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World Mental Health Week: Strategies for SMEs

Each year, the World Health Organization sponsors World Mental Health Week. In Australia, the mental health and wellbeing of SME owners and employees have been recognised as an important issue in recent years. Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic, business owners and staff are under more pressure than ever. Here we take a deeper look at this issue and provide tips for promoting better mental health for business owners, managers and staff.

Business owners and mental health

While employees and managers can feel stressed and overwhelmed in the workplace, business owners can be under extreme pressure to meet all their commitments. Meeting daily financial requirements, managing staff and serving customers are a few of the many things that can boost stress. In addition, sole traders who don’t have permanent staff can feel isolated in dealing with business challenges. All of these issues have been compounded by the COVID-19 situation. 

As well as the health and wellbeing aspects, mental health issues affect overall productivity. According to The Mentally Health Workplace Alliance, “Untreated mental health conditions cost Australian employers approximately $12.8 billion every year through absenteeism, reduced productivity and compensation claims.”

How business owners rate their mental health

The Small Business Owner Mental Health Survey (2020) asked business owners about their main sources of stress and overall mental health. When asked, “Thinking about your mental health, how would you rate your mental health in general”, the responses were:

  • Poor – 4%
  • Fair – 26%
  • Good – 35%
  • Very good – 22%
  • Excellent – 12%

The report authors noted that there could be a tendency to underreport mental health concerns, especially among men, as poor mental health has been stigmatised in our society.

Main stressor for small business owners

In the survey, business owners were questioned about a number of factors that were the cause of stress. When asked to rate the level of stress they have experienced with the following issues on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being the highest level of stress), their answers were: 

  • Ongoing survivability of the business – 6.9
  • Attracting or retaining customers – 6.6
  • Maintaining cash flow – 6.6
  • Worry about impact on family – 6.6 
  • Finding a balance between the demands of work, family and personal life – 6.3
  • Receiving payments on time – 6.2
  • Challenging/long work hours – 6.2
  • Accessing/securing or maintaining affordable finance – 6.0
  • Developing knowledge and skills to operate and grow in a changing environment – 6.0
  • Feeling obligated to work when sick – 6.0
  • Meeting tax obligations – 5.9
  • Finding information about government obligations and completing forms – 5.9.

This is only a partial list of the top stressors that can lead to anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.

Tips for promoting mental health and wellbeing for business owners

Given the pressures of running an SME, there are a number of steps business owners can take to promote mental health and wellbeing for themselves and their workplaces. 

Take steps to improve your work-life balance

When you own or manage a business, there’s always something to do. Technology makes it easy to be constantly “switched on” and can blur the boundaries between work and personal life. To avoid working constantly, set a time to switch off. Put your mobile phone and laptop away to avoid the trap of always working.

Another step to improve balance is to set an alarm to remind you to take breaks during the workday. This could be for lunch or a break in the afternoon for a short walk. Research published in the Harvard Business Review revealed that taking short breaks after working for 90-minute periods and taking a real lunch break is more productive than working straight through without a break. This is because the body and mind need time to rejuvenate throughout the day.

Taking a long weekend break or afternoon off during a busy period will help you recharge to regain focus, creativity and productivity. Finding or continuing a hobby that takes your focus away from your work responsibilities can also be helpful for improving mental wellbeing.

Get more tips on how to improve work-life balance in business.

Reach out for support and connection

Isolation is one of the biggest challenges for business owners, especially sole traders. Ways to overcome this include finding a business mentor and joining a business networking group. Business networking is more than just exchanging business cards and leads. It creates an opportunity to meet with other business owners and discuss challenges and solutions in person or online. Formal networking groups include Business Network International (BNI) and Fresh Networking. You can also find business support and networking groups in many areas on Meetup

Develop and maintain a healthy lifestyle

A healthy lifestyle contributes to mental health and wellbeing. Lifestyle choices that promote health include adopting a balanced diet that minimises sugar consumption, reducing alcohol and caffeine consumption, and including physical activity in daily life.

Getting enough sleep is also crucial for promoting mental health. Try keeping a regular sleep schedule, take time to wind down before bedtime and avoid keeping electronic devices in your sleeping area.

Steps to creating a mentally healthy workplace

Raise awareness

In onboarding, training and everyday conversations, make it clear that mental health is an important issue that can be discussed openly. Business owners and managers can openly discuss workplace issues that impact mental health and evaluate and improve the culture. 

Factors that can be controlled to improve mental health are being flexible when possible to assist with mental health, assigning reasonable objectives and workloads, and responding to signs of mental health issues. 

Support people with a mental health condition

If a staff member experiences mental health issues, take steps to support them, including providing sick leave if needed. While larger businesses are able to pay for employee assistance programs (EAPs) that offer mental health support, this might be an option for small businesses. However, you can help to connect employees to free or low-cost support services listed at the end of this article. Also, general practitioners can help by assessing patients and referring them to mental health professionals. When a GP creates a mental health treatment plan for a patient, Medicare will pay all or part of the sessions (up to 20 in one year) with a mental health care provider. 

Create a positive work environment

A positive work environment includes both physical and interpersonal dimensions. An aesthetically pleasing work environment can contribute to better mental wellbeing. Aspects to consider include providing natural light, ergonomic workspaces, comfortable break areas, and quiet rooms for relaxation. On an interpersonal level, work on creating an environment that’s free from bullying, harassment and unfair discrimination. Employee surveys can be effective for uncovering issues that are having a negative impact on the work environment. Here are a few examples of employee survey tools.

Mental health support resources

Several organisations offer mental health support and resources to business owners and the wider community. They include:


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