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SME leaders facing burnout

SMEs are close to breaking point because of an 'always-on culture', research from Advanced has found

One in five (20%) have admitted to feeling under pressure all the time, and 65% have said they either don’t switch off or struggle to switch off. Almost half (48%) blamed lack of time as a key source of their work pressure.

The research, which surveyed more than 500 owners and senior decision-makers in SMEs across the UK, also found that 30% would consider counselling support if they felt under pressure, and 19% would seek medical help.

When discussing how stress manifested itself in the workplace, nearly half (46%) admitted they get short tempered when under pressure, while 18% isolate themselves or are withdrawn. Other indicators of SME leaders being under pressure include not being able to sleep (52%) and becoming ill (30%).

More than half (53%) would take time out from their job. Two-thirds (75%) have stress-busting rituals, with 32% performing deep breathing exercises and 12% reciting positive affirmations. A tenth (10%) said they relieve stress through laughing and smiling.

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at the University of Manchester’s business school, said that small business leaders must take responsibility for their wellbeing.

“SME leaders are their own worst enemy. They don’t like delegating and they worry about their organisation, which can be damaging to both people and business. The digital era is making it worse. Leaders take their smartphones with them all the time and don’t hesitate to work while on holiday or when with family at night. Switching off is critical and that means taking a proper break to recharge. Otherwise these leaders will get ill – especially if they’re under pressure all the time as Advanced’s research suggests,” he said.

Alex Arundale, group HR director at Advanced, warned that consistent feelings of stress are not sustainable.

“It’s encouraging to see that most leaders recognise when they are under pressure at work, with many getting professional help when they need it. But it also sends a clear message – business owner/managers responsible for the UK’s economic backbone are being overworked and those that don’t take time out to refuel could face burnout,” he said.

“A level of pressure is normal and can in fact be good for us sometimes, but consistent high pressure isn’t sustainable and can hamper the running of a successful business. On a personal level it can also lead to a work/life imbalance; negatively affecting relationships in the workplace and at home as well as both their physical and mental health.”

When Advanced asked what leaders would do if they were given 60 minutes back a day, just 9% said they would spend it on work and growing their business. Thirty-six per cent would reconnect with family or friends, 34% would take some time to be more active, and 22% would invest in professional development.

Arundale added that it was important business leaders take time to do things they enjoy in order to tackle burnout.

“The UK has in the past been slated for its long hours working culture, and the risk of a ‘burnout Britain’ is still true today as it was then. Ultimately the owners and senior decision-makers in our nation’s SMEs need to take time out to rethink the way they are doing things. Taking 60 minutes to do what they love or sorting the things they never got round to doing will help people recharge and undoubtedly drive productivity and performance.”

Commissioned by Advanced, the research was conducted by Research Without Barriers. The sample comprised 504 senior decision-makers in SMEs (one to 249 employees) across the UK.