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Being your own boss sounds like a dream: Doing what you love, making the rules and choosing a schedule to suit you.
But the reality can be very different: only 58 per cent of small businesses survive beyond three years. It takes grit, resilience and hard work to succeed with little chance to stop if you’re sick or desperately need a day off.
Small business owners face different challenges to their corporate counterparts. Fifty-seven percent report above-average stress and 80 per cent admit cash flow issues affect their mental wellbeing. Income and financial uncertainty mean endlessly chasing work under changing economic conditions and owners feel responsible for the livelihoods of their staff. The absence of support structures mean they must also juggle multiple responsibilities, like sales, marketing and finance, that don’t always align with their key skills.
The Cost of Not Caring
Making a new venture succeed can take its toll: long days, little sleep and working when you’re sick lead to high-stress levels. Absenteeism, presenteeism (at work but unproductive), productivity losses and workplace accidents due to stress cost around $44 billion in the US, 15.1 billion pounds in the UK, and $12.6 billion in Australia each year.
Not only does chronic high stress affect your cognitive functions, slowing your accuracy, response time and ability to make critical decisions; it’s been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s. There’s also a greater risk of depression compared to the general population with business failure often associated with suicide risk.
Consider self-care an investment: Not only does cash stops flowing in if you can’t work, PriceWaterhouseCoopers found each dollar spent on workplace health meant a $14.50 return on productivity benefits.
So where should you start?
Over 50 per cent of owners work nine hour-plus days and 43 per cent work weekends. But long hours don’t make you more effective: you’re wasting time spinning wheels because you’re too tired to think straight, and you risk burning out completely.
Studies have shown regular exercise is a powerful way of managing stress. To be our best, we need to feel good inside-out, which means a healthy body is key to achieving a healthy mind. Use your breaks to move: schedule time before work or escape your phone and email at lunchtime. Hit the gym, go for yoga, or just walk around the block.
Sleep is another way to replenish: sleep deprivation impairs our focus, judgment and ability to make sound decisions because we can’t assess situations rationally and plan accordingly.
You can only give if your own cup is full, so take enough time out. Gift yourself a sleep-in, get a massage or have lunch outside so you can organize your thoughts. Feeling refreshed allows you to think creatively and take better decisions for your business. You’ll be more available for personal relationships and be more effective with clients because you’re more present, less frazzled and can focus on the task at hand.
Owning a small business can be lonely. Literally, if you’re a solopreneur working long hours; or as a boss unable to share your struggles with staff. Isolated working conditions and lack of social connections are some of the biggest triggers for stress.
Whether it’s your financial situation or something else outside your expertise, ask for help or invest in a business coach. It could make the difference between spending hours working on a problem or getting a solution with a two-minute response. Take advantage of someone else’s gifts and talents so you can use your own more effectively.
Many industries and local councils have business networks you can join for peer support. Not only will you feel less alone, having someone to bounce thoughts and discuss challenges can lead to fresh ideas.
A plan of action helps keep you focused, providing structure and sense of achievement as you tick off completed tasks.
Set up your day before you start by deciding what your priorities will be, what you want to achieve that day and what can wait. Plan your work according to when you function best: if you think you’re better in the morning, complete complex tasks early and leave other work for the afternoon.
Distractions can lead to a 40 per cent drop in productivity, so don’t be afraid to turn off your phone and messages while you concentrate. It may feel odd but if you’re consistent with checking emails at specific times and respond quickly, clients will be trained not to expect a response outside these hours.
Delegate and Outsource
When your business gets to a certain scale, find the resources to delegate or outsource things you’re not great at. Not only will it create more time for you to grow the business and use your expertise better, but you also won’t be stuck doing something you don’t enjoy.
Ask whether there are smarter ways of doing something. Is there an automated alternative? What do your competitors do? Time spent training someone or purchasing a new system is an investment that will repay itself multiple times over; you gain efficiency and free up resources.
And learn to say “no” if you don’t believe you will achieve the right outcome for the client and yourself. You’ll save the heartache and keep your reputation intact by not taking on something that pushes you to the brink.
The people around you bear the brunt of your stress, so take notice of how your employees are feeling (stress is contagious) or if people start asking you if everything is ok. Use it as a sign to assess how you’re feeling: the quicker you identify stress, the quicker you can change things. Take time out, delegate work or say no to a project because you’re full.
Embrace your Mistakes
Perfection has no place in your business. You’ll reach a point where more time spent making something perfect will make very little difference. Pause and ask yourself whether there are any more benefits in continuing work on something.
Accept you’ll make mistakes. No one takes the right decision every time and all successful entrepreneurs have stories of failure: not all of Richard Branson’s ventures worked out (think Virgin Cola and Virgin Vodka), and Sir James Dyson took 15 years and thousands of prototypes to develop his iconic vacuum cleaner.
The past is done. But you can learn from mistakes and change the way you see the future.
Ask for Help
Deloitte Access Economics found 84 per cent of workers experienced mental health issues due to work and there were similar findings among small business owners. The earlier you seek help, the quicker you can get yourself and your business back on track. Health practitioners can help you find the support and tools you need.
Your health and wellbeing is an invaluable investment: you can’t work if you’re sick. If you’re in great mental and physical health, not only will your productivity improve, feeling mentally and physically well can be the key to taking your business to new heights.