I’ve been running my micro business for over 20 years. In that time I have suffered the ups and downs of working as a freelancer. The famine and feast cycle persists, which can bring with it dark days when it seems nothing is going my way. Over the years I have been able to develop a mindset that enables me to look at the dark times as just a period I have to work through.
If you’re in the early days of running your own micro business it can be easy to tip into depression. The first two years of my business were tough. Getting established and finding enough work occupied my every waking hour. When other new business owners have asked my advice, I always tell them to believe in themselves. They have the skills and the drive. Keep going and eventually, you will start to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Being self-employed is our choice, and I think making that decision has been the best thing I ever did. The burning ambition to have my own business simply would not go away, even though this was a high-risk move to make. Paying attention to when you are feeling low is critical to the long-term health of you and your business, as for most micro businesses we are our enterprises.
Today is World Mental Health Day. I thought today is a good opportunity to look at this subject, which will affect every micro business owner at some point. Indeed, according to new research from ActiveQuote, self-employed women are almost twice as likely to suffer mental health issues than men. The proportion of self-employed women in emotional difficulty has remained consistently higher over the past five years, with 6.7% battling mental health worries compared to just 3.6% of men in 2017.
Yet it seems the message is still not getting across to the self-employed that taking care of their health is pivotal to their business.
Mark Todd, Private Medical Insurance Team Leader at ActiveQuote, said: “Choosing self-employment to make your living is, on its own, often more stressful than taking employment elsewhere. Success is, on the whole, dependent on the strength of a person’s state of mind and their ability turn up for work, come what may.”
I wanted to get an insight into how paying attention to your mental health is just as vital as finding your next customer or client.
Penny Power OBE founded the Ecademy in 2014 – the first online business community for business. Penny’s current projects include The Business Cafe a network of high street coffee shops for sole-traders, SMEs and business people. Membership is free and allows access to all cafes as they launch around the UK and beyond.
I began by asking Penny:
The public concept of the entrepreneur or small business owner is one of a strong single-minded approach to their business and personal lives. But is this concept a myth? Are entrepreneurs and small business owners just as mentally and emotionally vulnerable as the general population?
“I believe the self-employed business owner is one of the most vulnerable in society. Anyone who is self-employed has to work incredibly hard, constantly learn and adapt while managing their personal life challenges as well as their business ones on their own. In the past, the choice to become a business owner was for the few, employment was the norm.
“If you did start your own business, your market was clearly defined and a relatively simple process could be adopted within the local business market to become known as a supplier. Business is enormously different now, starting a business is open to people who can start on a whim with an idea and often learn the hard way how challenging and diverse the obstacles to success are. The shocks and disappointments, the feelings of scarcity and the constant learning we now all have to achieve in this digital world. Digital constantly disrupts us all, this is the new norm.
“One aspect of the digital world is the dependence and addiction to social media. There is an enormous awareness of the impact that social media has on teenagers. What is rarely mentioned is the impact on adults, especially those that run their own business. The online world has both connected and isolated business people. We now have the opportunity to connect. However, the emotional experience of these connections is not always positive.
“All humans need validation and a sense of belonging. When we worked locally and had offices and relied on local networking we connected with people daily, face to face. Now, most small business owners reach online to feel that sense of belonging, but it doesn’t always fulfil the emotional needs we have. In fact, in a study I carried out on Facebook, 83% of self-employed people said they were lonely despite using social media throughout their day. Further discussions revealed the issue of ‘compare and despair’ where they looked online at the lives of their peers and they felt desperate about their own.”
Is a strong mental state a pre-requisite for success in business? Is this innate, or can you learn to be more mentally resilient?
“When I started out as a business owner 20 years ago I focused on sales, marketing, finance and leadership of a business community I created. The area I completely ignored was the vulnerabilities in my personality, the management of my wellbeing and the way to look after myself through the adversities in life and business.
“Looking back, I now know I would have achieved a greater level of success if I had understood myself more. Awareness of situations that can impact my resilience, knowing how to protect myself from certain experiences and how to manage the aspects of myself that could damage negotiations would have helped a great deal. Along with defining what success, ambition and happiness meant to me personally, not to all the people I associated with. There is a danger that we adopt the drivers that others display rather than really knowing our own. If I had focused on my emotional and mental wellbeing, my outcomes would be different.”
Often entrepreneurs and small business owners are seen as solitary figures. Is the reality that a network of support from family, friends and colleagues is vital to their success?
“Some people thrive on their own, they feel happier managing tasks and focusing on achieving them, their self-esteem and worth come from completing tasks well. Other people need time with other people to feel validated and gain energy from interacting with others. What everyone has in common is the need for feedback.
“Whether introverted or extroverted, we all need to feel worth-while. I believe this means everyone needs to have something to belong to. When I hit my ‘broken’ times, I had a wonderfully loving and supportive family. Their love and belief in me were unconditional. This was powerful and enabled me to relax and recoup. To get me back into the business world was about the belief from my business peers. Business communities and colleagues are essential for us all. The challenge is finding the communities that we feel safe within, that we trust and where we can truly be ourselves.”
With more young people wanting to start their own businesses, is this an indication of a generation that doesn’t fear failure, or who are prepared to take risks with their livelihoods, as they have the mental strength to take the necessary steps?
“I think this generation fears failure as much as the rest of us. What they seek is autonomy and a life that is without borders. These can be geographical borders, but also the borders of time. This generation is not mentally stronger or weaker than their parents. I am so inspired by the millennial generation. They seek to contribute, and they want to feel they are working in companies that also want to make a difference, their drivers are not about control or power. Their leadership style is inclusive and open. I think the growth in young people starting their own business is that they cannot find enough business leaders to work for that understand the way the world is changing and the values and needs we are all moving toward.”
How can small business owners avoid feeling anxious becoming chronic anxiety, or feeling low becoming depression?
“I think about this a huge amount and the way I run my business community is to help people to feel normal with their daily emotions.
Online, normal seems out of reach for most of us. Normal looks like everyone is winning. The perfect lives shared online by beautiful people is out of reach and therefore we immediately feel abnormal in our emotions of fears, vulnerabilities and pain. We feel we lack and we have to work so hard to build our resilience and confidence against this ‘illusion’.
“The reality is that we all have days when we lack self-esteem when we are confronted by unexpected challenges. The scarcity of money and the focus to feed our families and keep a roof over our heads is normal. Few people have reserves of cash and financial stability. Once we realise that we are actually playing on an even playing field with the same rules we can realise that we are not ill with anxiety, depression or stress. In fact, our anxious moments, our low moods and our feeling of being overwhelmed are exactly what 99% of the population feels. Once we realise we are normal, then we have already climbed halfway up the mountain, then we gain the energy to get to the summit and be exceptional.”
What’s the future of mental health in the small business community look like? Does this need more tangible support from the NHS for instance?
“I have spent vast amounts of money on understanding how to manage the emotional and mental aspect of being in business. Few people would and could invest this in themselves, I had to research and heal or I was not going to be a business owner again.
“There is no way we can all afford this level investment of time and money in ourselves, and nor can the NHS. A more sustainable solution needs to be found.
“The reality is, self-employed business owners cannot take a day off when they are suffering from loss, grief, fear, feeling of anxiety and have low moods. So, they keep going until being busy becomes mental exhaustion, being anxious, becomes anxiety and the low mood turns into depression. Rebuilding yourself is a big job and very expensive for the NHS or the individual. Prevention is the cure.
‘I have always ensured I am real and raw in my communication with others online and when I do my speaking. I believe it serves no one to hide the truth of yourself, the culture of trust now comes from really knowing the truth. In doing this, I give permission to others to do the same. Each of us can do this.
“I believe we should create the way for business owners to support one another, build a community offline, at a local level, in every town, that gives people a place to feel safe to be themselves. Give business owners a sense of belonging and validation and the skills to thrive. Catch them when they have a hard day, celebrate when good things happen, be with them on the entire journey of business. This is not a co-working space. This is a place where real community and friendship matters first. I have a plan, now I just need to find the way.”
Paying attention to your own wellbeing and mental health is an asset in your business that is more important than any other. Celebrate your wins, but also understand your losses. Everyone is human. Micro business owners may seem like a different breed. The reality is we are all the same. We have the same needs and desires. Business is tough, but also incredibly rewarding. I learned early on to grow a thick skin as rejection is a major component of my business. But I don’t dwell on these, as I also have plenty of successes, which