Stress isn’t a Badge of Honour – Why Entrepreneurs Need to Recognise it as a Business Risk

Helen Foord, founder and CEO of ELE Global shares the challenges for entrepreneurs (and herself) in balancing stress with operational efficiency

Running your own business, you know that you will have to deal with stress. However, following National Stress Awareness Day this week, I’ve been reflecting on my own personal experience of stress and how not to let it get in the way of business growth.

For more than a decade I have run a virtual marketing agency, with a team of sub-contractors working around the world. Stress has always been an integral part of running a business – from identifying the right people to advise me, cash flow challenges, supporting team members, and balancing all this with the pressure heaped on by clients. I used to regard stress as a badge of honour, rather than preventing my success.

I like to think that I’m a reasonably intelligent person but it was only this year, when things got really tough, that I realised the power stress has to destroy. Stress isn’t something to be proud of, it’s something to take extremely seriously. It’s as debilitating as any serious illness and, as business owners, we need to stop seeing it as a badge of honour and start seeing it as a business risk, and a serious risk to your health.

Over the years I have worked very hard to help manage the stress levels of those that work for me – whether through social activities, team days, flexible ways of working, job sharing, flexible payment approaches or promotion of open and honest communication.

As the first lockdown started in March I started to make some changes so as to tackle my stress and not stand in the way of business growth.

  1. Strong foundations – There’s an old saying that the fear of anticipation is worse than the reality. In my case I have always been hopeless at planning, reporting, measuring and organising, within my business. I do it every day for clients but never, before, saw the correlation between not doing this and increased stress levels as a business owner.
  2. Not available – I also realised that, if I wanted my business to succeed, I needed to think more realistically about how I balanced my time. I guaranteed myself Saturdays off. I implemented a day a week as ‘unavailable’ (when I wouldn’t look at emails or answer my phone). I introduced a monthly business growth ‘away day’. And I stopped being afraid of setting my out-of-office.
  3. A creature of habit – I started setting my alarm, walking the dogs, having a good breakfast and then starting work. Did I manage it every day? Nope… but on those I did I was able to maintain a more realistic, practical distance from overwhelming stress.
  4. Getting others to step up – Over lockdown, despite worrying about cash flow I realised that I needed to trust certain key people within the business, and replace those I didn’t. It hasn’t been an easy transition but it has not only helped me when I needed time out but also to allowed me increased time for developing the business.
  5. Listen to your heart – I’ve also spent a lot of time learning to understand why I react the way I do and when I need time out. Like many people I can convince myself that I’ve messed up even when I haven’t. In the same way I can convince myself that wanting to pull the duvet over my head is weakness, rather than a sign my body is exhausted. Understanding that we can control this – through listening and augmenting the negative voice with a positive and compassionate one – has transformed how I feel about myself as a business owner as well as helping me to become more ambitious in my business planning.
  6. Celebrate the success – Ok, a little point but a crucial one. I’ve started not only praising and rewarding my team when they do well but giving myself a pat on the back when I do. That might mean awarding myself a long lunch hour on a Friday, or indulging my love of Pat McGrath makeup (anything sparkly has to be good).

I now understand the power stress has to stop me from achieving what I want. I have ambitious goals that we’re already starting to realise across the agency and I believe in myself as a business leader.

Mind, the mental health charity, has published some helpful guidance here.