The men­tal health costs of run­ning a small busi­ness

En­trepreneurs open up to Matthew Caines about how work af­fects their men­tal health

The Sunday Telegraph - Money & Business - - Front page -

Guy Tol­hurst re­alised his men­tal health was in a bad state when the only way he could get up in the morn­ing was if a friend phoned to coach him out of bed. “It wasn’t ev­ery day, but I would of­ten wake up early, my mind rac­ing,” he says. “My thoughts be­came all­con­sum­ing and it felt like the weight of the world was on my shoul­ders.”

A con­sid­er­ate neigh­bour, who knew how much the en­tre­pre­neur was strug­gling, would also bang on his front door to make sure he was on time for morn­ing meet­ings. “When you’re sur­rounded by your thoughts, it’s so hard to clear them,” says Tol­hurst, who is the founder of fi­nance train­ing com­pany In­tel­li­gent Part­ner­ship and in­vest­ment ad­vice web­site MICAP.

His ex­pe­ri­ence is not unique among small busi­ness own­ers. One in three has per­son­ally suf­fered from anx­i­ety or de­pres­sion in the past five years, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent sur­vey of 1,000 SME bosses by the bank Al­der­more. An­other study from ac­coun­tancy soft­ware firm Freeagent dis­cov­ered that 73pc have had their men­tal health put un­der strain by run­ning their own ven­ture.

Un­for­tu­nately for Bri­tain’s 5.7m small and medium-sized en­ter­prises, it comes with the ter­ri­tory. There’s the height­ened threat of fail­ure, for one, be­cause with lean teams and lim­ited fi­nances, smaller com­pa­nies are more ex­posed to a late pay­ment or the loss of a key client.

Long hours are also com­mon­place, with founders hav­ing to make up for a lack of staff and ex­per­tise by over­see­ing most (if not all) el­e­ments of their op­er­a­tion.

“Many SME own­ers tell us that it’s hard to make enough time for their lives out­side of work and they of­ten lose sleep due to stress over things such as fi­nance,” ex­plains Emma Mamo from the men­tal heath char­ity Mind.

The char­ity says stress, low mood, de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety are com­mon men­tal health prob­lems among busi­ness pro­fes­sion­als. “You’re in work mode 24/7, with only snatches of sleep in be­tween,” states Tol­hurst. The pres­sures of run­ning sev­eral com­pa­nies came to a head ear­lier this year, when a dif­fi­cult email re­sulted in a “full-blown panic at­tack in plain sight” at an in­dus­try event. Un­able to see or hear, he had to guide his way to a fire exit to re­cover.

“It’s a re­lent­less and in­tense work sched­ule with sim­ply no let-up,” he says.

It’s not just a fear of fail­ure that can cause stress; suc­cess can also have ad­verse ef­fects, says Michelle Mor­gan, founder of mar­ket­ing agency Liv­ity and py­jama brand Pjoys.

“Scal­ing and grow­ing is so ex­cit­ing and al­lur­ing, and you get sucked into push­ing your­self harder and harder,” she says. The en­tre­pre­neur found her­self “work­ing around the clock” to cap­i­talise on her gains, but she ended up men­tally and phys­i­cally burnt out. “I had to take time off and out; I couldn’t go on any more.”

Ex­pe­ri­ences like theirs have be­come so com­mon­place that Matt Han­cock, the Health Sec­re­tary, has de­scribed men­tal health as “the defin­ing chal­lenge of our age” at the first global sum­mit on the is­sue this week.

On Wed­nes­day, World Men­tal Health Day, Theresa May, the Prime Min­is­ter, an­nounced the ap­point­ment of Jackie Doyle-price as min­is­ter for sui­cide pre­ven­tion and pledged £1.8m to the Sa­mar­i­tans so the char­ity can con­tinue to of­fer its helpline for free for the next four years. The im­pact of men­tal health on per­sonal lives can be dev­as­tat­ing, with 5,800 sui­cides in the UK last year, but there are big im­pli­ca­tions for busi­ness too. One in ev­ery 10 school­child­ren (the founders and SME em­ploy­ees of to­mor­row) has a di­ag­nos­able men­tal ill­ness. Last year’s Thriv­ing at Work re­view, com­mis­sioned by the Prime Min­is­ter, found poor men­tal health costs the UK econ­omy up to £99bn ev­ery year.

Bri­tain “can ill-af­ford the pro­duc­tiv­ity cost”, it sum­marised, cit­ing pre­sen­teeism – in which ill peo­ple show up to work and do jobs more slowly and to a lesser qual­ity – as a key driver.

But SME own­ers don’t just feel the ef­fects of poor men­tal health at the of­fice; it can also lead to is­sues at home. Stu Con­roy, for ex­am­ple, be­came “ex­hausted and drained” by the chal­lenges of run­ning his ecom­merce busi­ness Ac­tiv8 Distri­bu­tion. “Af­ter work­ing 16 hours a day, I liked to have a drink, un­til it be­came more vol­ume and quan­tity,” he says.

His sit­u­a­tion was look­ing se­ri­ous enough that, in a bid to get him help, his wife drove him to re­hab clinic The Pri­ory. “The doc­tors there said that I should pack my bags, head in and not talk to any­one for 90 days,” he re­calls. “Iron­i­cally, I said that I couldn’t af­ford the time due to my busi­ness com­mit­ments.”

Con­roy, like many, ad­dressed his dif­fi­cul­ties though pro­fes­sional help and mak­ing life­style changes. “I stopped drink­ing for 18 months and saw a ther­a­pist,” he says. “It was great to talk to some­body without judg­ment.”

Char­lie Mowat of The Clean Space, a clean­ing ser­vices firm, also found ther­apy use­ful. “I go some­times to main­tain my men­tal health and tackle im­por­tant is­sues be­fore they be­come big prob­lems,” says the founder, who also found med­i­ta­tion and keep­ing a jour­nal help­ful.

Oth­ers find it ben­e­fi­cial to make changes to their work­ing prac­tices and en­vi­ron­ment. That starts with the ob­vi­ous stuff – tak­ing more time off, re­duc­ing weekly hours, set­ting rea­son­able per­sonal dead­lines and del­e­gat­ing more.

But even seem­ingly unim­por­tant things can help, such as hav­ing of­fice quiet spa­ces and re­duc­ing noise and in­creas­ing light lev­els.

“If you work alone, it can be dif­fi­cult for col­leagues to no­tice changes in your mood, so tell friends and fam­ily about what stress and poor men­tal health looks like for you, so they can spot any de­te­ri­o­ra­tion,” says Mamo.

Be­yond phys­i­cal changes, there also needs to be a shift in how peo­ple think about men­tal health. “If we take a few days off with the flu, no one blinks an eye, but if we call in sick be­cause of a panic at­tack, that’s an­other story,” says Tol­hurst. He wants to get to a po­si­tion where talk­ing about the sub­ject at work isn’t taboo or awk­ward, but as nor­mal as dis­cussing week­end plans.

“We must make men­tal health an ev­ery­day con­ver­sa­tion,” adds Mor­gan. The key to that, says Con­roy, is get­ting more busi­ness lead­ers to share their men­tal health ex­pe­ri­ences on a na­tional stage. “In sport, the likes of Dame Kelly Holmes and An­drew Flintoff have re­vealed that what looked great on screen was ac­tu­ally mask­ing other is­sues,” he says.

Small-busi­ness own­ers re­quire sim­i­lar fig­ure­heads to “de­mys­tify” en­trepreneur­ship, he adds. “How many peo­ple who set up a life­style busi­ness ac­tu­ally have any life at the end of it?”

Tol­hurst is mak­ing progress there, en­cour­ag­ing his peers to share their ex­pe­ri­ences of how run­ning an en­ter­prise has af­fected their men­tal health. It’s part of his 100 Sto­ries of Growth project – a col­lec­tion of case stud­ies to in­form other firms and in­vestors about what it takes to scale up.

Along­side Mor­gan, Mowat and Con­roy, busi­ness own­ers have shared their dark­est mo­ments: sleep­less nights and feel­ings of help­less­ness and lack­ing self-worth.

“I was scared, alone and burnt out for years, barely able to func­tion,” re­vealed one.

“I was on the brink and just wanted to run away,” said an­other.

Tol­hurst sums it up: “As founders, we need to share our ex­pe­ri­ences and foster a top-down well-be­ing cul­ture in our com­pa­nies – and that in­cludes look­ing af­ter our­selves.”

‘Scal­ing and grow­ing is so ex­cit­ing and al­lur­ing, and you get sucked into push­ing your­self harder and harder’

En­trepreneurs Michelle Mor­gan, above, and Stu Con­roy, left, have shared their ex­pe­ri­ences of men­tal health is­sues

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