To mark this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, we spoke to Matthew Knight, founder and Chief Freelance Officer at Leapers, the mental health support community for small businesses and the self-employed.
Matthew shared lots of interesting insights and practical advice with us, all tailored to small business owners. Here’s what he had to say.
In your experience, what effect has the pandemic had on the mental health of small business owners?
While the self-employed are already well versed in dealing with uncertainty and working from home, the prolonged effects of the pandemic have led to lethargy, poor sleep health, the risk of falling ill and not being able to work, having to care for others and much more. We have absolutely seen a significant drop in the overall health of our community.
And of course, the financial impact has been huge. So many have not been able to work at all or are relying on government support - it's been really hard. This in combination with IR35 and Brexit has made for a very challenging few years.
Do you have any practical tips for how small business owners can keep an eye on their mental health?
This is one of the most significant challenges. When you're part of a team, others notice changes in your behaviour, mood, habits and so on. When you're working alone, it can be very easy to miss those changes, or worse, brush them off or ignore them.
The simplest way to keep track of your own wellbeing is to keep a journal. Just take a few moments at the end of each day to reflect on what you've been doing and how it made you feel. Not only does it act as a great way of looking back to capture your achievements and challenges, you can also start to see patterns over time. Collect the evidence, and then you're much better equipped for assessing whether you need to make a change.
At the moment, many of us are feeling the negative mental impact of a year of lockdown, but that isn't a reason to shrug these feelings off and say "hey, everyone is feeling like this!" It's still important to recognise how you're feeling and seek support, whether that be a conversation with your GP or just a chat with a friend.
Running a small business is often a solo endeavour. What advice do you have for freelancers who are going it alone?
There's definitely a stigma attached to self-employment in terms of it being lonely. I think people confuse feeling 'lonely' and feeling 'isolated'. Feeling isolated is more like you don't have anyone that 'gets it' around you - and that's what's important to address, by creating meaningful connections with people who understand the experience of self-employment.
Creating a team of people around you who understand it, who are going through similar experiences, who don't necessarily have the answers but understand the journey, is hugely important. People who you turn to for knowledge, who you turn to for support, who you turn to when you want to grumble.
We've started curating a list of communities at Freelance Friendly, so take a look and see if there’s anything that you like the look of.
Do you have any other advice for small business owners trying to look after their mental health while they’re working?
Make mental health part of your business plan - you're the most important asset in your business. If you didn't stop to recharge your laptop or keep your software upgraded, it would break and you wouldn't be able to do any work at all. You're just the same - if you're not recharging, if you're not upgrading, if you're not looking after yourself, you won’t be able to work at all. So even if you feel like you don't have any mental health issues, keep it that way by investing in your own wellbeing.
I find it helpful to create my own mental health working wellbeing plan which lists things like how long I'll let myself work without a break, a holiday policy, a personal development plan, all of the things you'd have in a job. Take the time to create your own wellbeing plan. We've got lots of tools, resources and suggestions on how to do this at Leapers.co. And most importantly, don't feel like you have to do it all on your own. There are over five million self-employed people in the UK, so I can guarantee at least three of them are up for a cuppa and a chat.
Matthew Knight is founder and Chief Freelance Officer at Leapers, the free mental health support community for small businesses and the self-employed.