How to prioritise time off

A hand typing on a computer and a watch on the wrist showing 5pm

Stop for a moment and think about everything you have on your plate right now. Chances are that beyond the vehicles on the hoists and the jobs on the board, you’ve got a hundred other tasks to tick off your to-do list — bills to pay, shelves to stock, orders to place, customers to appease, employees to support, and much more besides.

Running a business is demanding and it can be stressful. It can all too easily take over other areas of your life. In this year’s State of the Nation, 42% of Capricorn Members told us having a good work-life balance was one of the biggest issues they faced in running an automotive business. The same percentage told us they struggled to find time to take a break or go on holiday. Does that sound familiar? Are you among those workshop owners struggling to get away from their business to relax, refresh and recharge the batteries?

If you are, you’re not alone — and it could be having a detrimental impact on your mental health. According to a University of Melbourne study (across a wide variety of industries, not just auto), one-quarter of all smallbusiness owners report a high level of psychological distress. That number leaps to 36% for sole operators. If you’re among those struggling to take time away from your business, hopefully this article will help you find ways to reconfigure the way you’re operating so you can take the break you deserve.

Signs you might be stressed or overworked

Firstly, let’s look at some signs you might be stressed or overloaded with work — because not all indicators are as obvious as losing your weekend to paperwork or not taking a holiday. According to Australian mental health charity Beyond Blue, it’s common for small-business owners under stress to exhibit the following behaviours:

  • Impatience, irritability, being quick to anger
  • Easily distracted from the task at hand
  • Consistently looking tired
  • Being less punctual than usual
  • Missing easily attainable deadlines
  • Taking longer than usual to complete tasks
  • Experiencing conflict with staff or customers
  • Having difficulty managing multiple tasks
  • Becoming distant during interactions
  • Not being engaged in meetings
  • Being negative and not solution-oriented
  • Speaking about themselves in a derogatory way

From this list it’s easy to see that working for longer hours won’t be enough to fix the problems on your plate. If you’re stressed, if it’s affecting your mental health, then you’re also likely to be far less efficient and productive. You risk entering a spiral of stress and ill health, when what you may need is a circuit breaker — getting away from the causes of your stress.

Beyond Blue has a checklist of personal behaviour changes to help small-business owners. They suggest:

  • Keeping your work hours in check
  • Eating well, staying physically fit
  • Prioritising a good night’s sleep
  • Switching off technology after-hours
  • Staying in touch with family and friends
  • Developing interests outside of work
  • Taking time out to relax
  • Monitoring stressors and warning signs of poor mental health and wellbeing

That all sounds straightforward enough, but if you’re working all the hours God gives because you can’t find staff and there’s a skills shortage, or you have a massive tax bill to pay, or the kids’ school fees are due, intending to have a good night’s sleep and actually getting one can be two completely different things — and the problem is still going to be there in the morning.

Practical tips for workshop owners

We asked Jeff Smit, Technical Editor at The Automotive Technician, for some practical tips and advice to help workshop owners achieve a work-life balance. The secret, he said, was structuring your business correctly, including having the right people and processes in place.

In his own business that meant hiring a manager, which freed up his own time so he could either work on the business or on other things.

“You have to make sure whoever is employed as the manager knows what to do and what’s expected, and has the tools and the infrastructure in place to be able to achieve it,” Mr Smit said. “Then get out of the way and let them do it — which is the hardest part of all.”

Jeff Smit’s top tips for work-life balance:

  • Have a hierarchy or structure in place, with a clear chain of responsibility when you’re not in the workshop
  • Have policies and procedures in place and make sure everyone understands them
  • Train your team, so that they have the skills and experience to do the job while you’re not around
  • Delegate jobs and authority, so everyone knows who is responsible for what tasks when you’re not there

But what if you’re a sole operator? According to the Workshop Whisperer, Rachael Evans, the same basic principle applies — you have to plan for better work-life balance.

“Stop, take a step back, and consider where you fit on a scale between struggling and high performance,” Ms Evans said. “Somewhere in the middle there is what we call ‘a lifestyle business’ and you can’t become a high-performance business and have it run successfully — with you being like a CEO rather than an owneroperator — if you haven’t paused in the middle at ‘lifestyle’ to assess what you want your work-life balance to look like.

“Do you want to have a four-day work week? Do you want to be able to come in and out as you please? Do you want to have a manager? It’s all that kind of stuff. “But you don’t get there unless you actually plan for it.”

Short-term and long-term solutions

Planning for work-life balance could be as simple as making a decision to work differently. Craig Minca and Caroline Langan-Minca, owners of His’n’Hers Automotive Solutions in Kilsyth, Victoria, decided not to open the workshop on Saturdays and to shut the doors at 5pm on the dot.

Caroline told Ignition last month: “If customers say to us, ‘oh, you shut at 5pm?’ do you know what we say? ‘Yeah, we’ve got kids at home and we’d rather be with them.’ They’re like, ‘oh, okay’. “I reckon once a month we have customers ask if we do Saturdays and we say, ‘no, we have kids; we’d rather be at their sports’. As soon as you mention you’ve got kids and that’s more important, people are like ‘oh, yes, we agree; that is more important’.” They also juggle open and closing between them, so no-one is doing 10-hour days.

Another Victorian Capricorn Member, Glenn Matthew, co-owner of Autoclinic in Heidelberg Heights, decided many years ago to only work a nine-day fortnight. “I have every second Friday off and it just boosts my energy up,” he said. “I find a lot of guys don’t get their holidays and they become flat and start being rude to their customers because they’re burnt out.”

Getting professional support

Sometimes, though, taking a Friday afternoon off won’t in itself remove the stressor that’s causing the problem. For example, if the tax office is chasing you for a big bill or your bank is hammering on the door for a mortgage repayment. The advice from Heads Up, Beyond Blue’s workplace mental health arm, is to talk to the institutions or creditors involved to see if a better solution can be worked out.

Assistance with some other common stressors workshop owners might be experiencing include getting dispute resolution support, talking to a financial counsellor, getting free legal advice, or even seeing what Government support you might be entitled to. If the stress is affecting your mental health, if you feel like you might not be coping, then talk to someone. Beyond Blue, Lifeline, Men’s Line, Australia’s National Debt Helpline and SANE all have phone lines you can call.

Remember what life is meant to be all about

It’s all too easy to feel like your business is running you, rather than you running your business. If it’s starting to feel like that, or if it’s already like that, don’t let the situation get worse. Prioritise your health, including your mental health.

Prioritise finding solutions to your stressors — like delegating tasks and responsibilities or restructuring the way things operate. Plan for long-term change.

Prioritise finding time to do the things that make you happy — like spending time with the kids or playing golf — and the things that help you recharge your batteries — like sleeping, going fishing, or taking a holiday.

Remember, you work to live, not live to work.

If you’ve been affected by any of the issues discussed in this article, you can reach out to Beyond Blue in Australia on 1300 22 4636 or through (webchat available).

In New Zealand, free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained Mental Health Foundation counsellor.

Want to learn more about other challenges facing auto business owners? Check out our State of the Nation 2022 report at

This article was published 14/11/2022 and the content is current as at the date of publication.