The crippling impact of mental health on small business owners

Many small business owners are already aware of the potential costs associated with workplace health and safety, but most don’t consider the risks to themselves and their employees outside of typical workplace accidents.

Our idea of occupational health and safety generally stops at the obvious physical risks we see experience at our workplace – such as fire hazards or poor air quality – but with a year-on-year increase in the number of workplace claims related to mental health, there is a timely reminder of this growing, yet discrete workplace risk.

The dialogue around mental health in the workplace is certainly changing, though at least 35 per cent of employees still state they would not want their manager to know if they were suffering from a mental illness.

This could be for many reasons, such as feeling it would jeopardise their job security and their chances for promotion within the company, or feeling as though they wouldn’t receive support from their co-workers.

In fact, a recent Swiss study found that while mental health disorders affect some 20 per cent of the workforce, most business owners and managers rarely have the training needed to detect problems and act quickly. So many workers are left in a difficult position where they feel they can’t share their mental health issues with a colleague, who in turn wouldn’t know how to properly respond if an employee did come to them with a problem.

We often think of mental illness as being an invisible problem. Whether a business owner or employee is undiagnosed and struggling through the warning signs, or is being treated for a condition and is trying to find their normal balance, mental health issues are often internalised and many of the external warning signs may be viewed as simply poor performance.

Depression and anxiety are two of the most common mental health issues that we see in workplaces, but it is crucial that we can learn to differentiate between normal stress levels and those that are a sign of something larger at play.

For small business owners, mental illness can have a crippling effect on the day-to-day running of the business and how you interact with your staff. Similarly, your employees are also the rudder that steers the whole ship. If they’re unable to perform their job, then not only will your business suffer but you may find yourself out of pocket as well.

To continue to ensure the health and wellbeing of your colleagues, it helps to get to know each other – general moods, attitude and demeanour – so you can potentially be aware of what a mental health crisis looks like for your colleagues, because everybody reacts differently.

Encouraging an open and honest dialogue will also ensure everyone feels comfortable sharing their feelings so that you can work out a management plan that will provide proper care without affecting the running of your business.

The Victorian Small Business Commission recently released its guidelines for Creating a Mentally Healthy Small Business, which aim to assist SME owners in fighting the “mental strain” of running a business. While these act as another example of the increasing spotlight on mental health, they also highlight the work still to be done in this area to address the everyday issues facing business owners.

St John Ambulance Victoria offers an online Mental Health Awareness training, which helps managers to identify and understand mental illness. With a focus on duty of care, crisis intervention and where to go for external support, it can help business owners and managers ensure they’ve taken every precaution to ensure their own wellbeing, and that of all their employees.

For small business owners, mental illness can have a crippling effect on the day-to-day running of the business and how you interact with your staff.

It’s not enough for us to bury our heads in the sand and avoid the serious mental health issues that plague our workforce. While nobody expects every colleague to be a trained counsellor, we believe that it is important that we provide business owners with a skillset that will allow them to recognise when a colleague might not be coping. We know First Aid saves lives, and this rings true for more than just physical injuries.  

Mental health isn’t just important for your employees, but for your own health and the successful running of your business in the long term.

Anthony Hasphall is the training team manager for St John Ambulance Victoria

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