The burnout of small business owners and how to reboot in the new year

The burnout of small business owners and how to reboot in the new year


“People are feeling busier but not necessarily more productive.”

This was one of the key points made during the small business wellbeing session at Women’s Agenda’s Women’s [email protected] Summit.

The session, moderated by Tarla Lambert and with guest speakers Dr Addie Wootten and Sally Elson, examined how small business owners can recalibrate in the wake of an exhausting couple of years.

There’s no doubt small business owners in Australia have been some of the hardest hit since COVID-19 hit our shores in March 2020. The continual uncertainty of restrictions has limited the operations of many small businesses, and the experiences of lockdowns and border closures have left many anxious and overburdened. The recession and uncertain state of the economy has also placed added pressure on small business owners.

Speaking during the small business wellbeing session, Sally Elson, Head of People Advisory and Talent at MYOB, referred to the concept of ‘good busy’ and ‘bad busy’, and how so many small business owners have been caught up in the ‘bad busy’, simply trying to keep their business afloat and employees employed.

“The busyness, the hours people are doing outside of their normal business hours, the working from home. It encroaches on all of the other elements of your life – family, friends, exercise – that we know are so important for all of us for our mental health,” Elson said.

“In order to come out of this, we need to think about what the practices and the processes are… that will switch that business to ‘good busy’. It’s thinking about the effectiveness of the business and how they can utilise tools to get rid of that ‘bad busy’.”

There are nearly two million small businesses in Australia, employing about 44 per cent of the workforce. They’re the backbone of the economy, but research from MYOB has shown that nearly half of small business owners have experienced a mental health condition. Critically, only 1 in 4 will seek help for their mental health.

Dr Addie Wootten, a clinical psychologist and CEO of Smiling Mind, acknowledges the busyness trap that so many small business owners have fallen victim to during the pandemic, noting how it can adversely affect mental health and wellbeing.

“You can get absorbed into the doing. Awareness is the foundation for me; around how do you learn to check in with yourself to know what you need in your day to day, week to week life?

“It’s about really taking stock of what you’re trying to do and achieve in your work and in your life and learning how to prioritise things. It does that time to build that awareness and work out what you need as a person, based on your values and goals in life.”

Dr Wootten said it’s been so easy to get stuck “in the vortex” of busyness – something that takes up more of our time but ultimately leaves us with higher stress and lower productivity.

“It feels like the only way to achieve our goals is to keep working harder and harder. It’s a bit of a paradox because the harder we work and the longer we work, the less productive we become,” she said. “Sometimes it feels like we can’t get out of that hamster wheel.”

“We need to force ourselves to stop, reflect on what we need in our lives and actually plan how to integrate that into our day-to-day life. Humans are swayed by lots of different things, and we do have to learn how to be our own coach, to build habits and structures around ourselves.”

Sally Elson suggested small business owners take some dedicated time to recalibrate what their business objectives are, how this should play out over the next year, and to do this in a structured way.

“Otherwise, you’ll never get to it right?” Elson said. “There’s always another email, there’s always another call, or a bit more admin we can do. So have that structure there is important.”

“I think it’s really important to understand the opportunities that are there for you and set them up appropriately so you’re getting what you want out of your business.”

As Elson and Dr Wootten explained in the session, MYOB and Smiling Mind have partnered to produce wellbeing content for small business owners on the Smiling App.

“It’s enabled us to develop content that speaks to small business owners and has been developed with insights from small business owners,” Dr Wootten said.

“It’s very practical, it helps people manage their stress levels and taps into things around sleep, things like resilience and our relationships with other people.

“It’s a really practical tool. Sometimes when we talk about mental health and wellbeing it can get a bit high level and complicated but when it comes down to it, it’s actually the things we do every day that can help support our mental health and wellbeing.”

Thanks to Dr Addie Wootten and Sally Elson for taking part in this small business wellbeing session at Women’s Agenda’s Women’s [email protected] Summit. The session was made possible thanks to the support of MYOB & Smiling Mind.

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