The intersectionality of small business stress

Small business owners know stress. As the boss, you’re dealing with everything from unhappy customers to technology issues—with plenty of equally important things in-between.

According to research commissioned by Capital One, almost half of the 1,200 small business owners surveyed said they experienced burnout in the past month, with 77 percent citing the future impact of inflation as their biggest concern.

But beyond shifts in the economy (and the reality that business ownership is hard), some individuals have even more challenges heaped onto their plates.

This article aims to shine a light on these challenges—and to let people within our small business community know they’re not alone.

Passion vs. personal

“Do what you love”  became cliche career advice for a reason. Monetizing your passion is confidence-boosting, life-affirming, and likely life-changing if profitable enough.

Many small business owners manage to achieve this coveted goal, sometimes under the short-sighted belief that “following their passion” won’t feel like work.

In reality, running on passion won’t necessarily safeguard your well-being or business—especially if it’s the obsessive kind.

As Harvard Business Review notes, entrepreneurs with “obsessive passion” reported:

  • Feeling emotionally dependent on their work
  • Difficulty imagining their lives without their work
  • Feeling their mood depends on their ability to work

Ironically, these entrepreneurs also reported struggling to pay attention to work due to the other roles and responsibilities their intense focus on work caused them to neglect (e.g., family, relationships, and staying healthy).

Maintaining balance in one’s personal life is essential for everyone, but it’s particularly important for small business owners with a higher-than-average number of competing priorities, all of which can seem urgent.

To properly manage the trade-offs of being the boss, tend to your role as a human first. By prioritizing your mental and physical well-being above all else, you’ll be better prepared to deal with whatever comes your way, business or personal.

Identity-based challenges

It may be easier than ever to start a business, but systemic inequalities undoubtedly extend into entrepreneurship, making business ownership more stressful.

In its survey of over 1,200 small business owners, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that Black (and, to a lesser extent, Latino) business owners face disproportionate challenges around core areas like access to capital, obtaining certifications, business property costs, and adherence to CDC protocols.

Despite these barriers, a growing number of small business owners come from marginalized groups—especially post-pandemic.

According to research from GoDaddy, Black-owned microbusinesses (those with ten or fewer employees) grew from 15 to 26 percent during the pandemic, while microbusinesses owned by individuals without college degrees increased from 36 to 44 percent.

These stats sound promising on the surface, but as McKinsey notes, Black-owned businesses require supportive ecosystems to thrive in a system that has historically oppressed Black people:

“The right business ecosystems can mitigate or negate the effects of structural obstacles to business building for Black business owners—and add $290 billion in business equity.”

The lack of strong, supportive communities

Policy reforms that confront the challenges faced by today’s small business owners are long overdue.

In response, the U.S. Small Business Administration recently finalized updates to its loan program to “address persistent gaps in access to capital impacting small business owners in underserved communities.”

While it’s too early to commend the updates, it could be a step in the right direction.

Until then, though, there are things we can do as a community to support our fellow business owners:

Promote transparency and vulnerability.

Hustle culture was initially motivating for many, but the success-by-any-means-necessary attitude hasn’t aged well. According to Talkspace, the consequences of hustle culture include:

From the pressure to perform at your max every day to the stress of missed deadlines and unmet goals, approaching your business with this level of determination creates unhealthy patterns of unnecessary worry.

Subscribing to hustle culture typically means embracing work and shunning downtime. Think: I’ll sleep when I’m dead. Naturally, this is a very destructive approach that inevitably leads to burnout.

In an interesting twist, striving too much may actually make our wins less fulfilling. If you’re working so intensely—and taking the work so seriously—that you can rarely enjoy the process, what are you working for?

Toxic positivity
Healthy confidence says, “Here’s what I can realistically achieve.” Toxic positivity says, “I’m going to accomplish these gargantuan feats against all odds.”

Increased risk of illness
It starts with physical exhaustion, then quickly cascades into psychological stress that compounds your risk of developing health issues. Poor sleep and eating habits make matters worse.

Work/life imbalance
Much like the “obsessive entrepreneur” profiled by Harvard Business Review, hustle culture enthusiasts put work before their personal lives and routinely neglect self-care.

The best antidote to hustle culture is being honest with yourself. Assess your vulnerabilities and limitations as a mere mortal, and practice self-care like your life depends on it (because it just might).

Remain open about subjects like mental health and wealth inequality

In the era of social media, most people only share the good stuff. This is especially true for online-only businesses where social proof often translates to sales.

We’re not suggesting that you should post about all your failures, or worse, pander to people with your personal problems.

But if you can share a genuine story about a business challenge you’re currently facing (or have faced), use it as a teachable moment—or better, a shared learning experience as you figure things out.

A “business challenge” could mean anything from how to re-engage with your business after conquering post-partum depression to how your business plans to tackle discrimination and inequality in the workplace. The more genuine your message, the more value it’ll offer the small business community.

Join and donate to associations and other groups dedicated to addressing these issues.

Small business owners are generally resilient and enterprising people, but they still need support to flourish.

As the Brookings Institution reported, local economic leaders who want to help minority-owned microbusinesses succeed must first make the effort to understand their business development needs and challenges.

The same goes for small business associations and professional groups. If you can join (or donate to) organizations that support small businesses, you can also help them better understand the market to serve others.

Putting it all together

The COVID-19 crisis had a dual effect on small business ownership. While it enabled employees-turned-entrepreneurs to kickstart new businesses, it reinforced systemic inequality and highlighted the colossal wealth gap in the process.

The solution to these issues isn’t simple, but if there’s one thing we know for sure, small businesses thrive on relationships. Not just with customers, but with fellow business owners—and most importantly, with ourselves.

While it’s impossible to fully eradicate the daily stresses of running a business, it is possible to step up in support of others in the greater small business community.