The mental health costs of running a small business
Entrepreneurs open up to Matthew Caines about how work affects their mental health
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