Despite the efforts we might put into protecting our own mental health, external factors beyond our control can still impact it in significant ways. In this chapter, we explore how events over the past year and a half have impacted the mental health of SME owners in particular.
While being self-employed can offer various wellbeing benefits, as identified in chapter one, it also comes with its own unique set of stresses, many of which have been exacerbated by the twin threats of Brexit and the pandemic. We asked:
Threats to mental health – what’s caused the biggest impact for business owners?
It is well established that the rigours of running a business can take its toll on a person’s mental wellbeing. However, the last 18 months have seen business owners subject to a raft of major challenges, few they could do anything meaningful about.
Unsurprisingly, the pandemic came out as the event which delivered the biggest impact to the mental health of SME owners with over half (55%) reporting it hit theirs hardest. However, despite the pressures of Brexit (19%) and added pandemic-related factors such as forced business closures (8%) and sudden remote working (6%), more SME owners identified the general strains of running a business (25%) as dealing their mental health the heaviest blow.
The results also hinted at the fact that threats to the mental health of SME owners are often unique and not easily predicted. One in five respondents (21%) claimed none of the available options were the primary cause of their concern.
Which events had the most detrimental impact on your mental health?
Coronavirus pandemic – 55%
General strains of running a business – 25%
None of the above – 21%
Brexit – 19%
Forced business closure – 8%
Sudden remote working – 6%
Other – 2%
By the numbers – if 10 represents the maximum impact on mental health, how did our respondents fare?
It’s some relief that few respondents scored the pandemic’s effect on their mental health highly. Only 2% recorded a score of 9, and 3% a score of 10. Most respondents (23%) registered the impact at a moderate 5.
Though the pandemic impacted most SME owners’ mental health only moderately, we should be cautious about downplaying the wider effect. Whereas 33% of owners scored the impact on their mental health between 0 and 4, 46% scored it at the more severe end of the scale, between 6 and 10. In other words, two-thirds of SME owners experienced a moderate to severe impact on their mental health as a result of Covid-19.
What kind of effect has the pandemic had on your mental health?
0 – 3%
1 – 6%
2 – 7%
3 – 10%
4 – 7%
5 – 23%
6 – 15%
7 – 16%
8 – 10%
9 – 2%
10 – 3%
What’s worrying today’s SME owners?
Running a business of any size comes with pressures that can soon turn to worries. As SME owners often rely on their businesses for their sole source of income and have more intimate relationships with any staff they employ, those worries can be felt more keenly.
The concerns of today’s SME owners are a familiar story. The majority (40%) reported that being unable to provide their product or service as planned was their primary fear and almost one in three (30%) claimed theirs was the prospect of being unable to pay their personal rent or mortgage.
Indeed, it was a combination of not being able to perform as intended, including letting suppliers down (8%), and failing to meet payment deadlines that worried most respondents. For one in 10 (11%), it was the possibility of being unable to pay their staff that proved most bothersome.
What is the biggest worry of small business owners at the end of 2021?
Not being able to provide the service/product as planned – 40%
Not being able to pay personal rent/mortgage payments – 30%
None of the above – 30%
Not being able to pay business rent/mortgage payments – 13.0%
Not being able to pay staff wages – 11%
Letting suppliers down – 8%
Making staff redundant – 4%
Putting staff on furlough – 1%
Other – 5%
Reaching out – are SME owners seeking help when they need it?
Despite the pressures of running a business in an environment still dominated by issues relating to Brexit and the pandemic, most SME owners (40%) professed not to have sought help with their mental health, claiming it remains in a good state. However, more than one in ten (12%) disclosed that they had received some measure of professional support.
Overall, those SME owners who had reached out to someone opted to confide in a person they already knew with 12% having spoken to a family member and another 12% to a friend.
Though there is a growing market for technology to support mental wellbeing, few respondents reported using them – just 4% had turned to either a wellness app or an online resource.
As a small business owner have you sought help for the decline in your mental health?
No, my mental health remains in a good state – 40%
Yes, I have spoken to a friend – 12%
Yes, I have spoken to a family member – 12%
Yes, I have sought professional help – 12%
No, I don’t feel comfortable asking for help – 6%
None of the above – 6%
Yes, I have spoken to a business mentor – 4%
Yes, I have used a wellness app – 2%
No, I don’t know how to get help – 2%
Yes, I have used an online resource/helpline – 2%
Yes, I have spoken to a colleague – 2%
Yes, I have spoken to a work organisation/trade body/union – 1%
Remote working and the positive impact on SMEs
Apart from those businesses deemed to be providing an essential service and needing to maintain business as usual or those forced to close, remote working became prevalent throughout the SME landscape.
In terms of how the shift to remote working impacted those SMEs, the majority (58%) could not point to any of the positives offered, suggesting the transition did not have a material impact either way.
Otherwise, over a quarter (26%) of owners reported that productivity had actually increased, one in five (20%) experienced an uplift in enjoyment and satisfaction from working remotely, and 12% recorded an increase in profitability.
Interestingly, though physically apart while working from home, 7% of owners said they enjoyed greater social contact and experienced a stronger feeling of togetherness.
How has working remotely as a direct result of the pandemic positively impacted businesses?
No impact – 58%
Productivity has increased – 26%
Increase in enjoyment/satisfaction – 20%
Increase in profitability – 12%
Increase in social contact and feeling of togetherness – 7%
Remote working and the negative impact on SMEs
If we are to look at how businesses profited from a shift to remote working it is also necessary to look at those who found the transition more difficult.
Of the possible negative impacts respondents were offered, most (58%) said none had affected their business. Those that were able to identify with at least one, pointed more to the social/happiness aspect with 29% reporting a decrease in social contact and feeling of togetherness and nearly one in 10 (9%) a decrease in enjoyment and satisfaction.
From a purely commercial perspective, it is interesting to observe that only 10% of SME owners recorded a decrease in productivity and 9% and decrease in profitability. Comparing these figures with the ones for the previous question (26% and 12%), it would appear that remote working mostly improved business performance. A finding that is in line with other worldwide trends.
How has working remotely as a direct result of the pandemic negatively impacted businesses?
No impact – 58%
Decrease in social contact and feeling of togetherness – 29%
Decrease in profitability – 10%
Decrease in enjoyment/ satisfaction – 9%
Productivity has decreased – 9%
Social media – an importance during the pandemic or an irrelevance?
Social media has become a key marketing tool for businesses regardless of their size. During the pandemic, the various platforms took on additional importance, allowing people to connect even while restrictions were in place.
We looked at whether SME owners had altered their social media activity and, if they had increased it, the reasons why.
The results show that most owners had either not changed their rate of social media output (34%) or had shared fewer posts than usual (34%). Of those that had increased output, one in 5 (21%) reported they did so to feel more connected, while the remaining 15% said it was based on a need to update their peers and network on their progress.
During the past 18 months, have you increased the frequency of business’ social media posts?
No, I have shared fewer social media posts – 34%
None of the above – 34%
Yes, I have spent more time on social media to feel connected – 21%
Yes, I feel the need to update my peers and network on my progress – 15%