The impacts of the Covid pandemic, and the lockdowns and worsening late payment culture which accompanied it, on the mental health of small business owners have been laid bare by new Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) findings.
Its survey of 1,000 business owners finds that a third (34%) of all small business owners state that their mental health declined over the course of the pandemic. Latest Government figures show that there are 5.5 million small businesses across the UK, indicating that 1,800,000 have suffered a mental wellbeing hit due to Covid.
Across all respondents, one in four (24%) report that they currently have a mental health condition such as anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress. Among disabled entrepreneurs, the figure rises to four in ten (43%). One in seven (16%) small business owners report having a mild mental health condition, with 6% and 2% respectively stating that they have a moderate or severe condition as defined by NICE.
The new research flags the extent to which small business owners are struggling to make use of the workplace health support offered by government. Only one in ten (13%) disabled business owners or business owners with a health condition have used the Access to Work Scheme, aimed at providing targeted workplace help for both business owners and employees. More than a third (35%) have not heard of the scheme at all. A quarter (25%) are not aware that sole traders are eligible to access it.
With loneliness the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, the new study also highlights the ongoing impact of the UK’s poor payment culture on mental wellbeing. Six in ten (62%) small business owners state that they were subject to late or non-payment after Covid hit, with a quarter (26%) stating that dealing with poor payment impacted their mental wellbeing during the pandemic.
Wider studies underscore the isolating effect of poor payment. Estimates of the sum collectively owed to small firms in unpaid invoices vary – one recent study puts the figure at £140bn. Findings from FSB’s Small Business Index indicate that 400,000 small businesses are under threat because of poor payment practice.
The cost to the average small employer of having staff away from work due to physical or mental health conditions surpassed £3,500 last year, translating to a £5bn cost to the small business community as a whole.
In light of the findings, FSB is encouraging the Government to:
- Improve Access To Work take-up by ensuring health professionals point patients towards the scheme when writing fit notes.
- Launch a new, ambitious alternative to the New Enterprise Allowance to help those with mental health conditions who are out of work to create start-ups.
- Make Audit Committees directly responsibility for supply chain practice, elevating the importance of prompt payment within corporate environmental, social and governance (ESG) programmes, and place ending the UK’s late payment culture at the heart of BEIS’s forthcoming enterprise strategy.
- Develop “Pathways to Entrepreneurship” strategies aimed at dismantling the unique barriers faced by different entrepreneurs, including those with mental health conditions.
- Take forward FSB and TUC’s joint proposal for a small business statutory sick pay rebate, to help firms recover the cost of the millions of days lost to sickness absence each year.
FSB Policy & Advocacy Chair Tina McKenzie said: “Whether it’s the migrant entrepreneur suffering post-traumatic stress, the aspiring start-up creator wrestling with depression as they struggle to find work, or the thousands of business owners who feel isolated and hopeless because of late payment, policymakers should reflect on the challenges faced by entrepreneurs during this Mental Health Awareness week.
“By building on, and promoting access to, the support that’s already available to business owners and their teams, the Government can make a real difference to mental wellbeing.
“Over the years, we’ve seen how a worsening late payment culture – which sees corporates use suppliers as free credit lines – has sucked the joy out of running a small business for millions, leaving many feeling completely alone, and forcing thousands to close.
“At tomorrow’s Queen’s Speech, the Government can set down a clear pro-small business marker, with a legislative agenda that’s unequivocally pro-enterprise, and pro start-up.
“The cost of having staff away from the workplace, including finding cover, ran into the billions for small firms last year at a time when cash reserves were stretched and the spectre of trading restrictions was ever present.
“They urgently need more support to go on doing right by their staff. We hope to see the Government take forward our joint proposal with the TUC for a targeted statutory sick pay rebate.”