5 wellbeing and mental health tips for small business owners

Small business owners are some of the most resilient, adaptable and committed people in our community.

Dr Sadhbh Joyce has seen this first-hand as a senior psychologist and researcher.

'I’m thinking of some wonderful people that I’ve met over the years and their commitment to their business just shines through.'

Dr Joyce is an external fellow with the Black Dog Institute and UNSW and is the co-founder of Mindarma – an online learning program that can help you learn practical strategies to better manage difficult thoughts, uncomfortable emotions and times of high stress.

'When you’re investing in your mental health, the positive ripple effect is quite profound in all areas. On a personal level, on a relationship level, and on a physical level. But there is also a true return on investment in terms of our business,' says Dr Joyce.

'There will be a positive impact on your business and the people you’re working with too.'

Dr Joyce spoke to us during Mental Health Month to share five tips to support the wellbeing and mental health of small business owners and their employees.

a young woman writes in her journal. A laptop, tea cup and stack of books are on the table in front of her.

1. Your self-care is never selfish

When you’re running a small business, you will usually have very long ‘to-do’ lists, and self-care can fall right to the bottom.

You put your businesses first and might think that looking after yourself is a bit of an indulgence.

But self-care is never selfish.

Without it, your physical and mental health deteriorates. Continually running on empty is not a recipe for business success.

Dr Joyce suggests that misconceptions about self-care can mean it is overlooked or underestimated.

'One of the myths is that self-care is just having a long hot bath!

'It’s actually about being very proactive in terms of the foundational aspects of what helps nourish your mental health – being really mindful of sleep, movement, nutrition, and really managing our digital diet – and that includes how much binge-watching you’re doing on Netflix.

'Beyond this, you also need to consider what truly fills your cup, whether that be playing a sport, playing an instrument or taking time out in nature. By prioritising these things and making them non-negotiable, we can all feel more joy in our lives and begin to replenish ourselves.'

Self-care tips:

  • Try a four-minute Mindful Pause: This four-minute pause is an opportunity to tune into your body and ask yourself what you need most right now? It may be sleep, a walk or a coffee with a friend.
  • Book time in your diary: Make time for self-care and treat this ‘appointment’ the same way that you would as a meeting with a potential client or a catch-up with a friend. This is some time for you to focus on yourself.
  • Delay your ‘yes’: If you find it hard to say ‘no’ to things, try delaying your answer to give yourself time to think about whether you have the time or energy for the request or invitation.

2. Prioritise growing your personal resilience

'Old school ideas of resilience being about needing to "toughen up", "push through", "go it alone' and coming through life’s challenges completely unscathed have really been debunked,' says Dr Joyce.

Resilience is about being adaptable and no one is more adaptable than small business owners.

It’s not a trait you either have or don’t have. It is something that can be developed over time.

And the good news? Every tip in this article will help to build and replenish your resilience.

By developing certain strategies and skills, you can help protect your wellbeing and mental health – even at difficult times and when working in challenging roles.

Dr Joyce developed an online resilience training program in 2015 and ran a randomised controlled trial with a group of 143 firefighters to test the concept that resilience can be learnt and strengthened.

'The trial was successful and showed that by equipping people with the right knowledge and skills, it was possible to enhance their overall resilience and wellbeing in a relatively short amount of time.

'Based on this research we created Mindarma. The program has since been rolled out across many thousands of workers in very challenging occupations, including first responders, frontline medical workers, journalists, lawyers, teachers and community service workers.'

3. You can practice mindfulness in 4 minutes

People often regard meditation as something that takes a long time and requires prolonged silence and sitting positions that you’d expect from a yoga guru.

In reality, there are many forms of meditation – and mindfulness is one that you can do in a matter of minutes, focusing your attention on the present moment.

'Mindfulness is a really wonderful strategy for a small business owner because you’re often very busy. You have multiple meetings, different people coming at you at different times,' says Dr Joyce.

'Many people worry that they won’t be good at mindfulness or that they have too many thoughts racing through their head. Mindfulness is however not about eliminating thoughts or trying to achieve perfect stillness. Instead, it is about being able to observe and interact with our thoughts in an open, curious and non-judgemental manner.'

Mindfulness can help you centre yourself and concentrate fully on what matters most. It can allow you to better regulate emotions, regain mental clarity, act less reactively and calm down after stressful events. In just about every workplace, it has some profoundly practical applications.

Mindarma provides an easy introduction to mindfulness, exploring the science behind it and providing short, guided practices – including a 10-minute guide from Dr Joyce on How to Take a Mindful Pause.

a young woman writes in her journal. A laptop, tea cup and stack of books are on the table in front of her.

4. Rethink how you handle challenging emotions

We all face challenging emotions in our day-to-day lives.

When you’re a small business owner, the challenging emotions can often be stress and worry, be that about money, employees or your business’s next steps.

There’s also a lot of misunderstanding about emotions, Dr Joyce explains.

'Culturally, many of us have been brought up with some very unhealthy ideas about emotions. We worry that having a normal human reaction may be considered unmanly, unbecoming, unprofessional or a sign of weakness.'

Dr Joyce describes emotions as messengers.

'Emotions are however very useful things; they are closely connected with our personal values and what we hold dear.'

When you’re faced with challenging emotions, not-so-helpful strategies, such as drinking or smoking, over-working, shopping binges and so on can crop up.

While such strategies may provide momentary relief, they can have some very serious long-term consequences.

Instead, Dr Joyce recommends techniques to help understand the emotions you’re experiencing – and uses the example of an iceberg – there’s a lot more beneath the surface.

'Often, we only see the top of the iceberg. But mindfulness allows us to pause, recognise and name the emotion, and then the practise of self-compassion allows us to really nurture ourselves at that moment, so we understand what the value is, what the message is, and then take care of ourselves.'

When you pause and take a moment to recognise and acknowledge the emotion that has emerged, you gain insights into what is important, what’s amiss and what action you need to take next to honour your life values.

To learn more about self-compassion, try Mindarma’s Compassionate Hand for Residual Stress – a practice that helps us to process, release and integrate challenging emotions like stress and worry.

5. Reach out for support

Reaching out for support is our oldest resilience strategy. It takes courage, but it is also a profound act of self-care and compassion.

And it’s worth it.

People who consistently report higher levels of psychological resilience or adaptability over time will often report they’re regularly engaging with different forms of support.

But Dr Joyce explains why this can be tough for small business owners.

'Many business owners experience the ‘curse of competence’. They are used to being the ones that have it all together and have high self-expectations that they should be able to handle anything that comes their way.

'Often, they will have others relying on them, which makes it extremely hard to be vulnerable, admit that they are struggling or that they don’t have all the answers.'

Dr Joyce highlights that getting support is something we need on a regular basis – not just when things are especially tough.

'You wouldn’t drive your car around without any petrol and without having it serviced – you’re playing with fire there. We need to take that kind of practical approach to our self-care and mental health.

'Rather than wait until things reach crisis point, make reaching out part of a regular proactive plan.

'When reaching out, consider who may be able to offer mindful support. It may be a friend, colleague or loved one who can hold space for you and listen without judgement and without trying to immediately solve all your problems.

'Some may find it easier to seek professional support, by visiting their doctor and asking for a referral to a psychologist. Small business owners in Victoria also have the benefit of being able to access free support through the Partners in Wellbeing Helpline.'

It all comes back to self-care…

Mindarma's short, interactive sessions teach mindfulness, self-compassion and other cognitive skills, and will help to boost your resilience.

'We want people to be able to feel comfortable and empowered to reach out for resources, reach out to others, reach out for professional support, and know that that’s an act of great self-care,' says Dr Joyce.

'It takes a lot of courage, but it’s also an act of resilience, and it’s a sign of strength when you do that.

'It comes back to the fact that it’s never selfish to reach out for support, it’s very proactive. You are always worthy of your own kindness, care and compassion.'