As the UK joins together for Mental Health Awareness Week still in the grips of a pandemic, new research reveals how deep this issue affects small business owners and employees. Here’s what you can do.

While the UK is beginning to see restrictions ease as the vaccine rollout picks up pace, we are facing a mental health pandemic that could have a lasting impact on workforces unless action is taken now.

With staff working remotely for the last 18 months and most set to do so in some form for the foreseeable future, employees are facing digital exhaustion, a lack of boundaries between work and home life and a reduction in engagement and well-being that is being masked by increased productivity.

As the UK shines a light on mental health, new research reveals that 82% SME owners say their mental health has been negatively impacted by Covid-19 – with one in five describing their mental wellbeing as being in a ‘bad’ place. The study of 765 SME owners from across the country by small business insurance provider Simply Business, released to mark UK Mental Health Week, also revealed that almost half (47%) are worried about their mental health.

Highlights 

  • 4 in 5 (82%) small business owners say Covid-19 has negatively impacted their mental health
  • One in five SME owners say their mental health is in a ‘bad’ place due to Covid-19
  • In the last 12 months, a third (30%) have experienced depression, three in five (62%) have been affected by stress and over half (55%) have suffered from anxiety
  • More than half of small business owners (51%) have also had problems with their sleep
  • Over a quarter (27%) of SME owners have felt low self-esteem in the past 12 months and a fifth (19%) have experienced loneliness.
  • A third of small business owners have had to close their business at various points of the pandemic, and 44% are operating at a reduced capacity. Just one fifth of self-employed people have been able to continue work as usual during the pandemic
  • 35% have struggled to switch off, one in five say it has affected their confidence
  • More than a fifth (22%) say it has negatively impacted relationships with family or friends
  • 28% are feeling demotivated to continue with or restart their business, and one in five (18%) have fallen out of love with their business or the industry they work in
  • But SME owners retain a sense of positivity about things to come – two in five (39%) are optimistic about the economy picking up, and well over a third feel hopeful about the future of their business (36%) and jobs and orders picking back up (35%)
  • Small business owners have been turning to exercise, nature, and gardening to support their wellbeing

Worryingly, 82% of self-employed people in total have suffered with poor mental health in the last 12 months – a year in which many small businesses were either forced to close or have been significantly impacted by various lockdowns and restrictions.

“Few have been hit harder by the effects of the pandemic than the self-employed. Livelihoods are on the line as a result of Covid-19, with small business owners facing an unprecedented amount of pressure,” Alan Thomas, UK CEO at Simply Business, commented. Clearly this has had a huge impact on their wellbeing – the scale of which can be seen in the results of this study. 82% of SME owners report poor mental health, and 55% are suffering from anxiety.”

 “It’s a situation which should concern us all because small businesses are crucial to our economy and communities – and will be central to our collective recovery.”

”While the phased reopening from lockdown will have brought a level of relief and optimism for many, it’s crucial that we continue to protect small businesses – and, crucially, the individuals behind them – as much as we can,” Thomas added.

The pressures of running a small business during Covid-19

Small business owners have been among the hardest hit by Covid-19, with the pandemic – and the various lockdowns, restrictions, and changing regulations that have come with it – causing severe disruption to business operations and therefore income.

It’s no surprise that running a business has had an impact on self-employed people’s wellbeing.

With six million SMEs in the UK, accounting for over 99% of all businesses, 33% of employment and 21% of all economic turnover, this has the potential to hugely impact our economy and local communities.

What’s causing poor mental health?

Understandably, financial worries are having the biggest negative impact on small business owners’ mental health – with two in three (61%) saying it has negatively affected their mental wellbeing in the past 12 months.

This was closely followed by not being able to see family or friends (60%), uncertainty surrounding their business (44%), and stress (48%).

Almost one third (28%) of SME owners cited isolation or loneliness as a factor in their poor mental health, and almost a quarter (24%) said a lack of physical exercise has also affected them.

Reasons to be encouraged

Despite the numerous challenges facing them, many small businesses remain optimistic about what the future holds.

39% are optimistic about the economy picking up, and well over a third feel hopeful about the future of their business (36%), and jobs and orders picking back up (35%).

A third are feeling positive about their business’ ability to adapt to new conditions, and a fifth (21%) are looking forward to learning new skills.

Taking steps to improve wellbeing

It’s also reassuring to know that many are taking deliberate steps to improve their mental health. Two in three (67%) are spending more time outside and in nature where possible, while a further 64% are exercising more frequently and dedicating more time to connecting with friends and family (also 64%).

A third (32%) have used reading as a tool to improve their wellbeing, while 27% have turned to gardening. Other activities which small business owners say help their wellbeing include mindfulness and meditation (25%) and exploring arts and crafts (21%). With a potential mental health pandemic in the pipeline, talent advisory expert warns of need to get staff talking

Ruth Smyth, Managing Director, People and Culture at global recruitment firm AMS believes businesses will experience a long-lasting, detrimental impact on growth prospects unless they seriously consider taking steps to better the people’s mental well-being. These steps include:

Make time to talk

Don’t be afraid to have difficult and courageous conversations across the business – in fact, make time to discuss the pressures peers and teams are facing. People need to be listened to, no matter how hard it can be to hear it.

Focus on humility

Use good role models in senior positions who are able to talk about mental well-being with a sense of vulnerability and humility. Opening up a conversation that encourages people to talk – including sharing personal experiences from managers – will be crucial in helping staff cope in the modern world.

Get your people involved

Empower staff to take action themselves. AMS champions Mental Health Ambassadors across the company who are accessible to anyone looking to talk about their struggles in and out of work.

Train your managers to have empowering conversations

Managers are facing a new challenge themselves. Providing training to help them have impactful discussions delivered with confidence and compassion can help tackle the mental health pandemic. Have trained mental wellness ambassadors work with managers regularly to develop this skill.

Take a global viewpoint with a regional approach

Be considerate about the fact that there are regional differences in terms of pandemic restrictions, so the mental health support needed will vary across geographies. Approaches to how mental health is talked about and normalised needs to be adapted across demographics and cultures as well, so avoid a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.

“Our employees’ mental health has never faced such pressure and strain as it has in the last year,” Smyth said. ”While there’s been some really encouraging and inspirational moves from employers to support the mental well-being of their staff during the pandemic, we’re now facing longer-term stresses that businesses need to prepare for – in particular, the effects of long-Covid and a possible mental health pandemic that could impact our people for a number of years unless we prepare and take action quickly.

”While every business will have its own talent engagement and mental health well-being programme in place, impactful, courageous and difficult conversations need to embraced if we’re to support our talent in the new world of work. Making time to talk now could safe-guard the well-being of our people in the future.”

How are you supporting your staff through these challenges, and what are you doing to safeguard your mental wellbeing? Let us know and stand a chance to be featured in Fresh Business Thinking.