Why Small Business Owners Struggle With Mental Health And How To Help Their Staff

Hundreds of small business owners are struggling to face mental health issues with staff, new research shows, as they deal with their own pressures of being the 'jack of all trades'. 

Samuel Burmeister knows exactly how it feels to struggle with mental health -- and it's something he has been open with his team about from the start.

"I have suffered from anxiety for most of my life, so managing it has always been a big task of mine to bear," Burmeister told 10 daily.

That was only compounded when he set up Tall Books, a book keeping and accounting software training company, in Melbourne three years ago. Starting the company on his own, Burmeister hired two employees, one who continues to work interstate.

Samuel Burmeister runs Tall Books. Photo: Suppled

While being in charge has offered him flexibility and time to manage his anxiety, Burmeister said he has struggled with 'imposter syndrome'.

"It's quite common as a sole practitioner, especially when you're entering a new industry, to have in the back of your mind that you're not good enough or you're a fraud," he said.

"That was something I had to tackle and be realistic about -- by being kinder to myself."

Burmeister is not alone in these challenges, with new research highlighting the barriers hundreds of small business owners face in addressing mental health.

READ MOREA Visit To The GP Is Costing More Each Year For Those With Anxiety And Depression 

The survey of 757 Australian business operators, conducted by MYOB, found 43 percent of respondents had experienced a mental health condition since starting their business.

About 48 percent of respondents reported feeling anxious over financial and cashflow concerns, while others flagged attracting or keeping customers, and not having enough family time.

Psychologist Dr Abbie Wootten, CEO of not-for-profit group Smiling Mind, said the findings reflected the pressures of running a small business and supporting staff.

Photo: Getty

"Many small business owners will have either a small number of staff, or no staff at all. That means they have to do everything and you're juggling multiple competing tasks," Wootten told 10 daily. 

"You're also responsible for the care and support of your employees, and you may not have the HR capabilities that you would potentially have access to in a larger business."

Regina McInnes is the director of a property management company in Melbourne, which she has headed up for 23 years. Managing up to nine employees, she identifies with being the "jack of all trades".

"Often business owners don't realise when they're actually struggling and think they should be able to deal with it themselves," she told 10 daily. 

Regina McInnes has run a property management business for 23 years. Photo: Supplied

The MYOB survey also found only 52 percent of respondents felt able to help with mental health issues affecting their staff.

More than two-thirds of them have not discussed taking mental health days, and this is particularly high among those with between two and four employees.

McInnes agreed smaller teams are more challenging, and can lead to staff members "taking things personally".

"A smaller company doesn't necessarily have the resources a large company has, and the fear is if you were to address something incorrectly, it could be thrown back at you," she said.

"So you tend to be wary about bringing it up."

Photo: Getty Images

Burmeister said he "can totally empathise with someone not feeling comfortable bringing these things up."

"I think until we walk in someone's shoes, it's very hard to empathise," he said.

"It's about being open and willing to listen to someone else's story. If you don't feel equipped to do that, it's about having someone or access to someone in the workplace who can."

READ MORE: If You're Struggling With Mental Health I'm Here With You In The Dark 

Wootten and MYOB are hoping to unpack these challenges with a new partnership, to offer support and resources to small business operators.

"We'll be looking at those pressure points from a personal point of view -- how owners can learn to manage their own stress levels proactively -- while also building their capacity to have conversations with staff," Wooten said.

"Often it's stigma, fear and uncertainty about what to do that prevents people from asking questions around how staff are going and whether they need any support themselves." 

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.