintain their own emotional balance.

Running a small business can prove lonely at the best of times, with the stress of spinning plates and a limited pool of talent to rely on.

Even pre-pandemic, 73 percent of SME owners admitted to feeling lonely. Now, with widespread remote working and social distancing measures in place, these feelings of isolation are only exacerbated further.

However, it’s key for small business leaders to effectively manage their emotional wellbeing, as well as that of their employees.

A stress epidemic

Data shows that Covid-19 is expected to cost SMEs upwards of £126.6bn,nearly double the £69bn projected a year ago. In addition to the obvious stresses of running a business, four in five SME owners claim their mental health has been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic has yielded ongoing challenges, with employees furloughed and clients reducing budgets. The result for many SME owners has been longer hours and mounting workloads, as they look to stay afloat amid the challenges.

However, this is unlikely to result in the short-term stress response that helps individuals concentrate and perform under pressure. Instead, it is likely to lead to a chronic heightened state of stress – with seemingly no end in sight – That takes its toll on physical and mental wellbeing.

Chronic stress causes our heart rate to increase and our bodies to release stress hormones. When we remain in this state for an extended period, it can lead to physical symptoms of fatigue, headaches and nausea and mental health problems including anxiety, depression, and burnout.

Noticing the signs

Running a business remotely presents additional challenges. Employees are more likely to engage in unhealthy habits that impact wellbeing, creativity and productivity.
For example, remote staff can be more prone to overwork or check their emails into the evenings, which maintains this ‘fight or flight’ mode and leaves little time for relaxation. And without the social aspect of the office environment, other signs of distress can go unnoticed, like changes in mood, irritability or even slipping standards in appearance.

The negative effect of this unmanageable stress inevitably rolls over into performance, too, with a WHO study suggesting mental ill-health leads to $1 trillion lost globally in reduced productivity each year.

Stressed SME owners often work harder instead of smarter, exacerbating their symptoms. Fatigue then causes trouble concentrating, leading to a noticeable decline in work quality. For managers, this not only impacts their output but breeds a culture that encourages similar unhealthy habits among the team.

Taking back control

Business leaders owe it to themselves, their staff, and the business to break unhealthy habits and reduce feelings of stress and loneliness – leading by example.

Many may be reluctant to invest in wellbeing initiatives in the current climate. However, not only do wellbeing interventions prove their worth in improved productivity and talent retention but there are also plenty of cost-effective initiatives businesses can adopt. Research shows a return of investment of £5 for every £1 spent on mental health support in the workplace.

For example, educating employees on self-care can reduce financial strain, with research showing more than half of employees aged 18 40 have financial worries. Not only this, but these individuals are half as productive as those without any financial concerns.

Support may include inviting experts from self-care apps to host staff webinars on how to use their platforms. Individuals can then access these at a time to suit them and practice these techniques in the workplace.

Similarly, inviting a fitness specialist to host a seminar on exercise and nutrition equips individuals with the knowledge to make healthier lifestyle choices going forward.
One of the keys to combatting feelings of loneliness is increasing communication and collaboration. This may include simple changes like encouraging daily team video calls while away from the office.

However, this may also include more formal support. At Nuffield Health, over three-quarters of employees have completed Emotional Literacy Training, equipping them with the skills to confidently hold conversations around mental health and a common language to discuss their feelings.

Employees who have completed this training are attuned to noticing signs of distress in themselves and others and feel confident in approaching them appropriately, which is especially important in the flexible workplace, where communication is more limited.

About the author

Brendan is the Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing at Nuffield Health. He has over 25 years-experience of treating mental health problems in the NHS and private sector. He has delivered mental health treatments in various settings; hospital, community, offenders/prison and homeless hostels, employment/corporate, to adults and children suffering from a wide range of conditions (psychosis, anxiety disorders, depression, PTSD). Brendan is a BABCP Accredited Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist and Supervisor, fully qualified EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) practitioner, and NMC registered Mental Health Nurse.