Is it lonely at the top?

"It's lonely at the top..."

It sounds clichéd to say “it’s lonely at the top”, but based on my experience, that is the harsh reality for many business owners – something that is often recognised, but rarely addressed.

For some the biggest threat here is burnout, the danger of being over-worked and under-rested for years on the trot because all the pressure is focused at the top, with few support systems to help dissipate that pressure.

For others, lacking a powerful support network with trusted advisers and peers means not having anyone to bounce ideas off, or find the best answers to each new challenge faced.

The impact of this pressure, and the loss of motivation isn’t just on business prospects, it’s also on personal lives, and the mental and physical wellbeing of business owners.

Why is running a business so lonely?

I see it all the time. Having built a business from scratch or taken over the reins of an organisation, business owners struggle to let go. They assume the same role and take on the same responsibilities in year ten as in year one, leaving them with no time to work “on” the business. As a result, they respond to challenges on their own, with varying degrees of success.

Business owners can also be reluctant to ask for help, especially if they feel under pressure to know all the answers or are afraid of being shown up.

The good news is, it doesn’t have to be this way…

Building the right business network

Business owners often tell me, “no business is like mine”, but that’s rarely the case. Once surrounded with like-minded business owners parallels begin to appear between all kinds of challenges.

When it comes to networking, you get out what you put in. It’s often more effective to meet with a small number of business owners, but from a wide range of sectors and demographics. You need to learn something new, and meet people who will put a mirror up to your position and give a true reflection of who you really are.

Sounds scary? Key to building an effective network is trust. Do you trust these peers and advisers with your concerns and fears? Meet with company owners who can be sympathetic and supportive but also help you confront your fears and challenges. But what happens if you don’t have those networks in place?

I was recently talking to a director of a family business who suddenly broke down in front of me. He didn’t feel there was an outlet where he could share his concerns.

My client isn’t alone, many business owners told us that their position is “emotionally exhausting” (73 out of 100, rising to 81 out of 100 for men). Business owners we psychologically tested also agree that running a business is detrimental to their mental (70 out of 100) and physical (60 out of 100) health.

Nurture personal relationships

Our research reveals that while money is a key motivator for the majority of business owners, the power of family trumps all when they lose motivation and need to rekindle the love for their business.

However, I also see personal relationships being the first thing to suffer when owners work long hours, get stressed, lose motivation and miss too many bed times and dinners. Nearly two fifths (38%) of business owners admit that their relationship with their partner has suffered as a result of running their business.

Conversely, spending more time with friends and family can increase a business owner’s drive and dedication to succeed. Running a successful business and managing your time wisely means you can provide for them, enjoy your time together and make them proud. Accepting more support can help to find this balance.

Focus on what matters

Taking a week’s holiday and not answering emails after 8pm, for example, are simple rules to follow – if you have a strong team to rely on and confidence in the future direction of your business and your financial security.

It’s up to business owners to find the right rules for them – and stick to them! But you don’t need to come up with all of these answers overnight, and business owners should never have to walk alone.

Karen McLellan
Haines Watts


*Psychological research
We conducted psychological research where respondents are tested on their non-conscious reactions to statements they are presented with. The results are presented as a score between 1 and 100 where 1-44 denotes disagreement, and 56-100 denotes agreement.

Business owners struggle to let go, leaving them with no time to work ‘on’ the business.


4% of business owners describe their work-life balance as tipped towards life, while 59% say it goes the other way...

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