Stress Management is an Essential Business Skill

It’s Not Fluff — It’s the Foundation

“We definitely think your training may be a good fit. Especially training in mental health awareness and violence prevention. We get a lot of angry clients, especially when we turn them down for the program or criticize business decisions. Some of them obviously have preexisting mental health conditions. They go off the rails. Some of our coordinators don’t know how to physically get away from them.” — Paraphrased quote from a professional working with new entrepreneurs through the Self Employment Benefits program.

I received the above quote as part of an email this past spring. I was (and am) a new entrepreneur participating in Canada’s Self Employment Benefits (SEB) program. I was developing business training programs to promote improved workplace wellness and environmental sustainability. I had found in my early research that mental health issues were the most common cause of disability in Canada, and had a serious cost to businesses — affecting attendance, retention, quality of work and image. I was focusing my work on training for the health care sector, but at the suggestion of a wonderful marketing person I met through the SEB program, I approached supervisor of the very program I was in to discuss training options.

I was pretty surprised by the email and later conversations. I expected health and social service workers to have difficulties managing the stress of serving clients experiencing mental health difficulties. I hadn’t thought that business counselors would also experience this. Possibly my new career counseling and training businesses would not be so much different than my previous work in health and social services. I was glad I hadn’t been one of those difficult SEB clients, practically jumping over the desk of the coordinators and having a meltdown.

Not a day later, I got into an argument with my husband who popped into the public library where I often work. I don’t really remember the substance of the argument. It may have involved one or the other of us feeling criticized, or money, or delegating responsibilities, or maybe a combination of the three. Whatever the meat of it, I was tired after putting in hours of work toward producing a business plan to the satisfaction of all involved parties, also while “getting out there” to meet with potential customers, also while developing training programs. There were so many moving parts. At the same time, I was raising three teenagers, trying to find time for family and friends, and managing my own mental health issues. While we didn’t end up yelling in the library, I was pissed off and stormed out, embarrassing my husband. My mental state was at the root of the argument — not whatever the topic at hand was.

After a tearful recovery from the argument, I sobbingly told my husband, “I’m just like one of those clients the SEB coordinators deal with. I’m losing it because of my own mental health issues. I feel like a fraud. Why do I think I can do any of this?”

I got my confidence back pretty quickly. I’m remarkably (some say annoyingly) persistent and generally believe I can make things happen, a trait shared by most entrepreneurs. The heart of the matter was that I did, indeed, already struggle with mental health problems well before starting a business. I laughingly refer to having a “complicated” diagnoses, which translates as a big list of conditions on my medical chart, including ADHD and atypical depression. However, therapy had taught me a lot about coping with the brain I have. I felt I could use my own experience to help others manage their own mental health.

The more I talked about psychological health in the workplace, the more I began to hear about other organizations working with entrepreneurs seeing their clients struggling with stress and mental health difficulties. I attended a workshop for occupational health and safety professionals on psychological health in the workplace, put on by Dr. Kevin Kelloway , who is a Canada research chair in Occupational Health Psychology. I found out about how the ability to handle stress has greater effects on work performance and the frequency of workplace accidents than does having a mental mental illness. I also found out that the most important thing individuals can do to safeguard their mental health is to build up their psychological fitness. Key components to psychological fitness include allowing time for physical and psychological recovery, maintaining a sense of control and mastery in life through acquiring strong time management skills and engaging in pleasantly challenging hobbies, finding means for expression, working on developing a balanced perspective, and maintaining social connections and supports.

Armed with new information and a sense of direction, I started to learn everything I could about building up stress resilience and about time management; as lack of time is a frequent cause of workplace stress. I tried to manage myself in the way I would advise my clients to manage themselves. I set boundaries around my personal and social time and didn’t allow business matters to interrupt. I practiced being mindful of self defeating perspectives and how they were affecting my mood and judgement. The most helpful thing I worked on was my time management skills, with the intent of being better able to help my clients with their own. I used the Getting Things Done (GTD) model, although I’m sure there are many other models that are helpful to people. The important thing is to have some type of system to fall back on. As an adult with ADHD who struggles with distraction, this was immensely valuable. I had a way to get the “to do” list out of my head in a concrete form, with a reminder system, and rid myself of the ever present worry that I was forgetting something. Working on my psychological fitness made a huge difference in both my productivity and my well being.

What I didn’t understand was why I hadn’t had any stress management training, or even training on time management, provided as part of the education I received while participating in a government funded program for new business owners. I had mandatory training in marketing, bookkeeping, taxes, sales and legal matters. It was apparent to me as I tried to scrape out time to build a business website, “grow my network”, develop programs and products, make a business case to lenders and grind through customer discovery interviews that time is in short supply for any founder of a start-up. What use is knowledge of finance and law if you can’t manage your time to keep on top of financial and legislative requirements? How empathetic and persuasive can you be with potential clients when you’re struggling with anxiety or maintaining the important relationships in your life? How productive can you be if you’re dealing with exhaustion and overwhelm?

It’s hardly as if entrepreneurs are less affected by mental health difficulties compared to the general population. Studies show that entrepreneurs have a higher prevalence of psychiatric disorders in themselves and in their family histories compared to the general adult North American population, including depression (30% vs 8%), ADHD (29% vs 4%), substance use (12%vs 3.8–5%)and bipolar disorder (11% vs 1–2.8%). It is clear that entrepreneurship attracts an above average number of individuals experiencing mental health difficulties. It may be that some personal attributes of successful entrepreneurs such as creativity, willingness to take risks, and enthusiasm are more common for people with ADHD and bipolar disorder. And these biological risks for mental health difficulties are only the beginning.

There are many stressful aspects of starting and running a business. Business owners, especially those in the start-up stage, work long hours with little initial financial return for themselves or their business. This also puts a lot of stress on their relationships, with 74% of respondents in this study involving 500 survey respondents and 100 private interviews saying that starting and building a business had negative impacts on their social lives and personal relationships. This has a snowball effect, as maintaining social supports and relationships is an important part of psychological fitness. Add to all this the pressure to maintain a positive public image and barriers to accessing professional help (especially lack of medical insurance and time), it is easy to see the psychological strain inherent to starting a business.

We say that entrepreneurs are the backbone of our economy. We want to encourage young people to enter business. We say we want to promote wellness in our workplaces, and that buy-in from those in leadership positions (such as business owners) is key. If these statements are more than pretty words, we need to support these words with action. We need to promote training and policies that support psychological fitness and better stress management in business owners. A healthy mind is the foundation of sound decision making and action.

References:

Canadian Mental Health Association (2019). Going it Alone, The mental health and well-being of Canada’s Entrepreneurs (PDF file). Retrieved from https://cmha.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/GoingitAlone-CMHA-BDCReport-FINAL-EN.pdf

Freeman, M.A., Staudenmaier, P.J., Zisser, M.R. et al. Small Bus Econ (2019) 53: 323. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11187-018-0059-8

Gawrilaw, Caterina and Goudarzi, Sara (2019, June 11). Are People with ADHD More Creative? Scientific American RSS. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/are-people-with-adhd-more-creative/

The Mindset Project (2017). Mindset: The Intersection of Entrepreneurship and Mental Health. Retrieved from http://www.themindsetproject.ca/introduction

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