Struggling in business? You are not alone.

Working with small business owners, and being a small business owner myself, there is a common theme that we tend to sweep under the carpet – but it is something that we should all talk about.  We should be talking about it with each other a lot, because we may be able to help each other.  Yet we hide what is going on, sometimes until it is too late.    

Until I became a business owner I had no idea of the stress and anxiety involved in running a small business.  The roller coaster ride of emotions mean that one minute you are thinking everything is going great only to have is snapped away instantly when another “challenge” raises its ugly head.  This may happen once a month, once a week or a number of times a day.   Any wonder small business owners are becoming a focus for mental health awareness programs.  According to a recent Everymind study 57.6% of business owners reported stress levels outside of the normal range.

Whether we like it or not there is still a stigma attached to asking for help when you are just not coping.  Many business owners wear a mask most of the time to hide what they really feel.  I know I do.  Sometimes that mask cracks (usually in the privacy of our homes, to the detriment of those we love) but most of the time the mask is firmly in place so we can demonstrate to the world how successful and in control we are.   We don’t always have someone to talk to and share what we are feeling. 

The anxiety and stress is often linked to the bank balance for small business.  There are some that are lucky enough to have great cashflow, but most small business owners are struggling.  How do you feel when you see your Business Activity Statement?  How do you feel when you call the ATO to make a payment arrangement and are spoken to with no respect or empathy by the public servant on the end of the line who has no understanding of the challenges you are facing?  How do you feel when the bank manager says “no” to you and asks why you have not managed to save money as your results look good, even though you have a stack of money tied up in Trade Debtors, or you have reinvested everything into your business?  These people have no idea what you are going through and what that means for your confidence and health.

Not only do I see it from my clients – I feel it too.  So here are a few things that may help you feel not so alone on your business journey.   

·       Just because you are in business does not mean you are rich.  There is a perception that a business owner has heaps of money and can afford anything.  I know my family expect me to pay for everything because I am the business owner so I must have the money.  While my family are out enjoying themselves I am at home, usually working so that we can earn enough money to cover our costs.  Some weeks I cannot afford to pay myself because people have not paid my business.  Some nights I do not sleep trying to do the numbers in my head to work out how we will get through – particularly at Christmas time which is meant to be a time of joy and celebration, but not for the small business owner.  We do not have the certainty of a weekly pay cheque like others and we are at the whim of our customers.  If this sounds familiar to you, you are in the majority of small businesses.  Cashflow is the biggest factor to cause small business to fail and without doubt the biggest stress factor. 

·       You are not the only one who has a payment arrangement with the ATO.  I probably don’t really need to elaborate on that but I assure you that many businesses have ATO debts and payment arrangements. 

·       You do work harder than everyone else.  As business owners we are always worried about our staff and their wellbeing.  We make sure they take regular breaks and take days off when they are not feeling well.  We make sure they schedule regular holidays and leave work on time.  But what about you?  I bet you are the first to start work, the last to leave, work even if you are sick, and don’t take as many holidays as you should.  Did you work over Easter this year?  Did you work over the Christmas break last year?  Did you continue to work while you were on holidays?  Do you check your emails and catch up on work over the weekend?  Do you even get a weekend?  Do you work late at night or early in the morning? 

·       You give away your time or skills for free because that is what people expect.  How often do friends or family ask you to pop over for a beer so that you can fix their leaking tap, broken power point or whatever it is that you are skilled in.  Although beer is nice, it does not pay the bills.  We all do it, we all take advantage of other people to a certain extent, and we don’t mind a bit of it, but I am sure deep down it frustrates you.  Your time is precious and you devoted a lot of time to master your skills.  It is OK to be a little frustrated when people take advantage of you.

What I really want you to know is that you are not alone.  There are many people out there feeling exactly the same way you do.  Everyone copes differently.  Some throw themselves even deeper into work, others drink too much to take away the pain.    You are likely to snap when your work mask comes off and this can affect your family relationships. 

I am not a counsellor and I certainly don’t have the answers.  All I can do is let you know that I understand how it feels.  I rarely talk about my own struggles as I really don’t think anyone cares to listen.  If I do try to speak about how I am feeling with my family they try to tell me how to solve my problems, but that is not what I am after.  Sometimes I just want someone to listen and care.  Sometimes I just need to have a cry and get some reassurance that everything will be ok, that every problem can be solved.   Right now I am feeling pretty good about things, but that may all change by the end of the week.  My emotions are intrinsically linked to my business and I can’t tell you what will trigger the next downslide as small business is full of surprises.

If you are a business owner and feel this way please talk to someone.  If someone is talking to you, please listen and offer your support.   If you think you need professional help, don’t be afraid to ask for it.  You are taking a brave step in the right direction and that will help everyone in the long run.

Joanne McCauley