Rob Csernyik is a freelance writer and former retail entrepreneur.
Years ago, amid an unfolding spring, my retail store was failing. As a sole proprietor, I was the only person invested in my success or failure, and my sales figures and customer counts were still weak a few months in. My mental health became as fragile as my shop.
Alone with my unsold home decor much of the day, I felt isolated in these troubles. Friends with more traditional jobs simply couldn’t understand, since they were able to leave their worries at the office or job site. And when I tried talking about it with fellow entrepreneurs, they were tight-lipped, as if I was a heretic to mention my stress. One seasoned boutique owner even told me my problems came from my negative mindset: If I could just envision warm weather, customers in the streets and my store stocked with new summer inventory – which, mind you, I couldn’t afford – everything would be fine.
I think about this now as business owners and entrepreneurs across the globe grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic. While clever ones get plaudits for changing entire business models or focusing on staying positive, there’s been little discussion about the people who are suffering financially and emotionally. It’s enough to make closing shop or taking a deep financial hit feel like an indictment of laziness or lacking creativity. That’s far from the truth, though – and it ignores the potential trauma that business owners are going through.
About 28 per cent of respondents to a recent survey told the Canadian Federation of Independent Business that during the crisis, revenues have declined between 90 and 100 per cent. Other entrepreneurs will lose their businesses entirely and with that their careers, revenues and a large part of their identities. That survey suggests 27 per cent of respondents worry about having to close down permanently, and that 47 per cent are currently worrying about “overwhelming stress.” The Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce and the Dream Legacy Foundation found that 71 per cent of underrepresented entrepreneurs said they were struggling with negative mental-health issues.
Entrepreneurs are often viewed as being more susceptible to mental-health struggles than others. A 2019 study from the Canadian Mental Health Association and the Business Development Bank of Canada found that 62 per cent of entrepreneurs reported feeling depressed at least once a week, while 46 per cent felt mental-health issues interfered with their ability to work. That resonates with me: I would need to close my store for “mental health days” during my own lowest points.
The culture of bravado among entrepreneurs, celebrated by peers and reinforced in the media, only deepens the stigma. Unsustainable habits such as endless workweeks or skipping leisure time, meals and sleep are worn like badges of honour. This shifts the concept of “working hard” to an unhealthy standard.
I would have gladly seen a psychologist, but I was like the more than a third of entrepreneurs surveyed in the CMHA study – I couldn’t afford private mental-health care. Such supports during the pandemic have largely defaulted to free web tools and self-care. Financial relief programs have been positioned as supports to mental health, but many small businesses can’t qualify for programs such as Canada Emergency Business Account loans.
Ideally, real relief for entrepreneurs would include components such as telephone or video sessions with a licensed psychotherapist. After all, having a sense of meaning and control is crucial to a solid mental-health foundation and that’s something entrepreneurs can struggle with – even when there isn’t a pandemic to contend with. For some, the ability to find mental clarity amid the crisis will be the difference between their company remaining a going concern or closing down permanently. But for others, such assistance may be needed to grapple with a loss that can produce feelings like post-traumatic stress.
That’s what shuttering a business is, after all: a personal loss, one that requires dealing with grief and other difficult feelings. I know that firsthand: I had to close my business more than five years ago, and recovery has been a long journey. So if we expect businesses to regain their footing or others to forge ahead anew, it’s necessary to recognize they’ll need more than an added boost to their bank accounts. They’ll need a healthy way to re-envision their livelihoods and their lives.
We have a potentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reimagine our world and re-examine the things we value. Entrepreneurs pride themselves on their ability to recognize such opportunities, so let’s make it count – by ditching unhealthy bombast about impossible work habits for a better relationship between the heady thrill of entrepreneurship and sturdy mental health.
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