Confessions and advice from the self-employed

We are told to ‘switch off’ and ‘relax’ as business owners, but that’s easier said than done. Add in the backdrop of COVID-19 to the cocktail of commercial uncertainty, lockdown, personal mental health woes and a wider narrative of recession, it is not surprising we are in such a delicate mental position with a never-ending anxiety hangover.

Most business books I have read focus on the soulless faculties of an organisation; finance, operations, recruitment, supply chain management, HR etc, but very rarely do they focus on the critical element which drives businesses; the erratic, emotional, living and breathing souls that cannot be quantified on a spreadsheet – the people and their leaders. The entrepreneurs and risk-takers.

Behind every leader, is a person. Behind every person, a challenge. Personal problems. Sleepless nights and the inability to relax.

Are you reading this and relating right now?

If so, let me share something: I consider myself a high-functioning sufferer of anxiety and depression. My ‘A-type’ personality worked its proverbials off and rewarded me with a good old burn out. I had anxiety and CBT. I then had depression so had tablets. Then different tablets. Then psychotherapy. Hopefully closing in on some clarity and management techniques there; a story for another time.

Why am I telling you this? I’m hoping you can use this, maybe relate to it in your own way, and use the following as a framework, like I have, to manage your own mental health and ultimately improve your business thinking.

1. Think about what success means to you
What does it look like? It means something different to everyone. Getting by is a monumental achievement for some, and rightly so. Others always want more, and that drives them. It totally depends. Just remember this: do not compare yourself to your aspirational self, let alone others. You may have limitations and that is absolutely fine. Just play the best hand with the cards dealt.

2. There are no rules – really!
You set up a business. You lead your team. It is on you. The challenge and responsibility also gives you the freedom to shape your days. If you are on your own (or an aptly named solopreneur), then you can start late and work late. Take a Wednesday off but work Saturday. You are not working at a Henry Ford factory. Work how best suits your productivity and wellbeing. Regularly remind yourself why you set up in the first place and be true to that.

3. Relaxing does not necessarily mean doing nothing
So important to delineate this difference. I don’t do well being sedentary. Switching off is important (from day-to-day) but going from 60 to 0 I personally do not find easy. Idle minds are indeed the devil’s workshop. Sure, use the odd Saturday morning to do work if it is going to combat the Monday morning workload or stress, but don’t get pulled into reopening the laptop to ‘take care of the things bothering you’ (and I have to constantly remind myself of this). Make a commitment to read that book, take that walk, meet that friend for a coffee. It is relaxation at its finest.

4. Does your business reflect your mental health
The biggest driver of anxiety and depression can be a lack of alignment in values, or (more starkly for business leaders) when all the blood, sweat and tears does not translate to an output you necessarily wished for. You have to enjoy the output and it is important to get that cash for survival, particularly in these trying times, but input is also important. Especially if you are a former burnout like me, you HAVE to start enjoying the process, regardless of the outcome.

5. Give yourself time off
Every Tesla needs a recharge now and then. Even if 2020 does not afford you position to fly to a terrace and a poolside somewhere, make time in the local park, back garden or even lying on your bed/sofa to take time to empty your mind.

Whether it be meditation or podcasts, think of anything but the proposals you need to send next week. Books are a great way to slow the brain down, and fictional books are underrated for business people. They are a great way to increase your vocabulary and galvanizing your storytelling skills for your business! They also help you sleep. Sleep is a whole other topic, but get plenty of it!

6. Other coping mechanisms
Sadly, not all proactive hacks cut it, you just sometimes have to be able to react in the moment. Coping mechanisms and stress-busting techniques are essential, and the team at Shawmind have crafted a useful Mental Health at work guide which is worth the read.

Furthermore, in my Medium series Mental Health Pt2 goes into the self-employed hack of all hacks, thinking about journaling, and celebrating the small successes as well as filling up the future facing calendar.

7. Finally, sometimes it’s just luck
Good or Bad. The sooner you accept this the better. Some businesses will get acquired for doing little. Some will work tirelessly with the best product and sadly not see the other side of this pandemic.

There is a tragic asymmetry in the world that no business plan can fortify you against. This saddens me of course, and to counter this I have been reading a lot of stoicism; I often think of this quote by Epictetus, one of the leading stoic philosophers and lived very much a life of slavery, offered probably the most important advice for mental health the last 2000 years has offered:

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.”

Just remember this, no business plan in the world can fortify you against all headwinds, but with accepting that you do your best, make time to switch off, align your brand with values, and accept that rest is out of your control, you can sleep a little better at night and improve and maintain your mental health at the sharp end of business.

Simon Akers is a Shawmind Mental Health champion who has contributed here and on other mental health Magazines such as TinMan Online, MiHND and The Book of Man. He is the founder of Archmon, his marketing consultancy (his Monday-Saturday job) and also starred up The Busyness, a podcast on mental health which covers many of the themes in this article. Check it out!