Thinking about wellbeing for you and your staff isn’t just a nice-to-have – it’s essential to business productivity too. In this excerpt from ‘Yes Business Can’ published today by Lloyds Bank, Brian Dow and Gillian Connor of Mental Health UK tell us why it pays to take wellbeing seriously in your business.
Starting your own business is a life choice. You’ve probably chosen this path knowing that most new businesses fail, that the buck stops with you, and that it will be a hard but worthwhile slog. But the chances are that you are very driven – a trait you’re relying on to see you through what is likely to be a bumpy ride.
That ride may involve worrying about other people, your family, your business partners, your staff and money. You may need to make some difficult decisions along the way, like letting people go. And all of this may be from a solitary desk, without reliable people to advise on ideas and worries.
Success may follow, but there may be pressure to scale up – and the slog will continue if you let it.
You’re probably aware of these risks, yet something is compelling you anyway. But all the above can be a toxic cocktail for extreme stress and poor self-care. It’s not surprising then that stress and poor wellbeing – even burnout – can be high among leaders of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and micro-businesses. The following statistics speak to the lack of self-care among SME owners:
- 55 percent of entrepreneurs said that running a business has had a negative impact on their mental health.
- 41 percent say they don’t have enough time to sleep properly, and 31 percent run out of time for exercise.
- 39 percent say they have felt lonely since becoming their own boss.
Our work can impact our wellbeing; it can both trigger and aggravate poor mental health. Mental Health UK observes the effects of this in our day-to-day work with businesses across the UK. We also know how stigma around mental health and the notion that discussing stress and wellbeing in the business environment can make you seem ‘weak’ prevent many people from seeking help. Additionally, some people do not always report positive experiences at work when they do seek help and ask for more flexibility. This may explain why official figures suggest that more and more people with mental health conditions decide to be their own boss.
The mental and physical stress of running your own business – the responsibility and long hours involved and the sometimes less-than-healthy lifestyle that goes along with it – may make small business owners more vulnerable than most to poor mental health. And if you employ people, that makes your staff more vulnerable too.
More than a nice-to-have
You might be thinking: so what? You have a business to run and a livelihood to develop – sacrifices will need to be made. You can catch up on your ‘wellbeing stuff’ later, right?
However, we know that good mental health (which is basically about ‘feeling good and functioning well’) is closely linked to optimal productivity.
We also know that showing up for work when you’re not well (presenteeism) is a false economy – it’s bad for productivity. In fact, presenteeism is worse than being off work sick, because it prevents you from being your best and delays or even impedes the recovery process. Research by Deloitte found that the cost of people being at work when their mental health was poor was more than double that of sickness absence and staff turnover combined.
There’s a clear lesson then: it doesn’t pay in the long run to skimp on mental health. Our charity has encountered numerous people who have pushed themselves to the point of physical and mental burnout and are forced to take time off.
We’re all affected, like it or not
You might also be thinking that you’ve never had ‘mental health issues’, that stress can be a good motivator, and that burnout could never happen to you. That you’re tough and strong, and that the people you work with are of the same ilk.
The reality is we all have mental health. Yes, all of us. Much like good physical health, we can’t take good mental health for granted. At least one in four people is likely to experience a mental health problem in their lifetime, including common mental illnesses like anxiety and depression. A challenging event, an unexpected trigger or a combination of pressures could tip the balance into being overwhelmed, especially if we don’t already have good coping mechanisms to help us manage our wellbeing. People who experience burnout often say they didn’t see it coming.
Stress is a typical response to the pressures and demands of business and life. Some stress is good for us, but excessive stress happens when the demands put upon you are greater than your capacity to manage them. While stress is not the same as mental health conditions like anxiety or depression, excessive or long-term stress can increase your risk of developing a mental health condition.
If you can identify the telltale signs of worsening mental health in yourself, you are more likely to be able to do something about it and keep your stress at a healthy level.
Some of the early warning signs and symptoms may include:
- physical changes (feeling tired, headaches, not sleeping or stomach problems);
- cognitive changes (trouble focusing on tasks or finding it hard to make decisions);
- emotional changes (being unusually tearful or angry); and
- behavioural changes (snapping at people, avoiding social situations or turning to alcohol to cope).
You may not always be able to spot these early signs yourself, or associate them with stress, especially when you’re experiencing them. Sharing what you know in advance with someone you trust can help, and being more aware of your own warning signs may also make you more aware of your coworkers’ struggles. You may be willing to risk your own health, but others around you may not be as emotionally invested in your business or as resilient.
We can all develop resilience
A common misconception is that being resilient is the same as being ‘tough’. Actually, it’s about being able to respond to life’s pressures and learning from these challenging experiences. ‘Toughing it out’ limits our ability to learn and grow so that we can respond well when life gets tough again.
You may be thinking that you’re either resilient or you’re not, or perhaps you’re unsure how to become more resilient. But resilience – which goes hand in hand with self-awareness – is a skill.
You, and those you work with, can learn resilience. We all have different tipping points, and it is important to be non-judgemental and understanding about this. If a situation is affecting someone’s mental health negatively, that impact needs to be taken seriously. Smaller companies are often thought of as more tight-knit and nurturing, but they may also feel the pinch of understaffing and are sometimes guilty of pressuring people to come into work, or back to work, before they should.
There is a growing expectation around wellbeing – and an expectation to be nurtured – in the workplace these days, particularly from millennials. This requires leaders and business owners to be more ‘emotionally intelligent’ – self-aware and socially aware. Emotional intelligence is about having the capacity to notice, control and express our emotions, as well as being able to handle interpersonal relationships fairly and empathetically. These skills are an important and increasingly valuable asset in the business world. They can also help you with your clients and others outside your business.
Embracing a positive mental health agenda = a shrewd investment
This is not ‘nice-to-have’ stuff. Applying this agenda and committing to a mentally healthy workspace (whatever that means for you) will allow you to make the right decisions and help you with the day-to-day running, operation and performance of your business. Try to note the following:
- Knowing what keeps you mentally well and being disciplined about your self-care management strategy is key to allowing your business to thrive.
- The ability to spot when others are struggling (which may not be obvious) will help you retain and grow a productive, innovative and resilient workforce able to sustain change.
- Resilience and emotional intelligence will help you in your external business relationships (including clients and suppliers). One in four of them are likely to experience a mental health problem in their lifetime, after all.
How to truly be your own boss
Being your own boss is a key driver for why people like you break out on their own, right? So be your own boss in your personal life too. Take active control of your wellbeing and be disciplined about anything that may compromise it. It starts with you, the boss, leading from the top.
- Get to know yourself. Actively think about what makes you personally flow. You may find it useful to use Mental Health UK’s Wellbeing Plan to help you work on your own personal strategy. Our Stress Bucket tool can help you think about what affects your stress levels and resilience and how you can address this. This can include addressing negative thoughts that impact our feelings and behaviour (we have a cognitive behaviour therapy tool that can help with this).
- Start as you mean to go on. This starts with the obvious – taking more time off, reducing weekly hours, setting reasonable personal deadlines and delegating more. Even seemingly unimportant things can help, such as having office quiet spaces, reducing noise and increasing light levels.
- Reach out. If you work alone, you don’t necessarily have colleagues to notice changes in your mood. Tell friends and family about what stress and poor mental health looks like for you, so they can spot any warning signs. Encourage healthy dialogue with your colleagues or business partners.
- Be authentic. You’re embarking on a challenging task. It is okay to be open about the pressures and challenges you face. It tells people you’re approachable and that it’s acceptable for them to not be okay as well.
- Continue to learn. Understanding yourself and having the tools to keep yourself well is an ongoing journey, so make it an item on your daily to-do list to check in with yourself and to get clued up on new ideas and resources that will help you and others around you get better at managing your wellbeing.
Have a plan for the people you work with
Consider the type of organisation you want to build and how a wellbeing foundation can help you achieve it. You may not employ anyone right now, but picture what you want your workplace to look and feel like.
- Get to know your staff. We can spot changes in others and help them reach their potential when we know them better. Incorporate regular check-ins and reviews to address wellbeing.
- Model good self-care practice. Staff will take this agenda seriously if you do.
- Share what you know. Support your colleagues with tools that can help them maintain and boost their own resilience.
- Encourage a supportive and open culture. Encourage staff to look out for each other and share how they’re doing. Asking “how are you?” – and meaning it – is a natural opener. The Ask Twice campaign run by Time to Change has some great tips on how to do this efficiently. Some companies have specific volunteer champions who are taught to do this within a clear framework. We helped Lloyds Banking Group develop and deliver their Mental Health Advocates programme.
- Consider training and other outside support. Business owners do not usually have access to the kind of HR support an average line manager would, so think about how you can optimise external resources.
- Create an inclusive culture. Look at how you can offer flexible working practices, including flexible start and finish times and the option to work from home.
- Incentivise and provide training on physical and mental health and the link between them. This could include cycle-to-work schemes or mindfulness training.
Be proud about taking mental health seriously
There is a good chance this agenda will resonate with your suppliers, stakeholders, clients and customers. Again, one in four of them is likely to experience a mental health issue in their lifetime, so tell them about what you’re doing and why. Use digital platforms and other channels to share how you and your company are focusing on mental health.
One of the best investments you’ll ever make
Consider managing your mental health and creating a positive mental health working environment as an investment. Ask yourself: at what cost are you prepared to pursue your entrepreneurial journey? Are you really your own boss when it comes to your wellbeing? Spend time now to think about what you want for yourself and others when it comes to quality of life. Think of it as an ‘invest-to-save’ approach. And remember: a resilient you will help you create a resilient business.
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This content is taken from the second edition of Yes Business Can from Lloyds Bank and Bank of Scotland – a collection of expert articles from a range of trusted sources offering information and inspiration on starting, growing and exiting a business. The new second edition has been updated with chapters on cyber risk management, women in business and integrating sustainability into your business strategy.
Download Yes Business Can FREE now