Prominent Sunshine Coast businesswoman Michelle Christoe pulls no punches when describing the impacts of COVID: “Business owners have been in ‘crisis mode’ for two years, which causes huge mental, physical and emotional pressure,” she says.
The owner of Sunshine Coast entertainment venue NightQuarter should know – since opening late last year NightQuarter has experienced $3 million worth of events rescheduled or cancelled from its 2021 calendar resulting in refunds, thousands of consumer queries and considerable administration.
Ms Christoe is one of around 120 business owners/operators in the sub-regional areas of Caloundra and Kawana to take part in a survey conducted by Caloundra Chamber of Commerce in partnership with the University of Sunshine Coast School of Business and Creative Industries into the growing needs of business owners throughout the pandemic.
It is not surprising to learn the survey identified a two-speed economy with some enterprises thriving and others struggling. Many of those in the latter category spoke of feeling a sense of vulnerability.
Caloundra Chamber of Commerce CEO Brady Sullivan says, “While it is true that many sectors have largely gone unscathed and others have even enjoyed great growth opportunities, there is reason to be concerned for many business owners.
“At the best of times business owners face challenges and stressful situations and we are far from the best of times.”
However, Mr Sullivan says overall, business owners are characteristically innovative and 68 per cent of the respondents expressed satisfaction with their jobs and work-life balance.
“Local business owners scored incredibly high levels of job satisfaction,” he says.
“However, the financial vulnerability and stress caused by COVID-19 is clearly, and increasingly, taking a toll on their mental wellbeing.”
One in three survey participants responded that they often feel down, depressed or hopeless.
COVID demand for extra planning, training and staff protection – besides the everyday challenge of living through an ever-changing environment requiring immediate responses – has resulted in profound repercussions in all industries, including those industries that have continued to do well.
For instance, director of Home Care Assistance Sunshine Coast Kendall Morton is running a flourishing business and points to the creation of NDIS, federal government funding and increased societal expectation as underpinning the growth of her business, which provides home care to seniors.
While Ms Morton is delighted with her business expansion, at the same time she says COVID has added another complex dimension of care, which is unique to her business.
“It’s one thing to take precautions in controlled environments such as hospitals, but it is especially difficult to implement precautions in uncontrolled environments such as home visits.”
Even with the low COVID rates in Queensland, Ms Morton’s workload has increased with staff training, infection control and provision of PPE along
with programs of continuing cycles of client care.
In these difficult circumstances she also highlights and praises the work of support carers and their professionalism as frontline workers.
Nevertheless, to keep her business not only running but running smoothly, she admits to a non-stop workload since the virus began inclusive of providing proper staff support. “I have had no time off since COVID,” she says.
“It’s a huge responsibility to keep everyone safe and it takes its toll to ensure all employees are kept mentally and physically safe.”
As Ms Christoe reflects on similar business concerns she says she realises how fortunate she is to be in Queensland, nevertheless staff have needed to take stress leave and as a result, at times, have taken up to a week to recover.
“Business owners have been on the frontline during the pandemic yet there has not been enough focus on the mental toll that it has taken.
“We put our hearts and souls into our businesses and seeing them closed, the loss of income, the flow-on effects to every facet of our lives – it has a long-lasting psychological impact.”
The survey’s chief investigator, University of the Sunshine Coast (USC)senior lecturer in marketing Dr Rory Mulcahy, says analysis shows that financial risk and other negative implications of COVID are eroding the confidence and wellbeing of a significant number of business owners and operators.
“Almost 30 per cent indicated that for several days a week they have little interest or pleasure in doing things.
“In another finding, 44 per cent felt their business was financially vulnerable as a result of the pandemic.”
Mr Sullivan says the survey’s report has provided quantified data that mental wellbeing issues exist in the business community, and this backs up his advocacy for business support – much of which will come from the chamber’s partnership with the Thompson Institute. The institute is a world-class hub for mental health and neuroscience research addressing Australia’s most pressing mental health issues, which also offers a suite of mental health training for businesses and individuals.
Mr Sullivan says through this channel, a series of programs will be delivered to members. These include upcoming access to the safeTALK program, which teaches skills in suicide alertness, and ASIST, which teaches participants to also apply a suicide intervention model.
Director of the Thompson Institute, Professor Jim Lagopoulos says the partnership is a big step towards strengthening mental health networks in the community, noting that community demand for the institute’s three programs has increased during COVID-19 and the rise in figures is likely to continue.
“Participants in our mental health coaching EMERALD program have reported increasing their wellbeing by up to 54 per cent, by completing an eight-week online program tailored to their needs, so we know it is effective, and it is likely demand will increase.”
More than 2000 people have already completed community training programs offered by the Thompson Institute with an estimated $4.7 million value to the economy.
To stay connected with the latest information regarding the Caloundra Chamber of Commerce and USC’s Thompson Institute, visit caloundrachamber.com.au.
If you or someone you know is in need of support, phone Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit beyondblue.org.au.
COVID rocks confidence of business owners
The Business Health Check Survey explored three major areas of business conditions including business confidence, business operations and the mental and physical wellbeing of business owners.
MENTAL HEALTH AND WELLBEING
Alarmingly, one of the key findings from the research was that there are unusually high levels of stress and vulnerability in the business community. This is causing significant mental health challenges. This research provides much-needed insight into the mental health and wellbeing of business owners. More than one in three business owners responded that they often feel down, depressed or hopeless. This is despite the fact that overwhelmingly Caloundra business owners are innovative and are not only satisfied with their jobs but also with their work-life balance.
The research has supported anecdotal evidence that COVID- 19 has significantly affected staffing conditions for business. One-fifth of businesses who responded have suggested they have been forced to lay off employees due to COVID. However, while more than half have flagged they are looking to grow, only half of these businesses have been successful in securing a candidate. While two-thirds agree their business is performing well financially, a segment of the business community either lack a meaningful financial buffer or have had their buffers destroyed by the pandemic. Despite the initial respite of JobKeeper, continued lockdowns and uncertainty have caused over half of respondents to believe they will lose income due to the pandemic. The results suggest uncertainty surrounding future lockdowns is adding to pressure.
* This project was made possible through partnerships and support by the Queensland Mental Health Commission, Sunshine Coast Council, DESBT and the University of the Sunshine Coast.
By the numbers
According to the Caloundra Chamber of Commerce and USC survey, the retail, tourism and hospitality sectors were hardest hit, with twice as many respondents reporting they had experienced greater financial difficulties since the pandemic began compared with other businesses. Just over 30 per cent of retail, tourism and hospitality businesses said they had laid off staff in the past 12 months, compared with 17 per cent of other businesses.
DID YOU KNOW?
Each year, 897,000 people are affected by mental health issues in Australia (that’s one in five people over the age of 16), and it comes at an economic cost of $70 billion.