Work and life balance is one of the hardest issues small business owners face. Find out how to keep entrepreneurial lifestyle and make sure you’ll take some days off.
Small business owners can’t be good at everything, but many are particularly bad at taking time off. Research published by business software provider Sage suggests that more than 30% of UK small business owners didn’t have a summer holiday last year.
“It really is a big problem, and the smaller the business, the more likely it is. Ultimately, not taking enough time off can prove extremely harmful to the owner, their family and their business,” warns Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School.
“Even if a business owner takes a summer holiday, rarely will it be for two weeks. And while they’re away, many of them will have their smartphone, tablet or laptop nearby, so they end up regularly checking for emails.”
Ironically, says Cooper, many business owners are precisely those who deserve a break the most. “Many already work significantly longer hours than others and have tremendous responsibility and pressure to shoulder. I’m a director and part owner of a university spin-off company, so I understand their reluctance to take time off. Not everyone can afford it and many have no-one to cover for them. Naturally they’re concerned about protecting their livelihood and everything they’ve invested in their business, while employees depend on them, too.”
But why do people need holidays? Cooper says: “There’s interesting respite research coming out of the US and Israel that suggests that people who take holidays return feeling healthier and psychologically more robust. This is good for their health, well-being and family relationships. Running a business often means not seeing loved ones as much as we’d like. Taking a break enables us to re-engage with them, otherwise marriages and family life can suffer enormously. Investing in relationships is as important as investing in your own health.”
Dangerous and destructive
Cooper says people who return from holiday refreshed, re-energised and refocused usually feel better able to cope with what is now a much more relentless and challenging work environment for many of us.
He views the notion that business owners must always be thinking about, if not working on their business as dangerous. “Keep that up over a long period and it can be destructive. There’s profound evidence that if you work extremely long hours over a sustained period you’ll end up being less productive.”
Cooper says taking time off from your business can also help you to regain perspective. “Things that you’ve been worrying about can in fact turn out to be trivial. Going on holiday can give you the space and time to see things as they really are.”
Systems and processes
Barclay Thompson is the director of Hove-based consultancy Clear Business Development. He grew an innovative gifts manufacturing business, started in his spare room, into a company with a turnover of £3m. “If you’re a business owner planning to go on holiday, you should approach it systematically and in good time, then problems are less likely,” he advises.
Thompson says all businesses need effective systems and processes for dealing with enquiries, sales, delivery, customer service and complaints, cashflow management, HR, and so on. “If you have staff, they should have clear job descriptions and be trained to use your systems. That way the business owner going on holiday will be less of an issue.”
Poor systems, planning and preparation can damage your business, warns Thompson. “You can lose sales if enquiries aren’t responded to while you’re on holiday. Poor cashflow management might mean a supplier not getting paid on time. You might create hassle and extra work for others. And your holiday won’t be relaxing if people are constantly calling you. Effective systems enable a business to continue to operate or be put on hold while the owner is on holiday.”
Thompson recommends drawing up a list of everything you need to sort out before you head off. “Look closely at your cashflow, because you need to make sure you won’t run out of money. Make sure key suppliers and staff will be paid on time.
“Also let customers know – at least six weeks in advance – that you’ll be away. If you have staff, let customers know who to contact in your absence, and fully brief your people. You must minimise impact on your customers. Also, let your key suppliers know you’re having a holiday and amend orders as necessary.”
Thompson says many sole traders have reciprocal agreements to deal with enquiries and deliver services in each other’s absence. “Otherwise, leave your telephone answering machine on and its message should explain that you’re away but will pick up emails and respond to urgent enquiries. Alternatively, you can pay to use a professional business answering service.”
Also set up an out-of-office automatic email reply, telling people when you will return and whom they can contact in your absence (if applicable) if the matter is urgent. He says good communication with customers is essential if they are to believe that their interests are important to you.
“If you’re going to be away for a few weeks and have employees, agree a ‘call-in’ time each week and clearly allocate responsibility so that problems can dealt with if they arise. If your systems are good and your staff have clear instructions, customers shouldn’t need to call you while you’re on holiday,” says Thompson.
Professor Cooper accepts that advising owners to completely forget about their business while on holiday isn’t realistic, especially as modern technology means we’re now only ever a few clicks or screen taps away from the world we have temporarily left behind. But he is a firm advocate of “digital detoxing”. “If you’re going to the beach for the day or out for dinner, leave your phone in your room, otherwise the temptation will be to check it. Tell your staff not to contact you unless it’s a genuine emergency.
“I’d advise accessing your email once a day, say in the early evening, so you’re not thinking about your business all day. This will put your mind at ease. If there is a serious issue, you can make a call to deal with it. But if all you’re doing throughout the day and evening is constantly worrying about your business and checking your emails, what’s the point of being on holiday – right?”