Q&A: Managing stress as a small business owner

A businessman feeling the stress of running his small business

Starting and running a small business can be liberating and exciting. You're no longer beholden to anyone else for your livelihood. But the flip side of this freedom is that the buck stops with you. This can be uniquely challenging and stressful, especially if things aren't going to plan

We talk to Naomi Humber, Head of Mental Wellbeing, for Bupa UK about the stresses of running your own business and what you can do to minimise your stress and that of your employees.

What impact can stress, and poor mental health have on small business owners?

A bit of stress can be good for us, it helps us to work better and feel more motivated. But if you’re dealing with too much stress at once or work in a stressful situation for too long, it can have negative consequences for both health and business.

Stress can affect you physically and take its toll on your emotions and behaviour, impacting your ability to work well and make informed decisions. The way you deal with your own stress as the business owner can set an example to your team. So, if you find it difficult to manage and share your stresses, your team won’t feel encouraged to either.

When stress levels reach breaking point, it can mean we’re not well enough to work – though we may continue to. Likewise, if employees keep turning up to work feeling stressed without addressing the root cause, they’re more likely to suffer from burnout.

Stress-induced absences have huge financial implications for businesses, with mental health issues costing an estimated £28 billion every year.

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What are the typical causes of stress for sole traders and entrepreneurs and why are they more likely to experience stress?

Being a small business owner is already a high-pressure role. That's without having to cope with a challenging labour market or turbulent economic conditions. Many owners can find it difficult to share their stress, too - 96% admit to bottling up their stress.

Sole traders and entrepreneurs have a unique role, being responsible for their workforce’s health and wellbeing. Trying to set a good health and wellbeing example can be a source of stress.

What strategies or techniques would you recommend for minimising stress?

With so much to manage, business owners may not realise how much stress they’re taking on each day and how it affects their wellbeing and ability to work well. The following principles will help to address stress at the root and implement policies and procedures to help reduce its impact across your business.

1. Invest your time in prevention

When you’ve got a lot on your plate, spending time working on strategies to help reduce stress might feel counter-intuitive. However, it’s essential for protecting the wellbeing of your workforce and the success of your business. From learning about resilience to setting up regular check-ins with your team, spending time on prevention can make a big difference to achieve long-term goals and wellbeing.

2. Learn the power of goal-setting

Having a to-do list is great but having too much on it can be overwhelming. Instead, break down your goals into weekly, manageable chunks. Be as specific as you like about your business goals and remember to list things to help manage your wellbeing too. For example, make sure you include the time to take a proper lunch break into your schedule.

Each time you complete a task, cross it off your list. When the week finishes, you’ll have a full record of everything you’ve achieved – and whether the amount you set yourself was realistic. If you set yourself too much, your list will help you to re-strategise for the upcoming weeks and manage your workload more effectively.

3. Share your struggles

Encouraging a culture that talks openly about all aspects of business, including achievements and failures, can encourage everyone to share their stresses and reduce any shame or stigma around seeking help. This can help reduce stress-related absences and keep the whole workforce happier.

4. Remember that you can say no

If you rarely say no when someone asks you to help them with work tasks, there’s a chance you’re taking on more work than you’re able to do so effectively.

Though being at the helm of your business means you have lots of responsibilities, it’s realistic to implement limits where you can. These limits help remind you - and demonstrates to others - that saying yes to everything isn’t realistic or achievable.

Saying no when tasks can’t feasibly be completed with current schedules, or to a satisfactory standard, also alerts others to when you’re feeling the pressure.

What free or low-cost resources can small businesses access to help reduce the impact of stress?

Learning about the ways stress can affect your body is a wise way to reinforce the need to monitor it and act when it gets too much. Educate yourself and your team about the mind-body connection and resilience by directing them to free reputable sources to raise awareness about effectively managing stress for your health – both at work and at home.

Connection is another huge way to reduce the impact of stress. Start things at work by implementing regular, non-negotiable one-to-one meetings with those employees that report directly to you as these can act as a great open outlet to offload and make any adjustments to help reduce stress.

Don’t forget about yourself, either - you’re coping with a lot right now, so if you’re feeling the pressure but are struggling to know how to offload, it’s worth refreshing yourself on any free outlets you can approach. There are also free resources you can access from places like the NHS, Samaritans and Mind.

How can entrepreneurs support their employees with their mental health and stress?

Start with the basics. Make sure staff take time away from work – employees and some workers have a statutory right to paid holidays and minimum rest breaks during the working day. Allowing staff to work through their lunch breaks sends out the wrong message.

Reducing the stigma around stress and poor mental health can encourage staff to approach you when they are struggling. Check-in regularly with staff. This could take the form of an informal chat or a periodic performance review.

Make sure staff do not have too much work to do. Reassign work, provide additional training or give clearer instructions when delegating work if necessary. Assuming employees know what is expected of them can contribute to confusion and stress.

If you already have business health insurance, make sure you make the most of the services available to you. For example, Bupa offers Workplace Health and Wellbeing Academy events to help business owners feel more confident about leading their teams to feel better and perform well.

Things like Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP), small business health insurance, occupational health can all make a big difference if you’re struggling with stress.

Thanks to Naomi Humber, Head of Mental Wellbeing, for Bupa UK.

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