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On fire or burnt out? Self-care for SME owners


A new year often gives business owners time to reflect on how to do things better in their organisation. What if the answer was: self-care for the boss (you)?

‘Busy’ is a common state for many business owners, but with great activity comes great responsibility – not just to ensure your staff are well looked after, but also to check in with yourself from time to time.

You may recall airline safety advice for emergencies urges passengers to put their own mask on first before helping others. This is because you cannot help others unless you take care of yourself first. The takeaway is this: you’re a better boss if you are a mentally healthy boss.

It is easier said than done when you are a business owner. For example, our members are the owners of Australia’s newsagencies. They are often found working long hours in their stores or warehouses as well as juggling the operations and growth of their businesses. If you are like most small businesses, you will be in the same situation of working in and on the business, with little time to spare. But making time to check in on your wellbeing must take priority.

Red flags

Fortunately, there are some early warning signs of mental burnout that you can monitor to prevent total meltdown. Use the following questions from Heads Up as a guide:

  • Do you find it difficult to concentrate on tasks?
  • Are you often tired and fatigued?
  • Have you been unusually tearful or emotional?
  • Are you quick to anger or easily frustrated with tasks or people?
  • Are you drinking alcohol to cope?
  • Do you find it hard to make decisions?
  • Have you begun to avoid social situations?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these, you should take a step back and look at what might be triggering your behaviour.

Crucially, consider that you might not be in the best place to notice these signs. If you’re busy working in the business you have less attention on your mental health; if you’re already burnt out you may be too far gone to be fully aware of your feelings and actions.

Instead, it’s often the people around you – a partner, family member, friend or staff member – who’ll bear the brunt of how you act. If you find people asking, “is everything all right?” more often than usual, or reacting to your behaviour in certain ways, from tiptoeing around your mood swings to becoming aggressive in order to return serve, don’t ignore them.

If you’re burning out

Mental health exists on a spectrum: you can be in robust mental health one month, but your condition can deteriorate based on stressful events the next if you don’t actively manage the triggers.

Awareness of an issue is the first step. The second is evaluating your condition. We recommend beyondblue’s excellent Anxiety and depression checklist that you can complete in a couple of minutes. It is not a diagnostic tool, but it can help you assess how serious your condition is, as well as direct you to further resources based on your recent experiences to provide support.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. ‘Help’ may simply be a case of delegating tasks that you find stressful, or it could be professional help if you believe you need it.

Preventative steps

There are different triggers that can affect your mental health. Business-related stresses are just one part of the picture; your personal life might also have an impact on how you feel and behave in the workplace. The key is to notice when it’s happening and nip it in the bud.

Learn to identify when you’re stressed. Different people react to stress in different ways so consider a range of behaviours, from stress eating or being more critical of people, to increased smoking or drinking: behaviour that might indicate you’re not coping. Once you find your triggers you can avoid or manage stressful situations to stay well.

Challenge Remedy
Working regular long hours at high intensity. A strict down-tools time, better prioritisation and/or more staff to delegate to.
Blurred boundaries between work and home e.g. answering business emails at the dinner table. A ‘phone off’ policy monitored by your family, or a (strict) scheduled time for business at home e.g. 8-9pm only. Use your commute home from work to switch off.
Juggling multiple roles including managing administrative demands and government regulations. Look to your industry association for automation tips or ways that others in your industry handle this burden.
Feeling isolated, unable to share business worries or experiences with anyone. Join a network of business owners. This might be a Rotary Club or professional industry association.
Financial issues including worries over cash flow and workflow. Talk about your concerns to a financial professional, such as your accountant or liaison at the bank, to discuss solutions. Business coaches may often be of assistance.
Burden of responsibility to make the business a success for family and staff. Communicate with these stakeholders but also trust your staff to do what they can to contribute. Providing a good workplace culture goes a long way to ease your mind.
Too clouded by daily stresses to reflect or assess your workload and business. If you are constantly stressed, even if you take time off, talk to your health practitioner. There is no shame in admitting that you are burning out.

It is important to take care of yourself and stay well as a small business owner so you can stay on top of your business’ demands. Don’t forget you owe it to yourself to have enough energy to enjoy life outside of work – otherwise, why would you put up with all that stress?


About the author:

Adam Joy is the CEO of the Australian Lottery and Newsagents’ Association (ALNA). He has held senior roles at ALNA for almost a decade. He is an experienced senior executive and board director in commercial, advocacy and non-profit organisations. Previously, he worked in business process outsourcing, petrol and convenience, FMCG, QSR and marketing organisations. Adam holds a Masters in Leadership and is a member of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.