The pandemic pushed entrepreneurs to prioritize mental health

It’s Wednesday, and a business owner in Toronto, Regina Sheung, is talking to me from her store’s landline. Labour of loveBecause on Wednesdays no one uses cell phones, not even shoppers. “It’s called Blackout Wednesday,” Sheung says.

The idea is that when customers enter your dimly lit Cabbagetown space displaying beautiful cards, prints, jewelry, gifts, and household items, it’s time to turn off devices, take off their shoes, listen to relaxing music, and shop without it. world in your pocket. He introduced the once-a-week initiative during the pandemic to help people decompress. As Sheung says: “It is a day to re-educate ourselves on how to slow down.”

The pandemic has had an illuminating effect on Sheung, but not before multiple lockdowns forced her and many in the small business community to adapt their coping mechanisms to stay afloat and stay sane. Between store closings, reduced sales, and rising debt, small business owners have experienced a unique kind of stress, leading to professional burnout. For BIPOC business owners, these pressures have worsened: Scotiabank 2021 Road to impact The report found that 47 percent of BIPOC business owners said that systemic barriers, including lack of market experience and discrimination, they put their businesses at a particular disadvantage.

Regina Sheung, owner of Labor of Love. (Photo courtesy of Regina Sheung)

A study conducted by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) in March 2021 found that nearly half of all small business owners reported suffering from mental health problems due to the pandemic. These mental health challenges have had a profound impact on the number of people who operate and take care of themselves. Burnout and instability forced them to cut down on endless work hours, figure out how to run their businesses more sustainably, and put mental health care at the top of their to-do lists. For some, this totally redefined how they viewed success.

“The pandemic made me ask questions like: ‘What is the most important thing in my life?’ And, ‘How do I really want to spend my day?’ ”Says Rachel Kelly, owner of the Toronto coworking community, Make lemonade. Kelly opened a physical coworking space in 2017 while working as a freelancer and lost the connection to working alongside others, but switched to an online business this summer due to the pandemic.

These dramatic career changes were not uncommon in the past two years, says Sarah Vermunt, career coach and owner of Carreragasm. She says many of her entrepreneurial clients experienced a similar pattern in the early days of the pandemic: They had a huge surge of energy and then collapsed. The time marker for that accident varied from person to person, but Vermunt estimates that it was four to six months after the start of the first lockdown. And once it hit, it hit hard. He saw entrepreneurs experiencing burnout, irritability, depression, massive anxiety, and emotional fragility. Many had to completely change their career paths to cope.

Vermunt has always placed great importance on feeling good in his life and in his work, a perspective that he brings to the professional advice he gives to his clients. But going through such a destabilizing era pushed her to further emphasize mental well-being. “I’ve become more vocal about needing to focus on it if you want to be successful in your career,” she says, adding that she often advises clients to work with a therapist as well. During the pandemic, Vermunt hosted virtual mental health events once every two months for clients and brought in a doctor to talk about dealing with burnout. “We talked about managing expectations and normalizing being unwell,” she says.

Sarah Vermunt, Owner of Careergasm
Sarah Vermunt, owner of Careergasm. (Photo: Anushila Shaw)

Mental health issues that are not addressed can be detrimental to the running of a business. Ongoing stress and pressure can lead to anxiety, depression, and burnout, all of which can make things difficult. think clearly and make decisions. Taking care of a team of employees is also a challenge when you are struggling to take care of yourself.

For Kelly, adjusting her mindset and realizing she needed to solve a new problem literally helped save her business. “We had no way of making money in our business and I was still paying the rent and was my only full-time employee,” he says. Something had to give.

Kelly made the call to close her office. physical doors in 2021 and the complete transition of your business in person to an online community. It was a difficult decision, but it made sense given the unpredictability of the pandemic. Making the decision eased her emotional burden by not having to worry about paying the rent anymore and made her hopeful about the future. He also helped shape his next venture, The Get Shit Done Club, which was born out of a need to overcome the worst of the pandemic. The online club is a paid members-only group of around 80 that supports the business needs of other entrepreneurs. The club opens three times a year to new members and the initiative is now Kelly’s main source of income. “At the beginning it was very complicated and since then it has evolved,” he says.

Sheung has also evolved the way she relates to her customers, something she says has helped her combat the feeling of being adrift after her sales took a hit, particularly on her jewelry line, which had previously been your biggest income generator. “I felt completely lost,” she says. “We were definitely not essential, so how do you get your client involved?”

Although she faced lost sales and made tough decisions, such as laying off retail staff during closed shutdowns, she found that her response to coping with the worst of the pandemic was to reach out to those around her. “What I needed to feel hopeful was to bring the community together,” she says.

So he created a “Thank Frontline Workers” movement that saw the store make good use of the artist-made cards they sell and encouraged customers to buy them for essential workers. Labor of Love would write the messages by hand and pay for the postage to send the cards to hospitals across the country. The exercise was not only good for customer engagement, but also lifted spirits at a crucial time. “It became really joyous,” says Sheung.

The second closure inspired another community-minded project: Sheung launched “Together Even When We’re Apart,” a resilience arts initiative with 11 Toronto artists. “We were plastering gigantic billboard-sized works of art all over the city, covering abandoned buildings,” he says. He also sold copies of the works in his store, both in person and online, with all proceeds going to the artists themselves. Reaching out to her community and encouraging others helped her feel hopeful instead of worrying about lost sales. “And we are still here,” he says.

Labor of Love in Toronto's Cabbagetown neighborhood
Labor of Love in Toronto’s Cabbagetown neighborhood. (Photo courtesy of Regina Sheung)

Although the pandemic highlighted the need for small business owners to prioritize their mental health, the problem has been intensifying for some time. A 2019 study of Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) found that entrepreneurs were mentally struggling a year before COVID-19 hit: 62 percent were depressed at least once a week, and nearly half said their mental health issues interfered with their ability. to work. Women entrepreneurs and those with smaller companies that had fewer employees and fewer incomes also experienced more mental health problems than those in more lucrative positions. Additionally, a third of the study participants reported that stigma and reputational concerns prevented them from accessing support.

In other words, regardless of the stress brought on by the pandemic – making rents, retaining employees, switching to new business models – many business owners needed to reassess their situation long before it happened.

Prioritizing mental wellness includes maintaining physical health for both Kelly and Sheung. “I have no benefits, so I can’t do therapy,” Kelly says. “But the regular journal really helps me and I go to the gym three times a week.” Sheung also finds comfort in exercise (he runs and goes to the gym) and meditates regularly.

While the pandemic pushed small business owners to evaluate what was working and what was not working immediately in their lives and careers, long-term cultural change will require dedication. “My hope is that we have learned a thing or two from the pandemic and the focus it has placed on mental health,” says Vermunt. “There is no easy way to change the culture of work, but we can do better.”

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