Caring for your mental health while running a business
By Nick Pomeroy, Background
After years of thinking about it and never feeling like it was quite the right time, eighteen months ago I left the company and role I’d known for eight years to put my head above the parapet and start my own thing – Background. Over those eight years I’d worked my way up from being the first designer in a digital agency to heading up the Creative team and leading on a whole host of projects from brand strategy to video production.
But it had taken a heavy toll on my mental health. And while the world was in the midst of a global pandemic, I’d hit a wall I didn’t have the energy and mental fortitude to work through this time. So with a heavy heart, a huge dose of fear, and no concrete plan for where money was going to come from I said my goodbyes and left comfort, stability, and a team I am proud to still call my friends – to carve my own path.
It’s important to note that my mental health challenges predate my old job (read my story here) – I was well supported by my bosses throughout – and the wall I hit was largely of my own creation. For years I took others’ stress and pressures on my own shoulders (nobody asked me to), I beat myself up over every small mistake in work and management (when I needn’t have), and I built my identity around my work and my role (meaning when a rough patch hit, it was a direct failing of the very core of me, rather than a separated part of working life). This all culminated in a period of intense stress and anxiety with shortness of breath, heart palpitations, and a total inability to see the bigger picture. Up until the day my mind realised it could take a step back.
An immediate impact
Cut to the first day of my new chapter, and for the first time in a long time my head was calm. There was an almost overnight unburdening of the stress I had buried, quickly followed by anxiety over what the future held. But crucially, not anxiety of the present.
In the first few months, I was fortunate, I landed on my feet and was contracting from the get-go. And that was followed by finding the local community full of supportive people who were more than happy to offer advice, contacts, and general support with no expectation of benefit to themselves.
These two factors coupled together made the transition easier than I expected, and my mental health was the best it had been since I was a teenager. Largely, on reflection, because I was in control of my time and my direction as a person and a business.
Balancing Mental Health and Business Challenges
That’s not to say it’s been all sunshine and roses, and there have been many times where I’ve questioned why I did this, worried about money, and doubted my ability as both a designer and a business owner. But I’ve managed to prioritise my mental health above most things and avoid a lot of the pitfalls that come with starting a business.
You don’t have to work all hours to make it work
One thing I was routinely told early on was that you must hustle and work all hours of the day to be successful – and it’s simply not true. It’s about finding the right balance for you, and realigning what success means. It’s very easy to get caught up in the cycle of constantly working, constantly being ‘on’, and taking every opportunity that’s presented. And if all you want is to make more and more money, then sure that might be successful. But it will also lead to burnout and to increased stress.
For that reason, success to me is:
- Looking after my mental health first
- working with people who have a purpose beyond the bottom line
- and, financial security (not bigger and bigger profits)
And the main thing I can do for my mental health is to take regular breaks before I need them, as by the time I realise I need them, it’s often too late. So I deliberately refrain from over booking myself, and keep a minimum of one day a week entirely free from contracting or client work. That way I can spend time working on myself, my business, and if something’s not clicking, I stop for the day to recharge – guilt free.
You don’t have to do it all yourself
Running your own business can quickly become twelve jobs in one. From winning work, to delivering services, and to balancing the books it can be overwhelming if you’re not careful. And if you’re anything like me there will be elements you enjoy and elements you don’t, which usually coincide with what you’re good at as well. So, outsource those elements you don’t enjoy, and focus on those you do. You’ll be happier for it, your work will be better, and you’ll have peace of mind because it’s not all on your shoulders.
You’re not alone
A side effect of the pandemic for a lot of people was a sense of loneliness, their social circles had been cut off and it was challenging to adapt or find ways to socialise. And this is true for business owners and freelancers as well, it can be crushingly lonely at times. It was certainly a shock to go from a vibrant agency to working alone in my home office full time, and unless you’re building a team (my model is collaboration based rather than staff) you may find you’re in need of social interaction to keep your mental health strong. What works for me may not work for you, but I have consciously made more effort to see friends and to form support networks that are both social and business based (one such group meets over video conference one lunchtime a week to just check-in with each other – no selling, just support and chit chat). That way you’ve got people you can rely on if you need to bounce ideas, or just a friendly face.
Working from a home office full time can also exacerbate feelings of loneliness, so pop to your local coffee shop, work from a co-working space occasionally, or check out services like Reef to shake up your routine, get a different perspective, and be around people – it can do wonders for your mental health to be in a bustling environment even if you’re not directly socialising.
You are allowed to do things just for the money
One reason I setup my own business was to work with more like-minded clients, or clients with a story greater than their own as I like to say. And I had lofty ambitions to do this from day one and never take on projects just for the money. But when there are periods where work is drying up, or you wish you had a bit more financial security, there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking on that contracting gig, or project that doesn’t perfectly match your values and purpose. As it can’t be overstated, how much of a difference a financial buffer can be to help you see the wood for the trees and give you some mental freedom from the day-to-day.
Hold your head up high
If you’re anything like me, you can find the constant ‘success-content’ on social media a drain and a stimulus to negatively compare yourself to others on similar journeys. But what doesn’t get talked about often enough is that running your own business should be applauded, you’ve followed your dream and taken a risk. So, take a moment every week to check-in, remind yourself why you do what you do, look back on how far you’ve come and celebrate your wins – no matter how big or small. You’ve achieved more than most and reminding yourself of past success will build your confidence and resilience as you carry on into your next chapter.
I am still on my mental health journey. I don’t have all the answers. And I am still figuring out what works for me and my business. What I’ve outlined above may not be the right solution to your challenges, but I hope it’s given comfort that others experience the same situations and that there are ways to balance running a business and looking after your mental health. After all, without you, your business wouldn’t exist. And looking after yourself, is looking after your business.
If you are struggling or need someone to talk to, my door is always open. You can find me on LinkedIn, or email firstname.lastname@example.org (don’t worry only I see any emails that are sent there). And let’s talk.
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