Many small business owners are feeling completely alone because of Covid-19 - unable to talk to loved ones, staff or get Government help, a Waikato University study suggests.
And the biggest danger to struggling businesses - especially those in vulnerable sectors like hospitality and events - is abrupt changes like this week's returns to restricted levels, said study head Dr Amanda Williamson of the university's school of management.
Williamson's study, which started immediately after the late March level 4 lockdown, is part of a global research collaboration involving 21 countries on entrepreneurship resilience and wellbeing in the pandemic.
She surveyed 128 New Zealand "entrepreneurs", whom she classifies as those who founded and own their businesses. They employed between 50 and 1 staff and had revenue of more than $200,000 a year - in a wide range of sectors throughout the country.
Participants completed a comprehensive survey and were then contacted daily by Williamson over 10 working days to discuss how Covid was affecting them personally and their business. The study, which explored the link between owner wellbeing and business performance, ends today.
The results have yet to be formally collated but over 514 phone conversations, Williamson has concluded "a sad majority" of participants "are feeling really alone".
"What I've found so far is a paradoxical impact of the pandemic. On one hand there's a small sub-set doing really well, frantically trying to respond to new customers and opportunities."
They tended to be online communication, health, education and cleaning startups, or focusing on internet shopping and delivery roles.
"That may sound very good but it's not entirely straightforward. A lot are finding it hard to get staff, particularly skilled staff, and they're not getting much sleep. They're tired so they're not making good decisions and having a really hard time."
These businesses reported they were getting a lot of demand and were under pressure to deliver but couldn't get capital to buy the stock to be able to scale up.
Private investors, their usual source of investment funds, were reluctant to commit, said Williamson, a lecturer in innovation and strategy, whose work focuses on the interface between strategy, entrepreneurship and psychology.
"On the other hand there was a sad majority that took a huge hit during the last lockdown and have noticed a residual slowing in their business. They've lost contracts with international customers and have an alarmingly short cash runway."
Some participants had launched within the last March financial year and could not show a sales history to satisfy Government assistance claims.
"Most had sunk their own money into launching the business, hoping to create something. They were feeling really alone."
This was for three reasons. Despite being almost "at the end of their financial and psychological rope" they didn't want to spook staff, so felt they couldn't talk to them.
Second, many had raised investment capital from family and friends and so felt they couldn't discuss their situation with them either.
And third, they believed they weren't eligible for Government assistance.
"So they're feeling very alone. Because of all this they have increased their workload. They're working like crazy to try to find ways to make things work while incurring the costs of managing a destructed business, finding new contracts, managing staff who invariably also need support and their reputation is on the line. International customers can easily switch to someone else if they see them flailing."
In short, the business owners didn't have time to care for their mental health. Exercise and diet were casualties, said Williamson.
"The biggest danger to them - and this is a large part of the findings I have so far - for businesses already struggling, particularly those in vulnerable sectors with very compromised bottom lines, is abrupt changes like we've had this week.
"Restaurants for example. They stock from Wednesday to Saturday. In Auckland it's taken out a week of stock. Others are not able to deliver on promises to international clients."
The costs associated with abrupt change are significant, she said.
"Auckland businesses have told me they can't ship out an order. That's all the money they have. If they don't get into the office to ship it out their business will go under.
"These businesses have a very limited cash runway. It is very serious. This is just a ticking time bomb for entrepreneurs."
Williamson said 1 per cent of participants had failed during the study. But others had not completed their participation because they'd been bankrupted and felt they weren't qualified to continue.
The biggest surprise for her was that business owners experiencing increased demand during Covid were doing poorly with their mental health.
"That was a big shock to me.
"But a lot of entrepreneurs have the mindset 'we have to survive and make hay while the sun shines' One felt incredible guilt because they were flourishing and taking over the premises of a business doing poorly."
She's involved in another study which looks at how entrepreneurship is "romanticised".
"The vocabulary treats them like they're all Elon Musk, don't feel anything and are invincible."
Williamson approached her study participants through chambers of commerce and the Callaghan Institute.
"I purposefully focused on more innovative businesses because I think they fall out of the focus. That's why I went to Callaghan."