How you can support the mental wellbeing of small business owners

Working long hours, cash flow issues, social isolation and balancing work and domestic responsibilities are some of the unique challenges small business owners face.

Not surprisingly, these factors can affect a business owner’s mental health and wellbeing.

While running a small business can be hugely rewarding, a 2018 University of Melbourne report commissioned by Beyond Blue found almost one third of small business owners report having high levels of psychological distress.

The good news is that with support, people who experience mental health conditions can recover or effectively manage symptoms enabling them to live contributing lives.

That’s because mental health is not a fixed or static state.

It exists on what experts call a continuum, where positive mental health is at one end, through to severe symptoms of mental health conditions at the other.

Think of it as a set of traffic lights.

The mental health continuum represented by a green arrow pointing left and transitioning through orange to a red arrow pointing right. Text under the green side reads, 'Positive, healthy functioning' and text under the red side reads, 'Severe impact on everyday functioning'.

If you’re in the green, you’re feeling good and functioning well. You are physically and socially active and sleeping well.

Stress and other factors can lead to us into the orange, where we might be irritable, forgetful, anxious and nervous.

If we end up in the red, we may have angry outbursts, constant fatigue, experience extreme anxiety and panic attacks, and possibly experience suicidal thoughts.

It goes without saying that it is important to stay in the green whenever possible, and if we feel ourselves sliding towards the orange or red, that we know how to recognise the signs and how to take appropriate action.

The signs of poor mental health and wellbeing

The signs of poor mental health can manifest in many ways which can often make it difficult to identify if support is needed, either for ourselves or for others.

A person who runs a business may not be meeting deadlines, may be less engaged in meetings or their work standards may be lower than usual.

At the more serious end, a small business owner may find it difficult to control their behaviour at work, be absent from work, or have withdrawn from colleagues, customers and clients.

Sometimes the first person to notice these changes may not be someone in the business at all, but someone who supports or advises the small business owner – the accountant, the book keeper, the small business mentor, a family member or friend.

Whether you have a working relationship with someone, are a friend or family member, there are ways you can help the people around you that may be experiencing mental health concerns.

Providing immediate support

If you are concerned that someone you know is in urgent need of support or may be at immediate risk, there are many organisations ready to assist.

You can contact Beyond Blue 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on 1300 22 4636 or via webchat and email. Mental health professionals can provide information, advice and brief counselling and point people in the right direction so they can seek further support.

A range of other organisations can also provide advice and support. These include:

If you think others are in immediate danger

If they disclose that they are feeling suicidal and the situation is urgent, do not leave the person alone unless you are concerned for your own safety. Call their doctor or a mental health crisis service above and say that the person’s life is at risk. You could go together to the local hospital emergency department for assessment if the person agrees. If you are in an emergency, or at immediate risk of harm to yourself or others, please contact emergency services on 000 (triple zero).

Speaking with someone you’re concerned about

Broaching the subject of mental health with a colleague, friend or family member can be daunting but a little planning can help make it easier. Just remember, you’re not expected to be a psychologist. Rather, use your connection to the person to help them find a way forward if they need assistance.

So how do you go about it?

Planning the conversation

  • Consider whether you are the best person to chat to them or if another person would be more suitable
  • Investigate what support services are available
  • Find a private place to talk where the person will feel comfortable.

How to start

  • There’s no one right way of expressing things – the main thing is to be thoughtful and genuine.
  • Say what feels comfortable for you: “You don’t seem your usual self. Is everything OK?”
  • You don’t need to have all the answers – it’s mainly about having the conversation and the support you offer by talking.
  • Be empathetic and positive. Don’t be dismissive of their situation and say things like, “But you’ve got so much going for you”.
  • If what you say doesn’t sound quite right, stop and try again.
  • Use a common-sense approach.

Listen carefully

  • Be conscious of the emotional territory you are entering.
  • It is their story. Hear them out and ask questions.
  • Be aware of your body language. Show you’re listening, maintain eye contact and sit ina relaxed position.
  • Repeat back your understanding of what they’ve said.

You can’t fix things then and there, but you can offer support to take the steps they need. You might initially just listen and show support talk about it again another time reassure them that you’ll respect their privacy think about what they need now and ask how you can help.

Next steps

  • Discuss options for further support.
  • Plan next steps. That might include catching up again, mutually deciding to see their GP, calling a helpline or accessing community services.
  • Express that you appreciate they opened up to you.
  • Check in with them every now and then, and ensure they’re progressing with the plan.
  • Showing continued interest is important.

Things you might not expect

  • If they don’t want to speak about it, respect their choice, but leave the door open for a future conversation.
  • You may need to try a few times to have the conversation.
  • Just by showing support you can make a difference. The person might take action later or continue the conversation with others.
  • If they disclose that they are feeling suicidal and the situation is urgent, do not leave the person alone, unless you are concerned for your own safety. Call their doctor or a mental health crisis service.

A free guide for small business advisers

The role of small business advisers is about more than just providing guidance on debts, accounts and assets — it’s about people.

Now, more than ever, mental health support is an essential tool in the kit bag of those who advise and support small business owners.

And while you are not expected to become a counsellor or clinician, advisers have told Beyond Blue they want to play a support role that goes beyond business advice.

The Supporting small business owners to improve their mental health and wellbeing at work guide equips small business advisers such as accountants, bookkeepers, business advisers, tax agents, industry associations and representative bodies, as well as family members and friends, with practical information they can share with small business owners.

The guide allows these advisers, who often see first-hand how stress can affect small business owners, to provide support without needing to be a trained counsellor or clinician.

It includes practical tips on:

  • Providing immediate support to a small business owner
  • Recognising signs of poor mental health
  • Speaking with someone you’re concerned about
  • And how small business owners can improve their situation

It also provides links to resources such as personal and workplace wellbeing plans, actions that small business owners can take themselves, and information on how advisers can look after their own mental health.

The Supporting small business owners to improve their mental health and wellbeing at work guide is available on the Heads Up website.