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How to tackle stress and burnout as a small business owner

This Mental Health Awareness Week we speak to some of our customers about their experience with burnout and stress and what advice they have for aspiring small business owners.

5 min read

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK – an annual event started 21 years ago by the Mental Health Foundation with the vision for a world with good mental health for all. Each year the event takes on a different theme and aims to help people understand, protect and sustain their mental health. 

When it comes to small businesses, last year FreeAgent found that 2.9 million SME owners had experienced burnout as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. This year, MetLife UK found that more than ‘10 million workers in the UK have called in sick as a result of feeling burnt out’. 

With more than 44% of people calling in sick due to feeling exhausted, stressed, depressed and overwhelmed, MetLife UK said this could be costing UK businesses more than £700m a year.

In light of those stats, this Mental Health Awareness Week we spoke to our customers about their own experiences with burnout as small business owners. Nikki Ramskill, Holly King-Mand, Rachel Stewart and Liam Carlton share their mental health stories and advice for other small business owners.

Have you experienced burnout and how did you manage it?

Nikki Ramskill, The Female Money Doctor:Oh definitely! In my first ever job as an NHS doctor working in obstetrics and gynaecology, I burnt out which meant I couldn't do my job effectively. I was fearful of going to work and dreaded returning after a few days off. I was having panic attacks on the ward during shifts or bursting into tears randomly. 

‘When I was recovering from burnout I took a year off and went travelling and worked as a locum for a bit, then I chose to go back into work as a GP. This job is stressful on occasions, but I've worked out now what my triggers are, and how many hours I can work in a day without getting too stressed out. I work from home mostly now too which massively helps. Starting my money coaching business was another way to help me to navigate through the stress of working as a doctor. I definitely have more of a balance now and enjoy my work because I have variety throughout the week.’

Holly King-Mand, English with Holly: ‘Yes, as a school teacher I’ve experienced burnout. I couldn’t sleep, had no appetite, my vision became blurry and although I performed excellently in challenging situations at work, I crumbled in simple everyday tasks. 

‘It all came to a head when I had a frightening panic attack during a lesson. I couldn’t breathe and I was shaking and I didn’t know why. A school leader called my husband to come and get me. It took two weeks to recover but I also got cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) support via my GP.

Liam Carlton, Pit Pro: ‘Yes, I’ve experienced burnout. I’ve found lack of motivation and direction are the two main symptoms. What helped me was taking a step back – even for just an evening – to regroup and go again.’ 

What has been the most stressful part of starting your own business? 

Liam: Not getting paid is definitely a big stressor! Constantly analysing things and worrying about everything takes its toll on your mental health.

Holly: As I have a young family, not knowing if I’ll be able to afford certain things is stressful. And I used to find the idea of accounts and bookkeeping very stressful, but Mettle and FreeAgent, and my lovely accountant Rachel have made that area the least stressful of all!

Nikki: I have a tendency to work too hard and not look after myself when I'm particularly stressed, so I definitely have to guard against it. I get really passionate about my business so apply the same hard work to it as I did in the NHS. However, I've learnt to give myself more structure in the day so I can take lunch breaks and finish at a sensible time at the end of it. I'm still learning not to go back into my default patterns, but I'm recognising the signs of needing a break more and more. This helps me to step away and recharge. I also only have one objective each day to achieve. If I can do more, great, but if not, that's ok too. 

Rachel: Definitely the worry of  being able to pay the household bills. Added to that is the stress of wondering if I actually have enough clients to make my business viable or if I’m working for nothing.

Do you have any advice for those starting their own business or side hustle on how to manage stress relating to it?

Rachel: Get to know other small business owners and share the stress and pressures you’re feeling with them – this can be online or people who are geographically close to you. Having others who have done it before and know how to handle the stress is helpful.’

Holly: Get help where you can. Set up business banking and get an accountant! And then you can focus on doing what you love.

Liam: You will need to be resilient and understand that starting your own business will probably be the hardest thing you'll ever do. You need to come to terms with that before you start and you might get through it!

Nikki: When you first start out, you'll be trying to fit your business around your job, and that's ok. It can be tempting to work into the small hours to get things done but try not to compromise on sleep. Lack of sleep will seriously impact your effectiveness at work and in business, so make sure you get enough for yourself. When you're well-rested, you'll be able to handle stress much more effectively. 

Finally, get help! Don't struggle with trying to cobble together a strategy to build your business using Youtube videos and such. Work with a coach either personally or in a group programme to have a blueprint to work with. You'll save time and effort, plus you'll usually end up in a community of other people building businesses to give you that valuable peer support too.

Would you like to add anything else about mental health, burnout or stress in business?

Liam: Remember that a new business is normally one person. If you don’t look after yourself and your mental health then the business will suffer too.’

Holly: Being able to set up my own business has actually removed much of the stress I felt in my employed career. I can work on my own terms and drive my business forward with the values that are important to me personally. I can take time away from work if I need to and I never feel bad about putting the extra hours in!

Nikki: It's our responsibility to look after our mental health and make sure we take breaks, eat well and get enough sleep, but workplaces can do so much to help too. If you employ people and many are going off sick with stress, find out why. Not a single person asked me why I left my NHS job in obstetrics and gynaecology to find out more about how they can make things better for others. It was assumed that I just wasn't ‘cut out’ for the job, turning the blame onto me. 

If work environments are supportive (that means offering decent pay and having enough staff to do the work, etc.) and the team is genuinely caring of one another (as whole people, not just work colleagues), then I believe burn-out would disappear. If you're building a business, work it into your business plan for the future. Because, if caring for others underpins everything you do, you'll have a much happier support team in the future, and your business will do well as a result.

Rachel: Be kind to yourself. You will make mistakes and things won't always go to plan but these are things to learn from as you move forward. You also can’t give 100% at all hours of the day so make sure to take breaks and put fun things in your week to look forward to.


Want to know more about mental health in the workplace? The Mental Health Foundation has a section of its website dedicated to resources and content that can help. Find out more here.

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