Aussie small and family businesses remain cautious about 2022 challenges

- February 16, 2022 3 MIN READ
Sign on store front door: 'Closed due to COVID'

While some Australian small businesses report feeling optimistic about the year ahead, many are still battling the many challenges thrown up by the pandemic, leaving them feeling cautious about the future, writes Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman, Bruce Billson.

Small and family businesses are facing multiple headwinds, but powering through pandemic constraints such as a reduction in foot-traffic, supply chain interruptions and staff shortages – to name a few.

One thing shared across all small and family businesses is exhaustion and fatigue. They are working longer hours to plug team gaps and attend to additional pandemic-related demands.

The challenges continue for Australian small businesses

Many small and family businesses are navigating a range of challenges as they work to keep their doors open – and their employees and customers safe – as we learn to live with COVID.

Rather than prescriptive health orders, an abundance of caution and care towards others, and concern for the wellbeing of customers and colleagues alike, is producing business challenges and consequences that are harder to predict and more varied than hard lockdown rules.

Those challenges of having staff in isolation and needing to navigate differing rules and impacts of supply chain disruptions have added to a sharp dip in consumer confidence, pronounced over the festive season in a way not seen in decades.

The data is reflecting what some sectors describe as a repeat of near-lockdown conditions – something that impacted small and family businesses are telling us they are experiencing.

Businesses reporting more encouraging conditions and optimism about the year ahead want to know skills, supplies and finance will be available to support their growth and ambition.

I have been very pleased to bring together ministers and government agencies to hear first-hand from small business representative organisations about what they are experiencing, what they need to be able to continue powering the recovery, and what policy settings will be most helpful.

Baristas wearing masks and gloves due to Covid

Critical Industries Supply Chain Forum

My office has been co-facilitating regular Critical Industries Supply Chain Forum meetings, where a range of practical solutions to the issues small businesses are facing have been up for discussion.

Businesses have been vocal in calling for nationally-consistent requirements across states and territories – particularly for those businesses in critical supply chains in relation to testing and isolation.

Recent changes to testing and isolation rules have been welcomed, with participants recognising that these rules will continue to evolve and be recalibrated for smaller workplaces, with advocates urging broader industry application. Participants are united in urging policy makers to understand the interconnectedness and co-dependencies of supply chains, and seek to preserve and support workforce availability.

Clear communication was called for to ensure smaller employers understand and can implement what their obligations are, including clarity over OH&S requirements. Industry associations have a key role to play here in keeping their members up to date with relevant state guidelines. Of course, a nationally consistent unified approach to testing and isolation is preferred.

Affordable and timely access to rapid antigen tests has been very challenging for smaller workplaces, without the capacity to stockpile. While recent rule changes have helped reduce pressure on available stocks, measures to ensure smaller employers can obtain rapid antigen tests so they can comply with testing and isolation rules, and to protect the workforce and community, have been called for.

Smaller workplaces need to be able to access the tools that policy makers deem are central to their ongoing viable operations. This engagement will continue as the virus evolves, along with the implications for the small business community, and will no doubt require a revisiting and recalibration of solutions and support.

I have been encouraged by the Australian government’s interest in hearing the views of small business, and the receptiveness of ministers and senior officials to collecting this valuable field evidence.

Mental health support is critical

Of course, these additional pandemic-related pressures on small business have understandably taken a heavy toll on mental health and wellbeing. That’s why I commended the Australian government’s commitment to renew funding for a critical mental health program tailored to small business owners.

An additional $4.6 million in funding will ensure Beyond Blue’s New Access for Small Business Owners program can expand and continue to assist small business owners who need mental health support.

It is vital that small business owners reach out for help if they are not coping. Small business owners who look after their mental health, can also help their business.

More information about the NewAccess for Small Business Owners program is available by calling 1300 945 301 or on the Beyond Blue website.

This article first appeared on Kochie’s Business Builders, you can read it here.

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