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Killer hours: finding a work/life balance

There’s no 9-5 for small business – you know that!! Your company is your life and you lose all sense of time – fact! This can be damaging to relationships, and ultimately, the small business owners themselves.

Taken to extremes, people can work themselves to death. That’s not hyperbole. In 2017 the Japanese government decided to issue policies to companies, after a young worker Matsuri Takahashi died from overworking herself. Japan is well known for its ‘presentism’ culture, where employees compete to be the first in and last out each day. There’s even a word for it; Karoshi.

Now there is a growing spread of this damaging overworking ethos to many countries, including the UK. But surely as a small business owner, maybe an entrepreneur working from home, you’re immune to overworking and burn-out? Think again.

Take the example of 35 year old Angela from Clevedon. She’s the owner of a successful embroidery company. But due to client commitments, she took just 10 days for her own maternity leave. “I never switch my mobile off, even in labour!,” she says, and checks her emails everyday, “even when I’m on holiday, trying to play sandcastles!”

Many small businesses have commented that work is taking an increasingly central role in their lives. Some feel that they are never really ‘there’ when with family and friends. With smart phones and wi-fi everywhere, it’s so easy to flick through emails, check the latest SEO stats, and do a little networking.  Before you realise it, another day has gone by and you can’t recall anything your children or friends said to you.

Does this sound familiar?

A 2015 study by ‘Simply Business’ found 50% of business owners surveyed had cancelled a social event in the past week. And 25% took less than 10 days annual leave for themselves. In the UK the most employees receive with a normal 9-5, is 5.6 weeks annual! That’s 28 days, without bank holidays and weekends included!

But, before you reply that you knew setting up and running a business was going to be hard. That working 15 hour days, 7 days a week is only temporary, and as your business develops you’ll be able to balance work and life commitments, let’s revisit Angela.

She found herself trapped in a feedback loop. As her business thrived she took on more employees. She hoped she’d be able to delegate, and take more time for herself. But instead she found taking responsibility for other people’s wages and careers meant more pressure, more stress and more time working. Years on from her initial beginnings, she is still working long days and weeks. And people can only cope with pressure for so long, until something gives.

Constant long working hours and stress are physically and mentally exhausting. In the long run this can lead to burnout which is going to be detrimental to your business – as you can well imagine!

Occasional stress and high workloads are going to happen. Maybe a big order comes in. And there is evidence to show short periods of pressure are actually good for us. It can be a buzz to challenge ourselves. But prolonged stress can create mental health issues such as depression and/or anxiety. Common symptoms include;


  • Feeling isolated
  • Low self esteem
  • Being irritable (not even the dog wants to talk to you!)
  • Lack of interest in things that would normally excite you
  • Lethargy

Physical symptoms:

  • Insomnia or sleeping too much
  • Ageing (well you probably aren’t but each time you look in the mirror, there is another grey hair or wrinkle!)
  • Eating too much, or not feeling hungry
  • Unexplained aches and pains

The combination of physical and emotional symptoms can take it out of you. It’s easy to see how not eating and not sleeping (which is a form of torture by the way!) is going to negatively affect your ability to function. It seems not all of us got the memo. The Smith Institute found that more than two-thirds of us are working longer hours than two years ago.

When is it time to get help? As a general rule, if you’ve been feeling consistently ‘out of sorts’ for 3 weeks, or your feelings are beginning to affect your ability to get up and work in the mornings – it’s time to stop. It’s time to give yourself the morning off and talk to someone. Pick up the phone to that girlfriend who’s been calling you for weeks, call a parent, call your other half… make an appointment with your GP. Whatever you need to do, you now need to do it…as this wasn’t the deal – was it?

It’s likely that by the time you seek to open up, you’ve been suffering longer than 3 weeks. If you work alone, there’s no-one to tell you you’ve not been yourself. Once you’ve spoken to someone, told them the truth, you’ll be on a path to improving your mental health.

How do you ensure that problems won’t emerge again, or as your business grows? The best medicine is prevention, and there are steps you can take to rebalance your life scales in favour of the ‘life’ part so ‘work’ doesn’t weigh you down.

Thankfully mental health is shrugging off the stigma applied to it, and business is beginning to implement ways to help employees.

Working Families, (an organisation that encourages work-life balance) is behind Go Home on Time day. “The boundaries between home and work are blurring – not many people are clocking off anymore and the rise of technology means work follows you home.” Sarah Jackson the chief executive says.

Blurred boundaries is an issue that many entrepreneurs face, where people have to self-regulate their time. If you’re under pressure to fill a big order or are deeply engaged in your work this can be tricky.

But not impossible!

Borrow the ideas of ‘Go Home On Time Day,’ such as;

  1. Work set hours – decide on whatever works best for you. That could be 8am to 6pm , or 5am – 11am , plus the odd hour on an evening or weekend. Use your free time to focus on the ‘life’ part.
  2. Remember to monitor working hours to ensure they don’t pile up without you noticing. Mark in your diary or calendar the hours that you work. Be honest. Time spent crocheting the cute personalised coffee mug warmers you sell while watching TV –  is work time! Even though you love it!
  3. If you don’t have an office it can be hard to separate work from leisure time. The answer could be dedicating a small area of your home as a working space. The benefit is, leaving that space gives the sense that you’ve finished work for the day.
  4. For those of you working at home, pick a finishing time, and then focus your attention elsewhere. Walk the dog, go for a jog, have a drink with a friend. The point is to do something that allows you to transition from work to home mode.
  5. Switching off is a state of mind. It can be hard not to check your emails – it only takes a few seconds. But if that’s because you’re worried you’ll miss out on business, write a polite automated reply for when you are not available. Add a time frame by which you’ll get back to them, maybe a quick tick form to fill out what they want and their reply details. That saves you wasted time too!

If you have so much to do that even working extra hours doesn’t sort the backlog, then the real burden is the amount of work. Occasional additional hours in an emergency situation is fine, but regular long hours are plain bad planning.

It’s easy to become caught up in the drama and pressure of your business. Then one day you look up and realise that’s all you have – work but no life. And that’s no way to live.  

Entrepreneurs have great strengths to build their dreams, such as tenacity and passion. There’s also the darker side – perfectionism and being just a little bit (okay, a lot) of a control freak. Learning when to let go is difficult. Whether that’s an admin task you can pass on to a new employee, or adding an automated reply during your down time. But it’s something you have to do. Your life may depend on it!

Begin to treat yourself like a valued employee, and see R & R as an investment. Because, when you are healthy and happy – your business will be too. Fact!


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