Hidden mental health struggles impacting NZ SMEs

Published 18 July 2023 | 2 min read

Are Kiwi business owners suffering in silence?

Running a business is no easy task, especially for small-to-medium enterprise (SME) owners in New Zealand. The daily demands, financial pressures, and unforeseen challenges can quickly take a toll on their mental health. The story of Doug Jarvis, a Bay of Plenty butcher, sheds light on the overwhelming burden many business owners face.

Jarvis, owner of two specialty Doug Jarvis Butchers stores in Mt Maunganui and Pāpāmoa, found himself working tirelessly for two years due to a severe staff shortage. He was shouldering the responsibilities of eight employees, resulting in a grueling seven-day workweek. However, that was just the beginning of his troubles. Earlier this year, his stores were plagued by break-ins and thefts, pushing him to the brink of despair.

Unveiling the Struggles

"It's just depression and how things get on top of you," Jarvis admitted. His experience is not an isolated case. Many business owners silently endure similar struggles. The MYOB 2022 Business Monitor, a survey of over 1000 local SME owners, revealed that 32% of them had experienced a mental health condition since starting their businesses. Stress affected 85% of those owners, while 71% experienced anxiety, and 39% battled depression.

The far-reaching consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with factors like lack of sleep, high workloads, and political uncertainty, have had a significant impact on the overall well-being of SME owners. Jarvis, overwhelmed by stress, saw his blood pressure reach dangerously high levels. He recognized that his mental state was inextricably linked to his physical health.

The plight of Doug Jarvis came to public attention when he shared his story with Stuff NZ. In response, an outpouring of support came from across the country. Job applications flooded in, retired butchers volunteered to work for free, and his dedicated staff rearranged their shifts to give him a much-needed break. Jarvis was surprised with a holiday to Brisbane to reunite with his son after two long years. It was a turning point that opened his eyes to the importance of self-care.

The MYOB survey revealed an alarming finding: most SMEs are not discussing mental health and well-being in the workplace. Three-quarters of the business owners polled had not broached the topic with their staff over the past year. This lack of conversation perpetuates the stigma surrounding mental health and leaves many business owners suffering in silence.

Jarvis, who recognizes the importance of open communication, emphasizes the need for businesses to address mental health. He actively engages in one-on-one meetings with struggling staff members and brings up the topic in community discussions. He firmly believes that everyone should be able to talk about mental health without fear or hesitation.

MYOB spokesperson Jo Tozer acknowledges the unique challenges faced by SME owners, which directly impact their mental health and well-being. Beyond the usual pressures of business, economic uncertainties and employment challenges compound the burden, leading to increased stress and anxiety. However, Tozer reminds business owners that they are not alone.

How can Kiwi business owners achieve mental well-being?

This year's Mental Health Awareness Week highlights the importance of reconnecting with the people and places that provide support. Over half of SME owners and decision-makers find solace in socializing with friends and family to improve their mental well-being. The key lies in finding support networks that offer understanding and empathy.

To combat the rising tide of mental health struggles among business owners, it is crucial to create an open and supportive environment in the workplace. Employers should initiate conversations about mental health, encouraging employees to share their experiences and seek assistance when needed. By fostering a culture of understanding, SMEs can empower their workforce and alleviate the burden of mental health issues.

Doug Jarvis's story serves as a call to action for small-to-medium New Zealand business owners and decision-makers. It's time to break the silence, dispel the stigma, and prioritize mental health. Together, we can build a resilient and thriving business community that values the well-being of its members.


McIlraith, B. (2023, July 15). Mental health issues on the rise for SME. Stuff NZ. Retrieved from https://www.stuff.co.nz/business/129970022/overwhelmed-business-owners-are-struggling-with-mental-health-issues

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