Business worries that boggle the mind

As workplace health takes its place as a mainstream big business concern, public policies are still putting unnecessary stress on small business owners and the self employed.

There was a time when the health of a small business person was ignored in public discussions of workplace wellbeing. For example, in early 2012 I was asked, in my position as chief executive of the Council of Small Business of Australia, to sign a joint industry statement on “Promoting Good Health at Work”. I pointed out that the statement did not mention the health of the self employed: that is, over 2 million people who between them employ most 5 million other people. 

In this instance the health needs of the self employed were eventually acknowledged in that process and I signed the statement. But the reality is still that while the health of employees and others is often highlighted in these discussions, and rightly so, a self-employed person is most often mentioned only in their role as an employer, when they have legal or moral responsibilities for their employees. 

Yet the self-employed person has more health pressures than most employees. Like everybody else, the impact of family, life style, age, mental health, any life crisis and work demands are always present. The self-employed person also has the extra pressure of collecting tax. 

If a self-employed person employs another person they will have the added stress and pressure of collecting and distributing superannuation, being responsible for safety and health of their employees, dealing with paid parental leave and work life balance,  as well as understanding discrimination laws and processes. They will also feel the added pressure of being responsible for someone else’s income and someone else’s lifestyle.  

The fact that the health of a self-employed person has been ignored reflects the needs of ideologues on both the left and right who seem unable to design competition policy, contract law, a workplace relations system or a human rights process where the employer is a person rather than an institution  – where everyone is an employee.  

But in some good news, in July this year the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry signed a Certificate of Collaboration with BeyondBlue to focus on the mental health of the self employed.  

COSBOA has also been working with BeyondBlue and others to focus on the mental health of the self employed for some time. We also know we need to make the physical health of the self employed person a priority, and we are fortunate enough to have Fitness Australia as members of COSBOA. Their members are many thousands of small business people in the fitness industry.

They are people who run gymnasiums, offer personal training support and provide advice and assistance to corporate customers.  The physical health of Australians is receiving more and more focus and we, with Fitness Australia, will make sure that the self employed reap the benefits. Physical health and mental health go hand in hand when we are looking at a healthy society.

There is also a new organisation that needs everyone’s attention: The Rebuild Foundation.  This foundation has been set up to assist business owners and their families rebuild their lives after a business failure.  There are over 10,000 people and their families that go through this crisis every year. It could be argued that until recently, no one except COSBOA gave a damn about those people.  Now the founder of The Rebuild Foundation, Wayne Toms, and his family have been through that hell and they have decided to do something about it.  

But there is a lot more to be done in the public sphere. Most of all, we need to fix the problems that contribute to an unhealthy work environment and the occurrence of mental health problems. Prevention is always better than a cure. We know that contract law and competition policy is placing enormous pressure on tens of thousands of small businesses people throughout Australia. We also know that the Small Business Minister Bruce Billson is focused on improving contract law and negotiation processes; processes that allow many big franchisors, landlords and of course Coles and Woolworths, to create undue stress for small businesspeople by taking advantage of their trust and optimism.  

The big landlords have a business model that creates great stresses for many in small business. Now with ACCI recognising the health needs of the self employed, we can expect greater support for Bruce Billson in his pursuit of fairness and transparency. We expect ACCI will go out to its members, including Coles and Woolworths, franchisors and the landlords in particular, and demand that they change their behaviours and practices.

We also hope to meet with Health Minister Peter Dutton to discuss ways to make sure that the self employed are never forgotten. We will focus on the health of the hundreds of thousands of home-based businesspeople. Working at home can be lonely and demanding and these people should not be ignored because they do not employ other people. 

Through these systematic steps, and hopefully measures initiated by many other stakeholders, we hope to see a vast improvement in the environment Australia’s self employed and small business people work in. 

Peter Strong is the executive director of The Council of Small Business Australia. 

Australian Mental Health Week runs from October 7-13. 

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