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Combatting Stress as an Entrepreneur: Lessons Learnt Across 20 years of Business Ownership 

Combatting Stress as an Entrepreneur: Lessons Learnt Across 20 years of Business Ownership  31

By Darren Hockley, Managing Director of eLearning provider DeltaNet International.

In a sad but true occurrenceearlier this year the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)’s annual report confirmed that we’re more stressed, anxious and depressed at work than ever before. 

The document, which details work-related injuries and ill-health year on year counted 602,000 cases of stress, anxiety, and depression in 2018-19 – a figure we can sadly expect to rise throughout 2020 as the covid-19 pandemic rages on. 

So, what does this have to do with being an entrepreneur you might ask? 

The truth is, we’re a pretty stressed-out bunch as it goes. Almost half of us report feeling stressed, distressed, or overwhelmed due to the nature of our work. That is, being involved (most likely) in all aspects of our business, including taking on its financial burdens.  

Then there’s the emotional investment of the entrepreneur’s ‘always on’ mindset which can create turbulence when it comes to mental health and make it hard to ever truly take a break. 

Lately, more business leaders have spoken out about their internal struggles in an attempt to break the silence and remove stigmas surrounding mental health that make it hard to get help. This includes former MySpace VP, Sean Percival, whose piece ‘When it’s not all Good, Ask for Help takes an honest look at the link between businesses ownership and mental health. 

As founding director of my own learning tech company – a business that’s had its ups and downs over the last 20 years – I want to say how important it is for those building their own empire not to sweep signs of stress under the rug. 

Instead, as industry leaders, it’s up to us to model positive behavioural change by equipping ourselves with the tools to recognise workplace stress and manage it effectively. This is sometimes called ‘setting the tone from the top’ and it’s a good mantra to remember as your business grows. 

What is stress? 

Stress can be defined as the degree to which you feel overwhelmed or unable to cope as a result of pressures that are unmanageable.  

As entrepreneurs used to a high workload, and high work intensity, you’d be forgiven for thinking that stress is simply ‘part of the job’. However, don’t forget why you wanted to be your own boss in the first place. It’s things like freedom, flexibility, autonomy, and a sense of personal achievement that drive us – and these are all things linked to happier, well-balanced people. 

Sure, running a business inevitably means going through stressful times, but if feelings of despair and anxiety regularly outweigh those of accomplishment and success, it might be time to re-evaluate.  

Signs that stress may be getting out of control include: 

  • Physical problems: If you’re getting minor illnesses such as colds more often, that can be a sign of stress wearing you down. Headaches and muscle pains may also suggest you’re under stress, especially if they’re happening more often than usual. 
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions: When we’re overwhelmed, it can feel impossible to function at our normal levels. If you’re anxious, struggling with motivation and finding it hard to continue your day-to-day tasks, your stress levels could be getting out of hand. 
  • Coping mechanisms: Most people use coping mechanisms of one kind or another to get through the harder parts of life. These can be healthy, such as exercise or a creative hobby. They can also be destructive, like drinking to excess regularly. With many of the usual routes to de-stress taken away because of the coronavirus, it’s true that many are finding it harder to handle stress constructively. 

Managing stress 

As a learning specialist, I do advocate education and training to help raise the profile of mental health in the workplace – both for yourself and for your employees if you have them. 

Awareness training helps us to recognise the warning signs of declining mental health and discourages behaviours that can aggravate poor mental health, such as shrugging off issues, numbing the pain, or burying our head in the sand. Doing this only underlines toxic cultures of silence that, frankly, are outmoded. 

Training is a powerful tool that helps legitimize feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression and helps to nurture a healthy work environment for everyone. Additionally, learning – in any form –is good for wellbeing; it increases our self-esteem and feelings of hope and purpose along with it. 

Still, training is but one piece of the puzzle when it comes to long term change – and mental health initiatives can take many forms depending on your business, employees, or industry. The key, I think, is to remain agile and always open to improvement. 

Check your perfectionism 

Perfectionism is directly linked to many mental illnesses, including anxiety. This is because perfectionists strive for unattainable (and often unreasonable) results.  

Requiring perfection in business (as in life) can mean bad news. It could result in delayed product launches (since the product will never truly be ready if you’re constantly tinkering with it), feelings of defensiveness and discouragement when others call you out for being overly critical, and missed opportunities with potential customers who don’t have time to wait around.  

Perfectionism is also extremely hard to work alongside, and you could end up driving away your best, most innovative employees if they feel like they don’t have a voice. 

Delegate  

To combat tendencies of perfection, and to help reduce stress in general, you need to learn the skill of delegation. 

Now, I can’t imagine this is something you’ve haven’t already heard before. We know delegating tasks leaves us more time to focus on higher-value responsibilities and perhaps even take a break here and there. However, delegation is important for the success and growth of your business too. It’s a way of testing the mettle of your employees and preparing them for bigger and better things – I’m thinking career advancement and promotionsAs your company grows, long-standing employees who understand the ins and outs of the business can be a huge asset and it’s good to know you have loyal colleagues by your side. 

Delegation also helps to build trust between yourself and your employees, an investment that pays off handsomely in enhanced productivity and equilibrium. These are both things that stressed-out leaders can benefit from, and they will allow you space to: 

Look after yourself 

Remember, being your own boss was supposed to give you more freedom, not less. For many entrepreneurs, though, this simply isn’t the case.  

Running a business – particularly in the early days or during peak times – can mean you have little time for friends, family, or leisure. Sadly, without these supportive relationships and hobbies, your mental state can suffer. Keep things in perspective by investing time in yourself. This will allow you to maintain a healthy mind and thought processes that aren’t overworked and clouded by stress. 

Wherever possible, take regular rest breaks and continue to use annual leave days. This time is important for reframing failures, approaching problems from a different perspective, and learning from your mistakes. After all, business is about trial and error. 

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