Written by Seema Desai, Chief Operations Officer at iwoca
Each one of us has been bruised by the pandemic. Be it emotional distress, distance from loved ones, or anxiety about the future – the last nineteen months have undoubtedly shone a light on the nation’s mental health. In part because of this, we’ve made significant progress as a society in promoting the importance of a good mental health.
But, an often overlooked group in these conversations has been small business owners; despite the critical and specific challenges they face, we’ve not seen the same attention paid to their needs. The pandemic has been a period of acute stress for them; at the mercy of factors entirely beyond their control, many have been fighting to keep their businesses – and livelihoods – from closing for good.
Our research from September this year revealed that, despite the easing of the pandemic, a staggering 72% of small business owners were still worried about cash flow, and 55% concerned about having to temporarily close their businesses. Add to this the pressure of having to make redundancies, on top of any personal challenges they may have faced – and it comes as no surprise that SME owners are struggling with their mental health. Recurring anxiety, depression, and symptoms of high stress characterise the last nineteen months for them, with 61% experiencing at least one symptom of poor mental health several times a month.
The warning sounds are there – small business owners need tailored mental health support and they need it now.
In the coming months, as we continue to recover from the pandemic, the keen economists among us will be looking carefully at small businesses – not just as a barometer of how successfully the UK is bouncing back from the pandemic – but because they’re central to so many livelihoods across the country. Put simply, protecting the mental health of small business owners will protect the health of our economy.
I see untangling this mental health knot as a three-part process. First, we need to build the right resources and support. Second, we need those resources to be accessible to all small business owners. Finally, we need to create an environment where people feel comfortable to reach out when they’re struggling and ask for the right help.
According to our research, just 30% of business owners struggling with mental health have sought professional, personalised help. Of those who haven’t, one in five didn’t feel comfortable talking about mental health.
I’ve spoken with business owners across the country about their experiences. Take Rebecca, the owner of a female entrepreneur training consultancy in Yorkshire. Rebecca is a mum, a business owner, and a wife, and – if that’s not enough on her plate – she’s struggled with her mental health during the pandemic too. It’s through receiving coaching and self check-ins that Rebecca’s been able to pick herself and her business up amid the financial uncertainty. “A lot of people don’t consider doing this because it’s not talked about enough,” she says. Rebecca’s right. So let’s talk about access to help.
Support networks and resources do exist for SME owners, but most don’t know where to look or how to ask for help. One in four owners we surveyed didn’t know that specific help for small businesses existed. The Federation of Small Businesses offers help, advice, and this tailored mental health guide to help SME owners source support for themselves and employees. Mind, the mental charity, has created ready-to-use Wellness Action Plans to encourage workplace dialogue about mental health. At iwoca, we decided to partner with the therapy platform Spill so that all small business owners in the UK can speak with trained mental health professionals when they encounter difficulty; all UK small business owners can sign up for a free video therapy session here.
While we have reason to feel optimistic about the economic outlook of the next few months, there will still be a bumpy road to recovery ahead for many small business owners. The resources to cope may exist, but it’s through breaking the stigma on mental health and incorporating these vital dialogues into our workplaces that we safeguard the mental health of small business owners and employees alike. And, as we nurture the mental health of SME owners in this country, we nurture our economic health too.