‘I Needed to Feel Hopeful’: How the Pandemic Pushed Small Business Owners to Prioritize Mental Health

Between store closures, reduced sales and mounting debts, small business owners have experienced a unique kind of stress over the past two years
Rachel Kelly, founder of Make Lemonade. (Photography: Amber Ellis)

It’s Wednesday and Toronto business owner Regina Sheung is talking to me from the landline of her store Labour of Love, because on Wednesdays no one there uses cell phones—not even shoppers. “It’s called power-down Wednesday,” says Sheung. 

The idea is that when customers enter her dimly lit Cabbagetown space displaying beautiful cards, prints, jewellery, gifts and home goods, it’s time to turn off devices, take off your shoes, listen to relaxing music and shop without the world in your pocket. She introduced the once-per-week initiative during the pandemic to help people decompress. As Sheung puts it: “It’s a day to reeducate ourselves on how to slow down.”  

The pandemic has had a clarifying effect for Sheung, but not before multiple lockdowns forced her and many in the small business community to adapt their coping mechanisms to both stay afloat and stay sane. Between store closures, reduced sales and mounting debts, small business owners have experienced a unique kind of stress, leading to professional burnout. For BIPOC business owners, these pressures were compounded: Scotiabank’s 2021 Path To Impact report found that 47 per cent of BIPOC business owners said systemic barriers, including a lack of market experience and discrimination, put their businesses at a particular disadvantage. 

Regina Sheung, owner of Labour of Love. (Photo courtesy of Regina Sheung)

A study conducted by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) in March 2021 found that nearly half of all small business owners reported suffering from mental health issues because of the pandemic. These mental health challenges have had a profound impact on how many run their operations and care for themselves. Burnout and instability forced them to scale back on working endless hours, figure out how to run their businesses more sustainably, and move caring for their mental health to the top of their to-do lists. For some, this totally redefined how they viewed success.  

“The pandemic made me ask questions like: ‘What’s the most important thing in my life?’ And, ‘How do I actually want to spend my day?’” says Rachel Kelly, owner of the Toronto co-working community, Make Lemonade. Kelly opened a physical co-working space in 2017 when she was freelancing and missed the connection of working alongside others, but pivoted to an online business this summer due to the pandemic. 

These dramatic career changes were not uncommon over the past two years, says Sarah Vermunt, a career coach and owner of Careergasm. She says many of her entrepreneur clients experienced a similar pattern in the early days of the pandemic: They had a huge surge of energy, and then crashed. The time marker for that crash varied from person to person, but Vermunt estimates it was about four to six months after the start of the first lockdown. And once it hit, it hit hard. She saw entrepreneurs experiencing exhaustion, irritability, depression, massive anxiety and emotional fragility. Many had to completely change their career paths to cope.

Vermunt has always placed high importance on feeling good in her life and work, a perspective she brings to the career advice she gives her clients. But going through such a destabilizing era pushed her to highlight mental well-being even more. “I’ve become more vocal about the need to focus on it if you want to be successful in your career,” she says, adding that she often advises clients to work with a therapist, too. During the pandemic, Vermunt hosted virtual mental health events once every two months for clients and brought in a physician to talk about how to deal with burnout. “We talked about managing expectations and normalizing not being okay,” she says.

Sarah Vermunt, owner of Careergasm
Sarah Vermunt, owner of Careergasm. (Photography: Anushila Shaw)

Unaddressed mental health issues can be detrimental to running a business. Ongoing stress and pressure can lead to anxiety, depression and burnout, all of which can make it hard to think clearly and make decisions. It’s also challenging to take care of a team of employees when you’re struggling to take care of yourself. 

For Kelly, adjusting her mindset and realizing she needed to solve a new problem literally helped save her business. “We had no way to make money in our business and I was still paying rent and my one full-time employee,” she says. Something had to give.

Kelly made the call to close her office’s physical doors in 2021 and fully transition her in-person business into an online community. It was a hard decision, but it was what made sense given the unpredictability of the pandemic. Making the choice lightened her emotional load by no longer having to worry about making rent and made her hopeful about the future. It also helped shape her next venture, The Get Shit Done Club, which was born out of the need to get through the worst of the pandemic. The online club is a paid, members-only group of about 80 that supports the business needs of other entrepreneurs. The club opens up three times a year to new members and the initiative is now Kelly’s main source of income. “It was a very scrappy thing at first and it’s just been evolving ever since,” she says.

Sheung has also evolved how she engages with her clients—something she says has helped her combat feeling adrift after her sales took a hit, particularly to her jewellery line which had previously been her biggest revenue driver. “I felt completely lost,” she says. “We were definitely non-essential, so how do you even engage your customer?” 

Although she dealt with lost sales and making hard decisions, like laying off retail staff during lockdowns, she found that her answer to riding out the worst of the pandemic was reaching out to those around her. “What I needed to feel hopeful was to bring the community together,” she says. 

So she set up a “Say Thanks to Frontline Workers” movement that saw the store make good use of the artist-made cards they sell, and encouraged customers to buy them for essential workers. Labour of Love would write out the messages by hand and pay the postage to send the cards to hospitals around the country. The exercise not only proved good for customer engagement, but it also lifted spirits at a crucial time. “It turned into something really joyful,” Sheung says.

The second lockdown inspired another community-minded project: Sheung kicked off “Together Even When We’re Apart,” an art initiative of resilience featuring 11 Toronto artists. “We were plastering gigantic, billboard-sized art pieces throughout the city, covering abandoned buildings,” she says. She also sold prints of the works in her store, both in-person and online, with all proceeds going to the artists themselves. Turning to her community and lifting others up helped her feel hopeful instead of worried over lost sales. “And we’re still here,” she says. 

Labour of Love in Toronto's Cabbagetown neighbourhood
Labour of Love in Toronto’s Cabbagetown neighbourhood. (Photo courtesy of Regina Sheung)

Although the pandemic highlighted the need for small business owners to prioritize their mental health, the issue has been escalating for some time. A 2019 study by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) found that entrepreneurs were struggling mentally a year before COVID-19 hit: Sixty-two per cent were depressed at least once a week, with nearly half saying their mental health issues interfered with their ability to work. Women entrepreneurs and those with smaller enterprises that had fewer employees and less revenue also experienced more mental health issues than those in more lucrative positions. What’s more, one-third of the study’s participants reported that stigma and reputation-related concerns prevented them from accessing support. 

In other words, regardless of the stress brought on by the pandemic—making rent, retaining employees, pivoting to new business models—many business owners were in need of reassessing their situations long before it happened. 

Prioritizing mental wellness includes maintaining physical health for both Kelly and Sheung. “I have no benefits, so I can’t do therapy,” Kelly says. “But regular journalling really helps me and I go to the gym three times a week.” Sheung also finds solace in exercise—she runs and goes to the gym—and meditates regularly. 

While the pandemic pushed small business owners to assess what was and wasn’t immediately working in their lives and careers, long-term cultural change will take dedication. “My hope is that we’ve learned a thing or two from the pandemic and the spotlight it has put on mental health,” Vermunt says. “There’s no easy way to change the culture of work, but we can do better.”