In the last couple of years, stress in the workplace has become a serious subject. But I want to talk to you…the business owner. The self employed business owner. The person that HAS to get up in the morning because if they don’t; they don’t earn a single penny.
I’d estimate that stress, anxiety and depression amongst the self employed sector, is a ticking time bomb. The self employed sector has ‘exploded’ since the crash of the corporate businesses in 2008. People were either forced to do the ‘self employed thing’ or saw it as an opportunity to make a ‘lifestyle’ change. There are some figures now suggesting that in the UK alone, there are as many ‘micro-businesses’ as there are employees.
Being self employed brings it’s own, and I would argue more raw form of stress, anxiety and depression to those that it affects. It’s not talked about as openly in self employed circles for many reasons and I’ll touch on one of those shortly. But as I sit, listen, observe and learn, the problems of stress, anxiety and depression as a business owner is, in my opinion, as big a problem as your biggest or newest competitor. The issue with these three problems is that they show no mercy, no respect, or a sense of timing when it comes to catching you unawares.
According to a survey from the American Psychological Association, more than one third of American workers experience stress. According to a British survey by the Department of Health, 1 in 4 will struggle with mental health issues—and this is costing businesses millions, if not billions a year in lost work hours, medical bills and lost business. More importantly, these issues will have serious consequences for your quality of life - not only at the office, but everywhere else as well. So how do we regain our sanity and take back our lives?
After 25 years in the working world, seven as a business owner, I’ve learned a thing or two about workplace stress and burnout - and about the importance of managing stress so it doesn’t take over our lives. I let it take over mine, and very nearly ruined my business and life because of it. So here, I'll share some of the best formulas I've discovered from personal experience and with my clients for managing stress levels and keeping you and your business afloat.
Letting Go of the “Invincibility” Myth
Remember when we were teenagers and thought we were invincible? We did some really stupid things like drive too fast, drink too much, and play with fire (either literally or figuratively). Many of us were lucky to make it out of our teens alive…I think that’s why we celebrate our 21st birthday’s the way we do. It’s almost like a pat on the back to say “Well done idiot! Your 2/3rds of your way through ‘dicking about’, let’s ramp the volume up to 11, before the serious adult shit starts!”
At some point (usually in our late 20s or early 30s), many of us start to realise we aren’t actually invincible.
People we know die. People we know get badly hurt. We stop doing the blatantly stupid stuff and start doing more of the “adult” stuff instead. We work 60-plus hours a week as if there are no consequences. We run around creating the perfect household, trying to be a perfect partner, the perfect business owner or the perfect pillar of the community and get stretched thin with obligations, deadlines, and trying to prove our worth to those who don’t really fucking care.
We burn out. We get sick. We are vulnerable. We are human.
As it turns out the “adult” stuff can be just as dangerous as driving too fast or trying to do a wheelie on a busy high street in front of buses. Whilst driving too fast can kill people in the 17-25 age bracket, more and more people of working age are sidelined, breaking down or dying because of medical conditions that can be traced back to stress. In other words, ‘adult stress’ shouldn't be ignored.
The good news is, coping with stress can be pretty simple.
3 Steps to Manage Self Employed Stress
To effectively manage stress, we need to address it in at least three areas of our lives: our physical health, our mental health, and our sense of purpose. Below, are some stress-relieving tips for each of these areas.
Step 1: De-Stress Your Body
In modern life, we spend far too much time engaging our body’s stress responses than we do engaging our relaxation responses. We’re getting quite good at ‘recognising’ stresses, but have no idea what to do with them.
Most people do one of two things; you become a person who runs around telling everyone you’re ‘stressed to the tits’ and does nothing about it, or become someone who tells no-one you’re stressed and still does nothing about it, because it will go away or you don't want to bother people about it.
Both are as pointless as each other. Both have serious consequences for your physical health, as too much stress can accelerate the ageing process, suppress your immune system, and leave you feeling fatigued and depressed. So doing nothing means it gradually gets worse and not better.
Since stress is a physical and hormonal chain reaction, the first place to start is using your body to interrupt the response. Imagine if Spiderman, Peter Parker’s reaction had been physically different all those years ago. Most people realising there was a spider anywhere near them would have swotted it away and stood on it. His physical reaction would have broken the chain reaction of events that would have followed had he been bitten by the radio-active spider. And Spiderman would not have existed. Instead he let it drop on to his hand, ‘coo-ed’ at it a bit and let the little bugger bite him. You were in a radio-active chemistry lab you dunce! What the hell were you thinking was going to happen?
One of the many and easiest to control foundations for living a less stressed, physically energised life lies in what we eat, how (and how often) we move, and how much we sleep. The following are some of my favourite tips for smoothing out stress on a physical level.
1. Eat whole foods. Processed food can cause us to feel anxiety due to the crap that’s in them to make them look pretty, and taste good. We can prevent these symptoms by eating whole foods, eating more fruits and vegetables (especially green ones), and getting a healthy dose of omega-3 fatty acids from salmon or seeds such as hemp, chia, and flax. Nourishing your body will slowly make you better prepared to take on whatever challenges you’ll face at work.
2. Exercise regularly. Physical activity releases feel-good, stress relieving chemicals. Every time you find your stress level on the rise, get up and move. You can stretch, run in place, dance, or walk around the office or building. Doing so gets your blood and endorphins flowing, makes you happy, and turns off your flight or fight stress response. Boost the physical benefits of moving by taking several deep, cleansing breathes that trigger your relaxation stressor. Before I broke down I sat in my office on the laptop and PC for up to 12 hours a day, barely moving to make myself a cup of tea.
3. Get enough sleep. Work stressors are magnified when we’re sleep-deprived and foggy-brained. Aim for eight hours of sleep each night. Sleeping well can help you solve problems with a clearer mind and some studies have suggested it boosts your intelligence.
Step 2: De-Stress Your Mind
When I’ve asked people the question, “What does stress look like to you?”, I typically receive answers such as “deadlines,” “traffic,” “over-commitment,” “not enough time,” and even “having to deal with stupid people.” (I used to say the last one a lot!) These answers suggest that many of us believe stress is something that happens to us. In reality, stress is merely our response to all those external factors. It happens internally.
The stress response is a function of our autonomic nervous system’s flight-or-fight response. Specifically, stress is triggered by a thought or belief that we are in danger—and our body then goes into overdrive producing cortisol and adrenaline to help us get out of danger as fast as possible.
Stress begins in our minds via a thought or belief.
Let’s repeat that for emphasis: Stress begins in our minds via a thought or belief. (I’d be making some sort of grand gesture here if I was on stage.)
So an important key to reducing and eventually eradicating harmful stress is to fuel our minds with more positive, happy, gratitude-filled thoughts in order to trigger our stress responses less often. Be open to these, it’s not all ‘happy clap’ nonsense as some would have you believe.
Here are some of my favourite tips to make this happen:
1. Cultivate gratitude. Things will go wrong throughout our workday, or at least not according to plan. This is inevitable. We can take the sting out of these negative events by focusing on what’s great in our life. Each evening, write down three things you are grateful for. They can be as simple as seeing a gorgeous sunrise or being complimented on your new pair of shoes.
2. Meditate regularly. A consistent meditation practice - even if it’s only five minutes a day - may help lower blood pressure, and can help us control the thoughts that can trigger stress. The next time you get stressed because a customer or client just added another task to your already overflowing ‘things to-do-list’, stop and take a breath. Shake out your body, sit back down and meditate for five minutes. make a cup of tea. Go for a walk. Take those 5 minutes to regain focus and act accordingly.
3. Learn to say “no”. Being overbooked, overworked, and overcommitted will lead to stress. We often feel obligated to say “yes” to everything for fear we won’t be liked or that will be the last bit of business we’ll ever get. But the greatest act of stress relief is exercising your right to say no. You can be polite but firm: Explain to others that you are overcommitted and that you must say no. And yes, you can even tell your partner and family “no” once or twice; just explain that one more thing will mean the your work will suffer and so will their time with you. Negotiate priorities.
Step 3: Don’t Lose Sight of Your Purpose
Each of us is more than the work we do. We are creative, in relationships, spiritual, and passionate. Connecting with our ‘whole’-selves by fuelling our sense of purpose is the cornerstone for less stress and more happiness, both at work and outside of it.
What is purpose or what the bloody hell has purpose got to do with stress?
I’ve written and spoken about purpose before, but ‘purpose’ in this case can be thought of as a person’s calling in the world - but it’s really broader than that. It encompasses everything from the meaningful work you do, to relationships, to the hobbies that brings us joy and meaning. Purpose is the expression of our own unique spirit. It’s what makes you and your business unique.
When we starve our ‘purpose’ - by not engaging with our work, suppressing our creativity, or ignoring our relationships (including the one with ourselves) - we trigger our stress responses. When our life is full of nothing but work and obligations, we begin to feel bitter, resentful, depressed, and even angry. Work starts going to shit, arguments happen and we begin to neglect ourselves; (I once went three weeks without shaving…looked like a tramp, but I ignored it.)
The antidote to these feelings is to focus on fuelling all facets of our life. Remembering to find and commit to balance in the every day. As an added bonus it will give us even more for which we can be grateful. My favourite stress-relieving tips for your purpose:
1. Schedule quality social time. When we’re working crazy hours, we can find ourselves detached from our relationships. Each week, schedule some time with a loved one to just be together, hang out, and laugh. No work talk allowed, and no checking the smartphone. (I’m still a bit crap at that bit to be honest, but working on it.) Disengage from work and reengage with those that matter. Remember, if things ever go bad, they’ll be the ones standing by you.
2. Get creative. Remember how much fun you had as a kid doing crafts. You might have stopped because your last creation wasn’t perfect, or because you didn’t have the time. But it’s important to set aside some time and tap into your ‘inner kid’. It can include anything from cooking dinner, handwriting a card to a friend, creating a vision board, growing some plants, or re-enacting the pottery scene from Ghost. (Check with the local pottery class first though!) Just do something fun.
3. Get spiritual. Regardless of what “spirituality” means to you, one thing is certain: When we are overworked and chronically stressed, we can forget about our place in the bigger picture. Connecting with your spiritual roots through prayer, meditation, chanting or other rituals is an excellent way to get perspective on what’s stressing you and relieve that pressure. Another simple tip? Pull out a world map and reflect on how big the earth is, and where you fit in.
So as you try to digest this written guide to stress, anxiety and depression, you may wonder why I said at the beginning that self employed business owners are a ticking time bomb. It’s because after 7 years of running my own business, attending conferences, expos’ and networking events, it all boils down to people ‘bullshitting’. When was the last time, after you asked the question, “How’s business?”, you expected the answer “Not very good actually”. You don’t.
The places the self employed business owner mixes are often the ‘Who’s Dick is Bigger?’ events. People are isolated, often working alone or in a small group. They work in a ‘dog eat dog’ world where showing any sign of weakness is almost as bad as admitting a heinous crime. We don’t surround ourselves with the ‘right’ people to lean on and that will be the subject of another blog. Because whatever job you do, in whatever industry, in whatever niche or niche within a niche you should always have a safety net. Unlike being employed, it’s you that needs to put your safety net together.