Wellbeing / Stress management

Responsibility anxiety – is it just me?

In small business, the hours can be more flexible and the rewards more satisfying, but the stakes are higher. The fear of business failure can be a constant anxiety, as Matthew White explains.

15 March 2016 by

I’ll be honest, running a small business scares me. It keeps me awake at night (which is ironic, considering I’m in the business of helping people sleep better). I’m scared of failure; I’m scared of not being able to provide for my family.

I suffer from responsibility anxiety.

When I was younger and living and working in London I was anything but anxious. I never really thought about the consequences of not being able to pay the rent. But when I got married, then had children and then started a business, wow, it hit me. I had more responsibilities in my life then I knew what to do with – a young family to feed, bills to pay. I felt the pressure to perform.

So I got a corporate job for a large multinational. And I gained a lot from the experience.

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Until one day, I did the unthinkable and quit. I needed to find the work/life balance that had been so elusive for me to that point. I wanted any time away from my family to be more meaningful and rewarding. The solution? Become a soloist –  start a business I was passionate about and work more flexible hours. And so far, so good. I’m working harder than ever before, but I have more time with my kids, and it’s paying off. Phew!

Except now, the responsibilities are even greater and there’s a whole lot more to lose.

I’m a very positive person, and feel positive about my business. But I just can’t escape the niggling feeling that one day, for reasons beyond my control, or worse, because of my own actions, everything could go pear-shaped. What then? I dread to think. But I do think about it – a lot. Probably too much if I am honest.

"It’s not just men who feel the pressure to earn a decent living and be successful in their chosen path. But men aren’t supposed to admit that it scares us."

Lots of people feel the pressure to earn a decent living and be successful in their chosen path. It’s not just men, or just married men for that matter. Every parent, couple, employer, single woman and man has responsibilities – a mortgage, rent, kids, debt, employees and families.

But men aren’t supposed to admit it scares us. Societal expectations decree that we accept our responsibility to provide for our families and then just get on with it. Hi-ho, hi-ho, off to work we go.

In a small business like mine, I can’t replace myself when I stuff up. And I can’t just change jobs as I might have done in the corporate world. In switching from being a small part of a large corporate to a large part of a small company, I’ve traded frustration at working long hours with a fear that my hard work won’t pay off.

And the more I talk about this with male friends, the more I realise this type of anxiety is more common than I’d have guessed. Is it any wonder that so many men silently suffer depression and anxiety and try to pretend everything is fine?

So today I’d like to share some simple things I do to deal with my responsibility anxiety:

  • I take deep breaths. Frequently. (Other people may like relaxation techniques, meditation, exercise or yoga.)
  • I prioritise good sleep: I try to take control of my anxiety at night to avoid the vicious circle of sleepless nights turning into stressful days, leading to less sleep, more stress and so on.
  • I think positively. I look at my family and smile. I remind myself that everything will be ok. And if everything comes crashing down, we will just find a new way to be ‘ok’.

Perhaps the most important thing I do, however, is talk to people. And I’m always amazed how many of my male friends feel the same as me, both in Australia and the UK.

And that’s why I’m talking about responsibility anxiety today. The more honest we men are about the anxieties we feel about being the ‘provider’, the more we can all look out for each other. And the better placed society will be to drop the expectation that our men’s main role is that of provider rather than father.

Matthew White

is director of Ergoflex Australia, an online retailer of premium quality memory foam mattresses. As well as helping Australians get a better night's sleep, Matthew is a marketer, sleep blogger, father of two and home renovator.


  • Great honesty Matthew. I think there is a huge expectation on men to just keep going – to be tough, not to complain. There is pressure on men to succeed at work and be emotionally/physically available at home.
    I definitely also feel the responsibility anxiety as a soloist, and have to keep reminding myself that everything always works out, whether I worry about it or not.

    • I totally agree. We are still here, still working and still seem to pay the bills, albeit a bit late sometimes, but as you say, things always work out. I often tell myself, we could all go and stand on the footpath and worry for 20 minutes but it wouldn’t make any difference! 😉

      • Yes you’re right Georgi! I like your footpath analogy.

    • Thank you for the comment. There is a huge expectation but also as you say it’s not just limited to men.

  • Well done on doing the “unthinkable” Matt. While there are lots of things now out of your control there are many more important ones that you are controlling and I’m sure that this is both liberating and paying you back many times over in terms of satisfaction and happiness. Thanks for sharing your journey.

  • Thank you Matthew. My ‘better’ half and I are currently experiencing this. Having created a small business a few years ago which we both run, my partner has been reasonably successful, but often when a job ends and there’s no new one to take it’s place it can be alarming not knowing where the next rent will come from. Even though we don’t have children, mortgages etc, for us ‘getting a real job’ is pretty much out of the question as we’re past retirement age. We can’t ‘retire’ as we don’t have an income (our super was spent years ago), so we must continue working. In any case, we both love what we do and don’t want to retire but we’re finding it tough competing with established companies, the dismissive attitude of a lot of younger people, and our lack of knowledge of the electronic age. Ours is a service based business although trying to explain that when most only see it as a ‘sales’ business is also our major difficulty. Yes we can get help for all of the above, but without cash flow, it’s the chicken and egg situation…

    • Thank you for commenting again Georgi. I wish you well for the future.

  • Christine Ryan

    This is exactly me!! It can be really overwhelming and it’s good to know I’m not alone. Thank you for sharing.

    • Oh goodness, you really are not alone. There are SO many of us struggling and it’s great that we can open up conversation about it to better enable us to support each other. x

    • You’re welcome Christine. Thank you for commenting.

  • Couldn’t agree more Matthew. I did the same thing, and the pressure is great.
    I’ve found the following helps:
    – Gratitude changes everything. Being happy with what you have means being happier and stressing less about what could happen, etc. I take a few moments every morning to remember the things I’m grateful for.
    – Also, as you said, talk to people. There is no shame in asking for help, or even just getting your anxiety and fears out there. The more you can talk to others about what you’re going through, the less you feel alone in your struggle.
    – And finally, enjoying quality time with my kids and my partner. This is key for me as it makes it all worthwhile. And I was reminded again just yesterday of how lucky we are to be here – I was involved in a car crash last night that wrote my car off but that my son and I walked away from. A timely reminder…

    • Hi Dinus. Thank your for your comments below. I agree with all your points. There is certainly no shame in asking for help. As for your car crash – wow – sorry to hear that – I hope you are both ok?

  • A very reassuring Matthew article, especially for someone like me who has only been “Flying Solo” this time around for 7 months.

  • Thank you for sharing Matthew. I feel the exact same way, glad to see it’s not just me!

    • And it’s not just you David. Thank you for your feedback.

  • Brilliant Matthew. As someone who lives with mental health challenges including anxiety and helps other small business owners who experience the same issues, I know first hand how utterly debilitating it can be. We are slowly getting better at letting people know that we are struggling and reaching out for help, but it is still not happening nearly enough. Something I find useful in the moment (when getting into bed of an evening is a great time) is a progressive relaxation exercise. Start at the toes, clench the muscles in your toes for a count of ten, then relax, then your foot, then ankle and so on until you reach the top of your head. By focusing your attention and energy inwards, it can help prevent the mind chatter that goes hand in hand with anxiety. I often find that I fall asleep before I’m anywhere near my head. Thank you for being so open and I’ll be sharing this article on my Facebook page. Sharon. 🙂

  • This is a great article, I do agree that this is something we all suffer from but that as women we tend to share this concern with others far more than men do. I hope this helps so many of the men I know who feel this way to talk more about it. Thanks for being so honest about it!

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