A psychological perspective on dealing with the stress of running a business

Here, Jim Cummings outlines how to frame your business and life so that you can enjoy the journey.

I run Daily Posts, a company that has multiple departments, staff distributed around the world, and constant business deadlines. I run multiple projects concurrently and dozens of work streams on a daily basis, line managing over ten staff directly. As the leader of this business I am constantly looking for ways to enhance the corporate culture, develop improved processes, and provide better service for our wonderful clients.

It takes its toll, and I have had to learn to be more conscious of how I am building the business; strategically defining my roles, planning my time and developing relationships with my team that enable me to be the leader that I can be. In this article I am going to outline some of what I have learnt about stress over the last few years, and how to frame your business and life so that you can enjoy the journey.

Have faith in your business plan

You need to have faith that all your effort will come together down the line. A proper business plan involves research and thorough analysis. If you have one, then there is no reason why you shouldn’t believe in it completely and work hard towards achieving your set goals and objectives even in the face of tumultuous conditions. Optimism is crucial as a leader, and will allow you to feel positive about the moment, even if a lot has to come together for success to happen. You must believe that the dots will connect down the line.

If you feel yourself losing faith in your business plan, you need to ask yourself a few ‘Kick up the rear’ questions, like:

  • Will I be able to achieve my life goals if I quit?
  • Can I cope with a typical 9-5? Will it be rewarding enough?
  • Will I move forward or be stuck at my current level?
  • Will I be able to live with the result of failure?

These questions should remind you of why you started your business in the first place, strengthen your resolve and clear the mental fog. Having a clear purpose, and feeling like you are on the right journey, can have a dramatic effect on your thinking.

Know when you are burning out

Another psychological step to battling stress as a business owner is recognising when you are burning out and doing something about it. The problem is that burning out doesn’t happen in a flash of light as a single event. It is a gradual breakdown of mental health that creeps up on you. In the first few years of running Daily Posts there were time when I worked very long hours, and there is no doubt that I was on the verge of burnout on numerous occasions. I had my priorities skewed and had to redress the balance. For too long I though ‘I’m a psychologist, I won’t burn out’, as if my training in psychology somehow made me immune. I’ve seen other people with similar thinking because they felt they were macho, rich, physically fit and so on. Don’t fool yourself.

Here are some big signs that you are burning out:

  • You feel you are running on fumes (no drive or joy and you dread leaving your bed in the morning)
  • Anxiety and frequent panic episodes
  • Feeling overwhelmed (you feel like you can no longer handle it all)
  • You struggle to get thing done and do tasks that are not ‘fun’ for you.

When you start noticing all or some of these signs, you need to tackle it head on. Some of the things you can do at this stage include:

  • Shake up your diet
  • Play, and seek out laughter
  • Sleep
  • Meditate
  • Get acupuncture or massage

Another sign is when you are drinking too much, or taking drugs to escape work. Danial Gerrard of Addiction Helper explains that, “society has normalised excessive drinking, and there are a great number of people who are self-medicating by using alcohol. Often the cause is their inability to cope with the rigours of their work life, a lack of balance.” Be conscious of your relationship with alcohol.

Outsource tasks that wear you down

Ideally, you should only be engaging in tasks that you absolutely love. However, as a business owner it is nigh on impossible to do this all of the time. You still have to do your fair share of the tedious, boring work that probably adds little value to your bottom line. If a task constantly has you wringing your hands though, outsource it.

Even if you have the capacity to soldier through such tasks, outsourcing them can help you focus on the more important elements of your business. Outsourcing allows you to streamline business processes, ensuring that valuable time is spent on the core aspects of your business that pay the bills. It also improves overall efficiency across your business whilst freeing you from the mental strain. In business the mental energy we have is crucial to our productivity and success. We need to protect it, conserve it, and grow it through the activities we engage in.

Employ and retain qualified people

By employing leaders in your business, you can actively begin to shed off some of the mental strain that comes with micromanagement. Leaders can train subordinates, delegate tasks, and deliver results with little to no input from you. Your business never truly takes off until you are able to sleep safe in the knowledge that results will be achieved without step-by-step input from you. When you develop leaders that can grow with the business, you not only ensure a result-oriented atmosphere but also cultivate satisfaction and loyalty throughout the organisation.

Build transparent KPIs

Key Performance Indicators are vital in every business. These are specific and measurable metrics that drive activity in core areas that lead to business productivity. You need to have both High Level and Low Level KPIs to be able to actively manage your business. With every low-level or short term KPIs met, you derive some degree of satisfaction that your business is going in the right direction. Feeling that progress is happening on a daily basis empower you as a leader, and creates a sense of purpose. Regardless of what your KPIs are, you need to keep the following factors in mind:

  • Care about stakeholders and get them involved
  • Strategically design your processes and make KPIs an integral part of each step
  • Build rewards around KPIs (financial, bonuses, time off)
  • Ensure everyone know how their activity fit into the overall success of the business

Cultivate emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence refers to being able to identify and manage your emotions and the emotions of people around/under you. It is a vital tool in the arsenal of every business owner. When you are emotionally intelligent, you will be able to create a positive work environment and help those around you to keep perspective when challenge occur. To be emotionally intelligent you need to engage your thinking brain, and reason logically, but also tap into your intuition. Meditation and mindfulness training can help you to retrain yourself to be emotionally intelligent.

Here are three things you can do as an emotionally intelligent leader:

  • Identify your emotions and the emotions of others in a wide range of scenarios and situations
  • Harness emotions and apply them in the tackling of a task at hand
  • Manage emotions by helping yourself and others cheer up, stay focused and remain calm down.

Maintain a healthy work-life balance

As a business owner, you get to set your work schedule, and, in many cases, work at your own pace. On the surface, this is positive. However, many business owners find themselves getting sucked completely into the work process, allowing work life to interfere with personal and family life, affecting relationships and adding a huge amount of stress to life.

You need to protect yourself against this as a business owner by ensuring clear boundaries. Your family and friends should not be deprived of attention. Look after yourself. Being a slave to your business is detrimental to your physical and mental well-being. Socialise and engage in physical activities with your family in order to be healthier and happier. Make choices and know you are in control of your life.

Ultimately, stress is a response to feeling a lack of control, lack of direction, lack of progress or lack of opportunity. By strategically redefining your life you can create a mental framework that tackles life in a healthier way. It takes working out what works for you, and consciously building success habits. It takes time and effort. Perhaps that is why they say that true success is a journey, not a destination.

Jim Cummings is founder of Daily Posts

Further reading on work-life balance

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel was the editor of SmallBusiness.co.uk from 2010 to 2018. He specialises in writing for start-up and scale-up companies in the areas of finance, marketing and HR.

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