The AXA SME Wellbeing Report

It isn’t easy running a small business in 2022. In our latest report, we take a deep dive into the wellbeing of small business owners and self-employed Brits to see how they are tackling mind health in the workplace.

Woman wearing mustard coloured sleeveless top using an iPad while stood in her clothes shop


Purpose of the report

It is a time of uncertainty for small business owners. Factors such as inflation, the cost-of-living crisis and the ongoing repercussions of COVID-19 present extra causes for concern and reasons to adapt service models.

It is also a critical time to focus on wellbeing at work. Lockdown and self-isolation gave the world a chance to reflect, reassess behaviours and reprioritise. As a result, mind health has become a key topic of discussion, as both an area for improvement and reinvention.

Assessment of these challenges within larger companies, where executives feel the heat of a growing movement against burnout and the trappings of pre-pandemic work life, are commonplace. But for small business owners, their collective voice and opinions on the issue are at risk of being drowned out.

That’s where the AXA SME Wellbeing Report comes in. We conducted research with 500 UK-based small business owners to uncover their thoughts on wellbeing, as well as the psychological pressures, and benefits, of working for yourself in 2022.

Let’s get into it.

Overall mental health of small business owners

88% of UK small business owners rate the state of their mental health as average or better but struggle with everyday pressures of running their business
are confident managing mental health conversations and concerns with their staff
only 12% consider their mental health to be ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’

It’s good to be SME

Small business owners on the whole feel they’ve got it good. While the majority of SME business owners don’t feel that their mental health has been compromised — nine in 10 small business owners and self-employed Brits polled rate the state of their mental health as average or better — many are struggling with the everyday pressures of running a small business.

Taking the helm of your own business comes with unique stressors, but most seem to be taking personal mental health issues, and the wellbeing of their employees, in their stride. Despite the additional responsibility of leadership, nearly two thirds (65%) of small business owners who hire staff say they feel confident checking in with their employees to ensure wellbeing issues are tackled.

Since launching my own brand over two years ago, I've learned that putting my health and wellbeing first is crucial for maintaining happiness and perspective.

Running a business is a marathon, and sprinting can only get you so far until you feel the effects mentally and physically.

Looking after your mental health will help you gain perspective on what really matters and also give you the energy to keep going and not feel resentful in the job. If you never allow yourself to rest, hard work will always feel like punishment.

Being the boss is really hard and will consume a lot of your headspace, so having a healthy disconnect to pause and reflect on the bigger picture is so important.

Charlotte Yau Founder and Owner of Muihood and winner of the AXA Startup Angel Competition 2022

The picture becomes more mixed when we switch the focus to wider issues regarding the economy and the outlook over the next 12 months. In a time of uncertainty, both in the wake of the pandemic and ahead of other growing geopolitical issues, many small business owners confess to feeling anxious about the near future. Over a third (34%) admit they feel concerned about the next 12 months with regard to their business, and 33% have experienced feelings of anxiety.

On the whole, 74% of respondents have experienced negative emotions when considering the next 12 months for their business.

Small business owners were asked to detail how they felt about the future – the main emotions were:

  • Concerned 34%
  • Anxious 33%
  • Optimistic 32%
  • Positive 24%
  • Happy 16%
  • Sad 7%

More staff, more stress?

With more staff comes more responsibility, leading to a reduction in risk-taking. This is reflected in the findings of our study, which uncovered that small business owners responsible for more than 10 employees have felt held back in doing as well as they would like in their business due to the stress they feel.

In contrast, businesses without employees were found to have fewer worries about their business, owing to more agility and flexibility in their practices.

63% of businesses with more than 10 employees agree that worries about the business have held them back from doing as well as they would like due to the stress they feel
only 34% of businesses without employees thought the same

Let's talk about it

“I feel I have nobody to confide in about my business worries”

Business owners who agree by age

  • 36% of business owners aged 18 to 24 years old agree
  • 21% of business owners aged 25 to 34 years old agree
  • 9% of business owners aged 35 to 44 years old agree
  • 12% of business owners aged 45 to 54 years old agree
  • 8% of business owners aged 55 to 64 years old agree
  • 5% of business owners aged 65 years old and over agree

Out on your own

48% find it hard to know who they can talk to about business concerns and worries

Running your own business can feel like a closed loop. Where larger companies provide infrastructure and a ready-made community of colleagues and like-minded people to confide in, small business owners could feel at a loss for support.

In our study, nearly half of those polled agree that they find it hard to know who they can talk to about business concerns. And this issue becomes more prevalent among younger business owners who are yet to build up a knowledge base to match more experienced bosses, as well as developing their own support network.

Support networks

  • 58%
    feel lonely at work at least some of the time
  • 21%
    feel lonely at work most or all the time

Loneliness is an area of concern for many small business owners. Larger companies with more robust infrastructure, either in a physical office or virtually, provide their employees with a backbone for social interaction which many self-employed people might feel is lacking in their lives.

Of our respondents, three in five (58%) admitted to feeling lonely at work now and then, and over a fifth (21%) say the solitary nature of their work got to them more often than not.

A problem shared is a problem halved

More encouragingly, 84% of those polled believe they have a support network to turn to when they need advice or guidance. Partners, friends and family all lend a hand in providing new perspectives to SME business owners, though two thirds (66%) admit they will shelter their loved ones from certain topics surrounding the business.

Top supportive figures

are supported by their Partner
are supported by their Friends
are supported by their Parents


are supported by their children

‘Need to know’ basis

Managing staff can be a delicate balance, and oversharing sensitive information may unnecessarily burden employees.

Of those polled who have at least one employee, just one in four (24%) feel they can be completely candid with their staff about current workplace woes or issues facing the business in the future. And 38% say they are able to give their employees some insight into issues - but shelter them from other details.

Just one in four feel they can be completely candid with their staff about current workplace woes.

Honesty with employees

  • 24% of employers are very open with staff

  • 28% of employers tell staff some problems but not all

  • 24% of employers don't tell staff about problems facing the business

Time spent at work

38.95 hours Is the average amount of time small business owners spend per week on their business

spend over 40 hours per week working on their business

A change of scenery

For many small business owners, who are responsible for the management of their own work/life balance, concerns regarding the impact their business has on other areas of their lives is to be expected.

While 44% worry about work/life balance, the average respondent dedicates a reasonable 39 hours each week to the grindstone. And 36% say that running their own business has a generally positive impact on their relationship with their family.

Work/life balance

  • 43% of respondents work from home
  • 25% adopt a hybrid working model
  • 14% work from an office

Why worry?

A world of worry

Now, let's take a closer look at what small business owners are concerned about. The AXA SME Wellbeing Report identified a general trend of increasing worry, with more than half (53%) believing they worry more about their business now than they did 12 months ago.

There are many reasons for this. Some are to be expected and are understandable considerations for most businesses, such as the 37% who lose sleep over finding new customers, and the 35% who are concerned about the effects of inflation.

Global events such as the ongoing cost-of-living crisis and the threat of another lockdown also play on the minds of our respondents. In fact, businesses with more employees were found to fear further COVID-19 disruption more than businesses comprising of just the owner, likely due to the increased responsibility over staff.

And for just under a fifth (18%) of respondents, a day doesn’t go by without concerns about their livelihood entering their heads.

Business owners biggest concerns

  1. 45%

    of business owners are concerned about The cost-of-living crisis

  2. 37%

    of business owners are concerned about Finding new customers

  3. 35%

    of business owners are concerned about Inflation

  4. 27%

    of business owners are concerned about Retaining customers

  5. 26%

    of business owners are concerned about Paying bills and overheads

Reasons to be hopeful

But it’s not all doom and gloom. From our study, it is apparent that small business owners can see the bright side, despite the issues they face and the worries they have. A decisive 71% feel confident about the future of their business, and a fifth (20%) would describe themselves as ‘very confident’ in the enduring success of their venture.

1 in 5 say they are ‘very confident’ in the enduring success of their venture

Wellbeing actions

Putting people first

There are many benefits to fostering a positive attitude towards wellbeing at work, and small business owners with employees understand its importance. From the results of our study, this mindful approach seems to be coming from a genuine place of care and concern.

More than half (55%) of those polled who have at least one employee say they take an active interest in the wellbeing of their staff because they truly care, and 44% say placing a focus on wellbeing helps to foster a positive work culture.

For three in 10 (30%) employers with at least one member of staff, a daily wellbeing check-in is the norm, while just over a third (36%) will make sure they see how their employees are doing two to three times a week. And only 4% admitted that they only take a small amount of interest in the wellbeing of those who work for them.

Top 5 reasons business owners take an interest in the wellbeing of staff

  1. I genuinely care about my staff
  2. I want to create a positive work culture
  3. I feel it is the right thing to do
  4. I want to be able to help my staff
  5. It will strengthen the relationship between me and my staff

How often do you check in with your employees?

  • Every day 30%
  • 2-3 times per week 36%
  • Less often 30%

How much interest do you have in the wellbeing of staff?

  • A great deal of interest 59%
  • Moderate amount of interest 37%
  • Small amount of interest 4%

Benefits of working for a small business:

  • 50% say that Smaller businesses have less formal processes
  • 49% say that Management is more accessible
  • 41% say that there are Fewer obstacles in the way
  • 31% say that they have Greater focus on staff retention

The heart of start-ups

It’s clear from the AXA SME Wellbeing Report that, while operating on a smaller scale comes with the burden of responsibility, it also allows small business owners to place their focus on what is important, namely their own wellbeing and the wellbeing of their staff.

Two thirds (66%) of those polled in our study think smaller businesses are better at reacting to the concerns of their employees than larger businesses, and almost half (49%) think greater access to management is a benefit to their wellbeing.

66%think smaller businesses are better at reacting to the concerns of their employees than larger businesses

Closing comments

“It can be a very lonely place being an SME owner, which is why it is so important to ensure you can confide in someone who can relate to how you feel. Especially for those who have built much of their business alone, it can feel very strange opening up about what is going on in your workplace.”

“But for many, taking those first steps and talking through what you are concerned about goes a long way to lifting that burden – it can offer a new perspective on what’s going on, as well as a renewed sense of clarity to the situation. When it comes to looking for support, there are many avenues business owners can take; for example, having robust insurance can help to take a weight off the mind.

“To thrive in business, it is so important to have open and honest relationships – and it is fantastic to learn many are doing their utmost to harness positivity in their workplace. Many SME owners really recognise the importance of wellbeing and are doing everything in their power to create a space where members of staff feel comfortable talking about their concerns.

“Yet, they mustn’t forget to also look after themselves as well, particularly if they are going through tough times. At AXA, we want to give our customers the confidence to thrive, so we’re pleased to see so many businesses feeling optimistic about what lies ahead.

“As we look to a positive future for SME owners, I’m delighted to congratulate the winners of AXA’s Startup Angel Competition, who will each receive significant support to help their innovative business succeed.”

Claudio Gienal CEO of AXA UK and Ireland

The publication of this research coincides with the announcement of the winners of AXA’s Startup Angel Competition, which helps small businesses achieve their full potential.

Six small business owners have been selected in total. Muihood, a skincare brand rooted in traditional Chinese medicine, and Team Repair, a sustainable subscription service that teaches children science and technology, have each won £25,000, invaluable mentorship from some of Britain's best entrepreneurs and 12 months of business insurance. While four other outstanding businesses have also won digital ad campaigns with the Evening Standard. With more than a quarter (26%) of respondents concerned about the financial burden of their business, the prize money aims to alleviate this stress.

Illustration of a man talking to another man and woman