Posted: Thu 30th Jan 2020
The motivation for running your own business often comes from having the freedom to do things how you want, decide the hours you put in and where you work. However, it can mean working long hours on your own and loneliness is a big issue for small business owners.
Enterprise Nation's Small Business Barometer found 50% of small business owners felt lonely some of the time and another third (29%) often. We know it's an important issue in our community and wanted to share the experiences of members and the steps they have taken to focus on healthy wellbeing.
Working from home can be glorious. There's no commute, the kettle is close to hand and the kitchen hasn't been wrecked by messy coworkers. You don't have to deal with office politics and it means you can work around family commitments. But there are negatives too. Working in an office means being around co-workers who you can discuss ideas and socialise with, helping reduce stress and avoid loneliness.
Artist and illustrator Susan Taylor decided to switch from working at an ad agency, and the hedonistic social life and long working hours that came with it, to launch Susan Taylor Design after having children.
"Working from home was the easiest thing to do. It was brilliant. I got to see my kids, I could sunbathe when it was sunny instead of being stuck in a stuffy office. I only answered to myself.
"But the loneliness is a bit of a bitch. I have a cat and that's the only person, the only thing that I can talk to all day," she said.
There's often a life event or conversation that helps entrepreneurs realise the extent they're experiencing loneliness or stress.
Taylor said she didn't think about it too much until she was diagnosed with breast cancer. That led her to work to establish a routine: "I've realised I can't sit down and work all day solidly and not speak to anyone because it affects your mental health," she said.
That includes making sure she leaves the house every morning to get some exercise, whether it's taking ecommerce orders to the post office, walking the dog or going for a coffee. She schedules regular client visits and networking events to get the benefits of interacting with people in person, and working from home means she's more proactive socially.
The working environment at home is important. Social media coach and Enterprise Nation advisor Joanna Michaels runs Beyond Social Media Buzz. She occasionally works from coffee shops but does most of her work from a home office.
"I find that having a dedicated working space is very important to my productivity. It's also important to practice good posture when working on the computer," she said.
Tidying the space at the end of each day avoids distractions building up and provides a sense of intention, she said. Her desk is positioned parallel to a large window to provide natural light and the cables are hidden to make the room feel clean and bright.
Michaels said she can't rate having an exercise routine highly enough, which she believes is invaluable for clarity of thinking, purpose and having a positive attitude. She wakes up at 5:30am to have the time for an outdoor run or a gym session, and yoga breathing practice.
The last decade has seen a rapid increase in the number of co-working spaces. These provide small business owners with an opportunity to meet other entrepreneurs, share ideas and develop a sense of comradery.
Heather Gray, business development manager at Enterprise Nation partner Bruntwood, said her approach to community building is based on the experience of running an events consultancy from home. She is a self-described extrovert and missed the "charged and vibrant" feeling of being around co-workers when working from home.
"You live and breathe the business. When you're working from home, there's a belief that you can fit it all in, from doing the washing to client meetings. The reality is people keep dipping into things and when partners and children get home they find themselves still at the laptop because they feel guilty about stopping," she said.
She said working in a communal space is great because it forces a routine and helps people to avoid slipping into a never-ending work day that is dangerous from a health and wellbeing perspective.
Nick Donnelly founded WorkClub because of his experience working from a local pub.
"Working from home is lonely and the alternative of working from a busy coffee shop is no better as you're still on your own. Back in 2016, when I was starting my own business, I regularly based myself from my local pub in Teddington. The pub had recently gone through a multi-million-pound upgrade. It was the ideal workspace, except for the fact that it was empty and I was on my own," he said.
The desire to build connections and take advantage of these spaces led to the lightbulb moment for WorkClub, which now hosts entrepreneurs at 19 spaces across London.
Notepad Studio founder Naeem Alvi remembers what it felt like to work from home. Like other small business owners we talked to, after hours without anyone to talk to he would barrage his partner with questions when they got home. The business now has five employees and he's keen to make sure remote workers feel like part of the team.
"There are definitely challenges and loneliness is part of it. As a team, it's more about comradery. It's the social stuff that's important. We have four people in Birmingham that work from home quite often, but are in the studio regularly, and we have this really fun thing going on. But the remote London workers aren't part of that," he said.
Notepad runs quarterly team days to make sure everyone gets together. Technology plays a big role in keeping everyone in touch too. They run a Google Hangout every morning and use WhatsApp, Slack and email. Naeem advocates using the tools but said you need to be clear what each channel is used for to avoid disruptive notifications. In their case, Slack is for things that need a quick response, WhatsApp is for social events and email is for everything else.
Michaels said she realised the benefit of having a trusted network when she first started working for herself.
"There are so many questions that one has at the beginning of their business journey and it can be tough, especially when most of your friends and family have 'proper' jobs and simply cannot relate to the challenges you are facing," she said.
Michaels' approach was to find like-minded business owners to share experiences in a safe, confidential environment and solve work and work-life balance issues together. These connections were established through clients and by going to educational talks and events.
Taylor had to replace the feedback and creative brainstorming previously provided by colleagues when she started working from home.
"Those creative meetings do help. If you're stuck on your own you have no feedback. The doubt creeps in and then you're looking at your emails," she said. "I have creative friends, such as gallery owners, who aren't graphic designers. I ask for honest feedback. You use social media a bit more. I'll put new designers on social media and look at the likes and comments."
Loneliness is an issue for small business owners, particularly those working from home. Being conscious about creating a working routine that includes exercise and reasons to interact with people really helped the entrepreneurs we spoke to. Co-working provides a low-cost route to working around other people too.
What's your experience working from home been like? Have you had to take steps to ensure you avoid loneliness and have a more healthy working routine? Leave a comment below or tweet @e_nation to share your experience.