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As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, Charlotte Lorimer spoke to Starling business customers about their advice on self-care while running a business.

When you’re run off your feet, juggling product development, finance, recruitment and marketing for your business, the last thing you want to do is find the time to go for a run or catch up with a friend over coffee. But looking after yourself is part of looking after your business.

“I think wellbeing is number one,” says Ollie Edwards, founder of Epic Breakfast Company. “I know from teaching for five years that my happiness suffered when I let this slip, and ultimately drove me away from it. It’s easy to look at others doing 80 hour weeks as models for inspiration, but it’s not possible to have a happy balanced life while keeping this up for a number of years. I can achieve more when I’m happy, well fed, well rested, fit and motivated in six hours than a miserable, tired, grumpy 12 hours.”

A study of 500 small business owners from online accounting software provider Xero found that more than 80 per cent had felt stressed in the last six months. The knock-on effects of running a business were that entrepreneurs lost sleep (41 per cent), drank more alcohol (21 per cent) and stopped exercising (7 per cent).

“Time is the single biggest issue I face,” says Gareth Thomas, a single foster carer to three children and owner of Clarified consultancy. “It feels like time is never on my side, but the reality is that we all have the same amount of time each day, and it’s a choice what we do with each minute.”

Learn to say no

When your to-do list goes on for pages, it’s tempting to try and complete one more task before you make yourself dinner or finally collapse into bed. But that extra breathing space or hour of sleep could make all the difference the next day, enabling you to work through that task much more efficiently and to a higher standard.

“I always take on way more than I can handle, enjoy the challenge, make huge progress, then reach overwhelm and get that drowning feeling,” says Gareth.

Gareth stands against a wall smiling in a grey tshirt.
Gareth Thomas, founder of Clarified.

When you’re a small business owner or freelancer, saying no to work from a client or to a marketing opportunity can feel uncomfortable and risky. But it’s more risky to take on too much and burn out. Without you, there’s no business. And there’s no sick leave to fall back on.

“It’s so important to do things that are just for you. For me that includes going to the gym, watching something on TV (usually with pizza and junk food...which explains why I need to go to the gym) and walking the dog,” he says.

Switch on your out of office and turn off email notifications

Technology can be a huge distraction: emails pop up and take you onto something else before you’ve finished what you were prioritising, a call from a client about a ’small tweak’ ends up taking an hour, you post a tweet about your new product and get sucked into scrolling through your newsfeed.

Samantha Blake, who runs SJB Hair & Make-up, uses an out-of-office message to tell anyone who emails her that she’s received the message and will reply as soon as she can. That way, she doesn’t have to feel guilty about not replying instantly and can focus on her work with clients and go through her emails in her own time. She also highlights her office hours and provides her mobile number for urgent matters.

Samantha grins as she applies makeup to a client.
Samantha Blake, founder of SJB Hair & Make-up.

Another tip for resisting the pull of technology is to turn off those red numbers that pop up on your app when you have a notification. That way, you’ll make a more deliberate choice to look at your messages rather than feeling compelled to. The notification settings can usually be changed in the settings of your smartphone.

Go to a class

The beauty of being your own boss is that you can manage your own office hours. But few business owners take advantage of this flexibility.

Going to a mid-morning, afternoon or evening class can be a great way to give yourself a break from your business by doing something creative or getting some exercise. It can also help structure your day by encouraging you to work to the deadline of when the class starts.

A further benefit of going to a class is that you’ll be spending time with other people, balancing all the time that you spend working on your own. You could also set up your own ’class’ by arranging a time to meet a friend for a walk, just make a commitment to a certain time so that you can get out of the house or office.

“I schedule sport in my diary because I know I go crazy if I don’t do some sort of exercise every day. Running your own business is tough, but one of its luxuries is that we get to choose when and where we work,” says public speaker and speech writer Alex Merry.

Alex smiles in a white shirt.
Alex Merry, speech writer and public speaking coach.

Check in with other founders and freelancers

It’s easy to feel lonely if you’re self-employed. But you won’t be the only one. Reach out to other founders, business owners or freelancers: a problem shared is a problem halved.

Kecia McDougall, founder of Tayport Distillery, says: “I’ve gained so much from meeting founders also struggling with the same balancing act of marketing, finance, signing up to exhibit at events and speaking to customers. It’s also been great to meet people who are as ambitious as we are and also want to dedicate their time and energy to making their business work - not everyone gets it.”

Kecia McDougall at Tayport Distillery
Kecia McDougall at Tayport Distillery

There are lots of support groups out there; you could even start your own. Self-care is important, but feeling supported - and supporting others - as part of a community is also vital.

Lose the stigma about being selfish

If you were described as ’selfish,’ you’d probably see it as an insult. But there are times when you’ve got to think of your own needs so that you’re in a better place where you can think about the needs of others.

“We sometimes end up in a situation where we feel like we need to explain and justify everything we do with our time,” says Gareth. “It’s OK to say I’m doing this because I want to and because it makes me feel good.”

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