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Navigating adverse events in a rural and remote landscape

With small business owners holding the title as the largest employer of people nationally, it’s not surprising to learn that in rural, regional and remote communities, small businesses are often considered the backbone of many towns.

For small businesses or sole trader/operator outfits that are based in these locations, resilience is as critical to their operations as a robust business financial plan or regular cash flow.

To understand this concept of resilience and how small business owners in these communities approach adverse events, such as natural disasters like drought, bushfires or the recent COVID-19 pandemic, the Ahead for Business team sat down with Dr Kristina Gottschall, Research Associate at the University of Newcastle’s Centre for Rural & Remote Mental Health (CRRMH) based in Orange, NSW.

The CRRMH is a major initiative of NSW Health and the University of Newcastle, which is focused on improving the mental health, wellbeing and resilience of rural and remote residents.

Dr Gottschall is in a Post-Doctoral Research position where she will be leading a project for the CRRMH on rural small business and wellbeing in close partnership with Ahead for Business.

Q: Thanks Dr Gottschall for chatting to us. Can you provide a bit of insight around why it’s important to understand the unique challenges that small businesses in rural and remote locations face?

A: People living and working in rural and remote regions can face significant barriers when it comes to seeking and accessing mental health services. For instance, there may be a gap in services in their local vicinity. Or perhaps the demands of their business make accessing services in business hours impossible, especially if they have to travel long distances to access them, which is often the case. People may also feel stigma and shame when asking for help. We know that many people living in rural and remote communities are reluctant to use support services when they are feeling anxious or depressed, either because they don’t want to acknowledge they have a problem or they don’t wish to reveal their private lives, especially to someone they may know, which is pretty common in smaller towns.

Such barriers can also be compounded by challenging contexts, such as drought, bushfire, floods, and other adversities, in addition to everyday rural realities. These may include economic downturn, corporatisation, 'boom and bust' variables, small-town decline, wealth disparities within a given community, climate change and/or dependence on local natural and social environments.

The current COVID-19 pandemic has further amplified the challenges for small businesses in these contexts and for some businesses, this is on top of drought and bushfire. Without doubt, people’s mental health and wellbeing has been affected and requires them to dig deep into their resiliency reserves. The long-term impact the financial implications of the pandemic will have on the stress and anxiety experienced by small business owners cannot be underestimated.

Now more than ever it is important to understand not only the challenges, but how those who live, work and run a small business in rural Australia can be supported.

Q: What are some of the protective factors or strengths that these businesses draw upon to help them through challenging periods?

A: What we do know is that when it comes to regional, rural and remote locations, community is a critical support factor. The Centre’s work in community wellbeing collaborations over the last couple of years has recognised communities as very important pathways to mentally healthy communities and has identified the importance of building healthy and resilient people and communities as a focus area in its “Rural Suicide and its Prevention” position paper (2017).

In comparison to city locations, small businesses are seen as a very important lifeblood for these communities and there is a high level of connection and interaction with these operators.

Recent successful grassroots campaigns like Buy from the Bush have highlighted how important local small businesses are to regional, rural and remote communities.

Q: Are communities in rural and remote locations more resilient than their city counterparts?

A: For many small business owners in rural and remote communities, adverse events and navigating these are a part of daily life and have been for quite some time.

Many operators such as farmers, cafes or small outfits have been adapting and working as best they can within the constraints of a persistent drought, bushfires and/or various economic challenges for many years.

This doesn’t mean they are immune from mental ill-health challenges, in fact, many are often living with mental health conditions or prolonged stress, but it does highlight that there are elements of resilience they are drawing from for support.

We want to learn more about these resilience factors and how to continue to foster these so that we can support small business owners whatever their context.

Q: What are some of the ways CRRMH are working to support those who live, work and operate a business in a rural and remote location?

A: The Rural Adversity Mental Health Program (RAMHP) is a major project of CRRMH which seeks to support rural and remote communities in navigating adverse events.

RAMHP has Coordinators based across regional, rural and remote NSW who inform, educate and connect individuals, communities and workplaces with appropriate services and programs.

Coordinators link people to local mental health services and resources, educate workplaces and communities and respond in times of natural disasters and severe adversity.

Another way the CRRMH is working to support small business is through research Dr Gottschall is conducting in NSW. Currently, she is collecting small business people’s stories to learn more about their, and their employees’, wellbeing needs and how we can better support these.

Tips for small business in rural and remote locations

For immediate support regarding COVID-19 go to:

Links to RAMHP resources:

If you’re concerned about your own or someone else’s mental health, you can call the NSW Mental Health Line on 1800 011 511 for advice or Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Beyond Blue Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service 1800 512 348.

If you or someone else is in immediate danger, call 000 or go to your nearest hospital emergency department.

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