December 8, 2014

Switching off

Every working environment has the potential to create stress but, when you’re running a small or medium enterprise (SME), the pressure can be particularly intense. Exercise, healthy eating and shedding unhealthy habits are recommended as some of the best methods to cope.

Every working environment has the potential to create stress but, when you’re running a small or medium enterprise (SME), the pressure can be particularly intense.

“People in larger organisations are more likely to have the support of expert staff or a bit more opportunity to delegate,” says Rachel Clements, Director of Psychological Services and Principal Organisational Psychologist at the Centre for Corporate Health, which is a management and psychological consulting organisation. “In a smaller business you’re often forced to juggle a lot of different roles and, when you’re the owner, the buck stops with you.”

The closer you are to the bottom line, the greater the pressure if the business is going through a lean patch. Problems can also arise if there’s a sudden influx of work.

“I know of one business where a big contract left the owner struggling to find the resources he needed to cope with the demand,” says Clements. “In the end, he couldn’t meet the customer’s requirements and got a poor reputation as a result.

Constantly trying to attract enough work to keep you busy but not more than you can handle can be very stressful.”

Increasing your personal effectiveness

There are steps you can take to cope with the pressure. “The first thing you can do is increase your personal effectiveness,” says Clements. “You need to look after yourself. The people who cope best in difficult times are good at looking after themselves all the time. They exercise, eat well, get enough sleep, don’t engage in damaging habits and seek support inside and outside of work.”

Clements notes that the changes can be hard to commit to. She suggests starting with a baseline of spending 20 to 30 minutes every day doing something you enjoy and that provides a genuine break from work, whether that be exercising, engaging in an interest or hobby or spending time connecting with friends and family.

“This is more important than ever now that the lines between home and work have become so blurred,” she says. “Fifteen or 20 years ago, just going home provided a natural respite from our busy day. Now we have the internet and mobile technology it’s easy to be switched into work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But everyone needs time to recover.”

The benefits of exercise

It doesn’t matter what you choose to do – different things work for different people – but exercise can be particularly beneficial. Regular exercise can trigger a very positive cycle of eating better, sleeping better and avoiding unhelpful habits, and the endorphins released during exercise can go a long way towards improving your mood, even in difficult times.

“In a recent study, people with mild to moderate depression were divided in to two groups – one treated with antidepressants, the other with nothing but regular exercise,” says Clements. “The group on exercise alone did far better in terms of recovery and in sustaining that recovery over time. It’s unfortunate that, when you’re feeling exhausted and overworked, exercise is often the first thing to go.”

Recruiting a supportive team

A small business has no room for difficult people. Managing them takes a lot of time and energy and they can have a very negative impact on the business as a whole. There’s also evidence that a supportive team can actively protect a business owner from stress, anxiety and depression.

“I recommend putting a lot of effort into recruiting people who can step up when required,” says Clements It’s common for people working in a small business to take on more than their official job. But, if they feel the demands are unreasonable or they’re being asked to do things they don’t enjoy, they could become stressed themselves. This could affect productivity and increase absenteeism and staff turnover, putting more pressure on the owner.

“Many larger organisations have some form of Employee Assistance Program in place, which is a way for their staff to access counselling or additional support,” says Clements. “We’ll see more SMEs offering this kind of service as they come to understand its long-term value.”

The importance of delegation

Even the best, happiest and most productive team is of little value if you’re not prepared to delegate. “Delegating can be particularly difficult for people who started their own business from scratch as no-one will ever care about it as much as they do,” says Clements. “Some end up trying to manage a medium business in the same way they did a very small business, wanting to sign off on every decision. Others are too busy to see that what they’re trying to do is no longer possible.”

Talking to someone

Running a business can be a very lonely occupation and many owners feel they have no one to talk to. A coach or mentor can often help, particularly one who understands both the business challenges and the personal cost. “Most people find it easier to discuss difficult issues with someone who is independent and can be trusted to keep their confidences,” says Clements. “Sometimes it’s only when they start talking openly that they realise what the real problems are and that, of course, is the first step to resolving them.”

This article was first published in Business View magazine (Winter 2013). For more articles and interactivity, download the iPad edition of Business View for free via our app, NAB Think.

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