Is a mental health crisis looming for SME owners in the UK?

A mental health crisis is looming among SME owners after the stress and anxiety caused by the coronavirus pandemic, according to new research from small business insurer Simply Business.

Four in five (82%) SME owners admitted the Covid-19 pandemic is having a negative impact on their mental health, while a fifth (19%) describe their current mental wellbeing as ‘bad’. Almost half (47%) are worried about their mental health.

The study of 765 small business owners also revealed that a third (30%) have experienced depression in the last 12 months, three in five (62%) have been affected by stress, over half (55%) have suffered anxiety, and a further 51% have had problems with sleep. In total, a worrying 82% of self-employed people having suffered with poor mental health in the last 12 months.

Additionally, over a quarter (27%) of SME owners have felt low self-esteem in the past 12 months and a fifth (19%) have experienced loneliness. The vast majority – if not all – said that any symptoms of poor mental health have either been caused by or made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Running a small business during Covid-19

Small businesses have been among the hardest hit economically from Covid-19, with the pandemic causing severe disruption to business operations and therefore income. A third (33%) of SME owners have had to temporarily close their business at various points of the pandemic and well over two fifths (44%) are operating at a reduced capacity. Just one fifth (21%) have been able to continue operating as usual.

But the study showed that running a small business during the pandemic has had a huge impact on small business owners’ mental health.

Over a third (35%) struggle to switch off, one in five (21%) say it has affected their confidence and more than two in five (22%) say it has impacted relationships with family or friends.

What’s more, almost a third (28%) are feeling demotivated to work or restart their business, and one in five (18%) have fallen out of love with their business or the industry they work in. This trend risks a huge blow to the UK’s 5.8 million small businesses which together hold a vast contribution to the country’s economy.

Causes of negative mental wellbeing

Financial worries are having the biggest negative impact on SME owners with two in three (61%) saying it has negatively affected their mental wellbeing in the past 12 months.

This was closely followed by not being able to see family or friends (60%), uncertainty surrounding their business (44%), and stress (48%).

Almost one third (28%) of SME owners cited isolation or loneliness as negatively impacting their mental wellbeing over the last year, and almost a quarter (24%) said a lack of physical exercise has harmed their mental health.

Looking ahead to 2021

It’s clear that some worries remain as SME owners look ahead. Almost half (49%) are concerned about the future of their business, while over one in five (22%) worry about their business permanently closing this year.

Perhaps a greater cause of concern, is that almost half (47%) are concerned about their own mental wellbeing in 2021 – with the almost-year-long Covid-19 pandemic beginning to take its toll after such a sustained period of difficulty.

Reasons to be encouraged

But despite these challenges, SME owners also have an encouraging level of optimism when thinking about the year ahead. Two in five (39%) are optimistic about the economy picking up and well over a third feel hopeful about the future of their business (36%), and jobs and orders picking back up (35%).

A third (31%) are feeling positive about their business’ ability to adapt to these new conditions, and a fifth (21%) are looking forward to learning new skills.

Improving mental health and wellbeing

Reassuringly, SME owners are taking steps to improve their wellbeing this year. Two in three (67%) are spending more time outside and in nature where possible, while a further 64% plan to exercise more and dedicate more time to connecting with friends and family (also 64%). A third (32%) will use reading as a tool to improve their wellbeing.

Other methods SME owners are looking to include gardening (27%), mindfulness and meditation (25%) as well as exploring arts and crafts (21%).

Alan Thomas, UK CEO at Simply Business, commented: “Few have been hit harder by the effects of the pandemic than the self-employed. Livelihoods are on the line as a result of Covid-19, with small business owners facing an unprecedented amount of pressure. Clearly this is having a huge impact on their wellbeing – the scale of which can be seen in our latest customer survey. 82% of SME owners report poor mental health, and 55% are suffering from anxiety.

“This situation should concern us all because small businesses are crucial to our economy and communities – and will be central to our collective recovery. At Simply Business, we feel compelled to highlight this issue and provide practical support where we can. Insuring over 750,000 small business owners and landlords helps us understand the specific challenges being faced by the self-employed, and the reasons behind this concerning data.

“Financial worries, dealing with stress, and lack of time for self-care are just some of the challenges. That’s why – in addition to shining a light on the emerging wellbeing crisis among this audience – we’re partnering with a range of experts to offer free tips and resources tailored to the self-employed.”

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