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Wellness support for startups (yes, some need it)


Any entrepreneur in the start-up phase will tell you that running a new business is often a cause of stress and anxiety, and not a carefree escape from the nine-to-five that outsiders might perceive it to be.

Why entrepreneurs worry

Entrepreneurs tend to suffer acutely from stress at work not only because of the unstable nature of new businesses, but because of their personalities, too. They might struggle to draw boundaries between their identity and their work, suffer from imposter syndrome, feel guilty when taking breaks, or be reluctant to show weakness to their teams.


Perhaps less discussed is that working for a small business can be just as stressful for employees.


‘Speaking as someone that is the founder and CEO of a small business but who has worked for several much larger organisations during my career, I believe that workplace stresses can be far greater when working for a small business,’ writes Process Bliss CEO Alister Esam in the introduction to Process Bliss’s 2019 report on the causes and implications of workplace stress in UK-based SMEs. Bigger businesses are not without their stresses, but have the resources and infrastructure to manage them better.


‘Small businesses tend to only add such measures as and when they scale,’ he says, pointing out that the feeling of being part of a family which is often found in an SMME can be a positive as well as a negative.


‘A lost contract in a large business isn’t ideal but in a small firm the repercussions are obvious, tangible and shared by everyone.’


Causes of employee stress at SMMEs


Many of the reasons employees at an SMME are stressed and anxious, especially if they are the very first hires at a start-up, are self-explanatory: heavy workload, high pressure, long hours, job insecurity, constant change and shifting goalposts – all factors you’d associate with a small outfit that’s still finding its feet and chasing business.


As with many things in life, it’s small issues that oftentimes stress people out, reports Process Bliss. The top five ‘little things’ cited by participants in their survey are:

  • Chasing colleagues for updates;

  • Lack of information or clarity when asked to do something;

  • Lack of control over a situation;

  • Lack of guidance/direction from your employer; and

  • Lack of response to emails.

These complaints tend to indicate a lack of communication and the absence of systems and processes – all commonplace in start-ups. Process Bliss found that 43% of the survey participants have left a job at an SMME due to work-related frustration.


Strategies to manage mental health at a start-up include the obvious, such as taking regular lunch breaks and holidays, joining a supportive network, getting enough rest, sleep and exercise, and taking sick leave when unwell. (Going to work when physically or psychologically ill or distracted by personal issues, also known as presenteeism, costs South African businesses over R80 billion a year.)


If employees are feeling completely overwhelmed, practising self-care could be a challenge in itself, so it might be time to reach out to a professional. The good news is that help is within reach, even on a start-up budget.


Where to get affordable help to improve employee wellbeing 1. South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG)

As Africa’s largest mental health support and advocacy group, SADAG manages a 15-line counselling and referral call centre, which covers all nine provinces in South Africa. On average, they help around 400 people a day who need referrals for a number of mental health conditions, counselling, advice and resources.