How to manage your mental health while running a business

Running a small business presents ongoing challenges even at the best of times and business owners and leaders need to demonstrate determination, strength of character and passion.

In recent months, business owners have faced extraordinary challenges that have added to their everyday stress. Our research found that the main emotions felt by business owners in 2020 were anxiety and stress (43%)1. And, a quarter noted having feelings of pessimism (24%) about the long-term future of their business1.

One in five (21%)1 small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) business owners have worked much longer hours due to this anxiety. They’ve worked an average of three hours each day1 as they navigate economic uncertainty, unforeseen restrictions as well as employee concerns. This has had an impact on their own work/life balance and overall wellbeing.

Running a business is a marathon, not a sprint and, while working hard is the natural state of being for most SME business owners, recent trials have led to growing concerns of ‘burnout’ in the small business community.

The dangers of burnout.  How to spot them

Burnout is recognised by the World Health Organization (WHO) as ‘the point at which you reach total physical and mental exhaustion’2. With consistently longer working days, higher than usual stakes and a lack of free time to properly relax, this has become a reality for many of Britain’s determined small business leaders.

While many business owners will attempt to ‘keep calm and carry on’, ignoring the signs of burnout can present real risks to both the person and the business.

More frequent ill-health can impact relationships outside of work and feelings of dissatisfaction or fatigue may be experienced. Professionally, this can lead to poor decision-making, a lack of creative thinking and a change in behaviour that can affect the work and effectiveness of colleagues.

So, what are the signs of burnout in yourself and others before it becomes a more serious issue?

HR specialist AdviserPlus3 suggests watching out for the following symptoms:

  • Do you feel like you have lost your mojo? Have you lost all passion for your day-to-day work?

You may experience a change to how you feel about work. You may feel cynical or disengaged from the business. Or, perhaps you might feel numb about it and get no satisfaction from achieving goals.

  • Are you experiencing additional aches and pains?

Headaches, stomach aches, and other illnesses can be your body telling you to slow down. You may even find yourself more likely to catch a cold, as your immune system becomes compromised by the increased level of the stress hormone, cortisol.

  • Are people commenting on a change in your usually happy attitude?

Burnout can lead to a change in mood. It can increase irritability or emotion in situations that would not normally cause that response. You may also experience a decreased ability to concentrate and make decisions as you normally would.

  • Do you feel constantly tired?

Feelings of extreme tiredness can occur and are sometimes made worse by a change in your sleeping patterns. You may also develop uncharacteristic insomnia.

  • Are you eating more? Finding that you are reaching for an extra glass of wine, more frequently?

During particularly stressful times, people sometimes self-medicate to make themselves feel better.

Top tips for maintaining good mental health and avoiding burnout

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you are not alone.

Our research found that feelings of stress and anxiety are on the rise as small businesses have bravely responded to the additional pressures placed on them. We’ve seen remarkable examples of people rallying so they can continue to do what they love – see our inspiring stories [here].

Maintaining good mental health and self-care is an important part of being a good leader and will help you build a stronger business in the long-term.

If you’re experiencing feelings of stress, anxiety or even burnout, what steps can you take to address them?

The following suggestions, sourced from Adviser Plus3 and our HR team4, could help you to continue to be the best you:

  • Schedule self-care and switch-off time

For many people, the dangers of flexible or home working are that it is hard to know when to give yourself a break. It’s important to set regular business hours and keep a watchful eye on your time management. When you find yourself working later or longer than usual, are you using this time productively? Or are you acting out of fear and stress?

However, as important as scheduling your working day is, make sure you dedicated time for yourself. Schedule activities that relax you and help you to switch-off. This can feel like a luxury but, in fact it is the opposite, your productivity will likely remain higher if you allow time for yourself.

  • Identify your pain points and get back in touch with the things you value

Think about what causes you the most stress or discomfort in your working day. It might be possible to share this burden with a colleague.  Or, can you speak to someone neutral about the issue so that they can provide an unbiased opinion or potential solution?

Also, make sure you are still involved with aspects of your business that you love and that feed your passion, even if they might not always feel ‘business critical’.

  • Step away from your work and do some exercise

While you may not feel up to running a marathon, getting away from your screen or place of work, and undertaking some exercise can do wonders for your mood and mental wellbeing. It’s also a great way of ensuring you remain switched off and focused on something that is only for you. Even a 15-minute walk will help you to relax and has been shown to lower cortisol levels.

  • Consider practicing mindfulness and other exercises to destress

Breathing techniques and meditation practices can help you to establish a sense of calm. Try a simple exercise such as breathing slowly - in through the nose and out through the mouth for a few minutes – this has a direct impact on your stress response and can help you to feel calmer.

If you find this is helpful, there are several apps and programmes available, often for free, that lead you through guided relaxation exercises. Not only will this help lower your stress levels, but it’s an easy way to incorporate some personal time into an otherwise busy working day.

  • Build a structured sleep routine

We all know that a good night’s sleep can set you up for the day, but this does not happen by accident, it is often the result of good sleep hygiene.

Create a structured sleep routine. Go to bed and get up every day at the same time (even at weekends). Also, avoid things that might disrupt your sleep such as caffeine or screen-time while you are in bed.

  • Know when to ask for help

We all need someone to rely on. Look for ways to build a personal network that will help support you during this difficult time. Don’t be afraid to ask friends or colleagues for help. Consider talking to a business mentor or coach about ways to improve your work-life balance. You might even want to consider talk-therapy to allow you to express your feelings.

The symptoms of burnout are closely linked to depression. Therefore, it’s important that you don’t neglect these feelings and treat them as you would any other medical issue.

  • Be kind to yourself

You will face setbacks, you will make mistakes, sometimes you might be faced with challenges that are out of your control. Know that you are doing your best and reward yourself for that.


1Source: Research conducted by Opinium Research between 3 and 13 July 2020 with a nationally representative sample of 1,006 senior decision makers in UK SMEs. The followed previous research conducted by Opinium Research between 23 and 30 April 2020 with a nationally representative sample size of 1,000 senior decision makers in UK SMEs

2Source: World Health Organization

3Source: AdviserPlus

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4Source: Aldermore HR Team



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