Owning a business can be stressful. Here’s everything you need to know about caring for your business—and your mental health.
Owning a business can bring you freedom, flexibility, and higher income potential. But it can also be stressful and challenging. Those stressors and challenges can take a toll on your mental health. According to recent research from Incfile, 65% of small business owners have struggled with anxiety, while 52% have dealt with depression.
COVID certainly didn’t help. According to a 2020 FreshBooks report, more than 50% of small business owners experienced symptoms of poor mental health for the first time in their careers in response to the pandemic. And a whopping 85% of those entrepreneurs reported their day-to-day work suffered as a result.
If you want to be healthy, happy, productive, and successful, taking care of your mental health as a business owner is an absolute must. But how, exactly, do you do that?
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Major Mental Health Challenges for Small Business Owners
Before we jump into how to navigate stress and take care of your mental health, let’s touch on what is stressing out business owners to begin with.
So, what do small business owners struggle with the most?
All Things Financial
Hands down, finances are the biggest stressor for small business owners. According to our report, 44% of small business owners say they experience financial stress and fear about the future of their business.
“The ebbs and flows of owning a small business can be anxiety-provoking, especially if cash flow fluctuates dramatically each month,” says Nicole Arzt, a licensed marriage and family therapist and writer at Discussing Psychology.
And while the fear of not making enough money can affect stress levels, other financial challenges—like overhead, chasing down client payments, and trying to manage taxes—can be equally impactful on your mental health.
Loneliness is extremely detrimental to your health, both mental and physical. In fact, research shows that loneliness can have the same impact on your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
And unfortunately, business ownership can be a lonely experience. “Being a small business owner can be isolating,” says Maryam Elbalghiti, a licensed clinical social worker, therapist, and owner of Maryam Yasmin Therapy & Consulting.
That isolation can be hard. According to our report, 29% of small business owners say working alone most of the time has a negative effect on their mental health.
Just because small business owners don’t have a boss doesn’t mean they don’t have anyone to answer to.
“When you have no boss, your customers, in a sense, all become different bosses,” says Arzt.
And dealing with clients and their demands every day (particularly challenging clients) can cause prolonged stress, ultimately leading to mental health problems.
When you’re the boss, everything falls on your shoulders.
“Unlike having an employer, small business owners are [often] the admin, payroll, HR, marketing, and sales [for their business],” says licensed clinical therapist Hillary Pilloto.
The weight can feel even greater for small business owners with employees. “If the business has employees, that increases the stress on the owner,” says Pilloto. “Not only do they have to worry about their own livelihood and well-being, they worry about the well-being of their employees, too.”
All of that pressure can take a toll, causing worry, anxiety, panic attacks, and more.
Many entrepreneurs struggle with imposter syndrome—feeling like they’re not qualified to run their company. Not only can this lead to anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions, but it can also lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms. For example, according to the FreshBooks report, 27% of entrepreneurs say they feel like they can never show vulnerability or weakness.
Too Much to Do (In Too Little Time)
Ever wish you could clone yourself or stop time? You wouldn’t be alone. Our report revealed that 28% of owners are concerned about having too much work to do in too little time.
This perpetual time crunch can lead to overwork, burnout, and anxiety. (“So many small business owners feel like they can’t ever stop working,” says Pilloto.)
9 Small Business Mental Health Strategies
If the challenges above are familiar and you feel depressed, overwhelmed, or stressed, it may be time to employ some actionable tips to help you take care of your mental health as you run your business.
1. Establish Personal-Professional Boundaries
“The ability to set your own schedule is a blessing and a curse,” says Elbalghiti. “Many business owners find themselves working around the clock.”
When there’s no separation between your work and personal life, it can feel like you’re always working. And what’s more stressful than feeling like you’re working 24/7?
Setting clear boundaries around work is an absolute must to keep stress at bay, avoid burnout, and support your mental health.
- Setting start and end times for work each day (and sticking to them as much as possible)
- Keeping work contained to a specific space (rather than working in your bedroom, on your couch, or in other living spaces)
“It’s crucial to set hours for your work as well as designate certain spaces—like your home office [or on-site at your business]— for work to keep your business from bleeding into other parts of your life,” says Elbalghiti.
2. Learn to Say No
Saying “yes” to everything—working with a client you find difficult, taking on a new project you don’t have the capacity to handle, or agreeing to lower your rate—can lead to increased stress and put your mental health at risk. To protect your mental health, you have to learn how to say no.
Saying no comes more naturally to some business owners than others. If you struggle with saying no and/or setting boundaries, give yourself the chance to practice. Start by saying no to small things in your professional and personal life. As you become more comfortable flexing your “no” muscles, start flexing them in larger, more impactful situations—like turning down a client or project you don’t really want to work with.
3. Don’t Be Afraid to Delegate
Speaking of saying no, sometimes, if you want to support your mental health as a business owner, you must also say no to yourself.
More specifically, you have to say no to doing everything yourself.
“Many small business owners assume they need to do everything themselves,” says Arzt. “[But] it’s unlikely that you can do every task efficiently—and the more time you spend on tasks that don’t ultimately nourish or grow your business, the more drained and resentful you risk becoming.”
Instead, “learn to delegate,” says Artz.
Figure out what tasks in your business can be managed by someone else (for example, administrative or customer service tasks), and then get those tasks off your plate, either by passing along the responsibility to an employee or business partner or outsourcing it to a freelancer.
Delegating tasks that you (a) don’t want to do, (b) aren’t good at, or (c) don’t have time for can alleviate a huge amount of stress in your business.
4. Stay Productive
There’s an old saying: “An idle mind is the devil’s playground.” In other words, if you don’t have enough to do and accomplish, your brain could fill the space with stress, anxiety, or other mental health issues.
So, if you want to take care of your mental health, make sure you’re staying productive and continually working towards the goals you’re excited about.
Now, make sure not to go overboard and overwhelm yourself. That will have the opposite effect. Instead, find the sweet spot between not having enough to do and having too much to do—or, in Goldilocks terms, a “just right” amount of work, tasks, and goals.
“If you begin to think about the future and everything you need to do to be successful, you will become overwhelmed and begin to feel panic,” says Nicole Franco Gateley, a licensed professional counselor with a mental health services provider designation. “Instead, change your mindset to only focus on one day at a time by setting manageable goals.”
Not sure where to focus your energy? Consider the 80/20 rule, a framework that says that 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts—and figure out where to put 20% of your efforts to deliver the 80% of results you’re looking for.
You might also find it helpful to maintain a schedule. For many business owners, the predictability of having a consistent schedule can make it easier to stay on task, achieve their goals, and stay productive.
5. Take Time Off
If it’s working too much that’s stressing you out, the best thing you can do for yourself and to improve mental health? Take time off.
Mental health days—whether you take time off to spend with family and friends, go on vacation, or catch up on sleep—can be just what you need to reset, recharge, and come back to work feeling your best. (Taking time off is also essential to avoid burnout.)
“Your business is important—but it is not your identity,” says Gateley. “Take a step back to make time for family, friends, hobbies, or resting. The less fused you are with your business, the less you will be putting at risk.”
6. Try Mental Health Tools
If the stress of owning a business is negatively impacting your mental health, there are mental health tools that can help.
If you’re experiencing anxiety, you might consider trying a meditation or breathwork app. (“Mindfulness practices, such as meditation and deep breathing, are proven techniques to reduce stress and improve focus,” says clinical specialist and therapist John T. Maggio.)
If you’re struggling with loneliness, you might consider a therapy app. These apps can connect you to mental health professionals that can help you come up with strategies for fostering community.
7. Take a Break to Move
Increasingly, scientific evidence supports the mind-body connection. The feel-good endorphins you release during physical activity can be incredibly supportive of your mental health, so you feel happier, more energetic, and better equipped to tackle the rest of your to-do list.
So, if you find yourself feeling stressed throughout the day, take a break and move your body!
8. Find a Community
As mentioned, mental health can be adversely affected by the loneliness of running your own business.
That’s why finding a community and building support networks is so crucial. “Social support is vital for small business owners, as running a business can be isolating,” says Maggio. “Networking with other entrepreneurs and seeking guidance from family, friends, and colleagues can provide a much-needed support system.”
If you’re dealing with loneliness or isolation, start fostering more connections in your day. Reach out to a friend and ask to meet for coffee. Call a family member to catch up. Attend networking events to meet other local business owners. It might feel uncomfortable at first, but making a conscious effort to drive more connection is key to fighting loneliness and building community as a small business owner.
9. Lead With Positivity
If you manage a team, it’s not just your own mental health struggles you have to think about; you also want to provide mental health support to your employees. Ensure your team can access the mental health resources they need to feel their best.
That might include providing information about local mental health support groups or contact information for local clinicians and therapists. Or it might mean building mental well-being into your workplace through benefits and other supports.
One simple and effective way to support your team members is to change how you speak about mental health by eliminating stigmatizing language, listening with empathy to employees dealing with mental health issues, and offering mental health days.
On an even broader scale, you could support mental health initiatives as a whole by donating to organizations.
Figure out how you want your business to make a difference—both for your team and for improving mental health in general—and then invest your time and resources into making that difference.