Is stress holding you back?

According to the recent Xero survey ‘business issues causing stress in small business owners’ personal lives seems to affect overall life satisfaction to an extent. Cheerful, calm, and active mindsets tend to contribute significantly to small business owners’ wellbeing.’


It’s the sentiment about being cheerful, calm and active which struck me. As a coach, I am often exploring mindset with my clients and there is no doubt that being able to maintain a calm and positive approach makes a difference. Not just for the leaders themselves but most of us would agree, if we are working with people who are generally calm, positive and solution focused, it makes life easier. 


Yet it can be difficult to maintain that state when there is so much pressure and stress at work (and at home). I regularly speak with founders, CEOs and leaders for whom managing their stress levels is hard – and for whom maintaining an optimistic or grateful worldview is a challenge. Even though that’s exactly what we need to maintain our wellbeing, and the energy needed to keep going – especially during the tough times. 


Founders and CEOs need support managing stress in their businesses, which seems to increase when there are larger economic challenges. Younger business owners are concerned about these stresses spilling over into their personal lives and they are concerned about the impact on their families, their marriages, and the relationships they have with their children. If this wasn’t an issue in the past, it certainly is now, as work-life balance is becoming increasingly important. 


It also seems that younger business owners (those under 30) are more stressed when it comes to managing the stressors faced by both themselves and their employees. Last week I talked about signs of burnout but what are the signs that a leader is stressed? And what is the impact of that stress? Let’s take a look. 


  1. Micro management can become the default


When we are stressed, we can become overly controlling and want to pin down the details on everything that is happening around us. Although this may help to keep us sane, it can increase stress levels in the team and have a counterproductive effect on everyone around us. 


  1.         Stress makes us less tolerant

We generally have a shorter fuse when we are stressed meaning we’re more likely to snap and be moody, and dealing with the behaviour of those around us can become harder. Which in turn means being around us becomes harder for others!


  1.         We fail to notice what is going on

We can become absorbed in our own problems or in delivering the day job, which leads us to fail to notice what is going on for others. This is obviously not great if we’re in a position of leadership. 


  1.         We think it’s everyone else’s fault 

We can become more negative and start blaming others for what is going on. Although the people around us may have some part to play, blame and criticism just quashes performance rather than catalysing it – in the long term anyway. 


  1.         We become distant

Stress can lead us to retreat and pull back from the people around us which makes us less communicative and less collaborative. Staying present and engaged is central to performance and although we need space sometimes, pulling back for longer periods of time is normally detrimental to the overall success of the team. 


  1.         We turn into our parents

Stress can bring out a dynamic in teams where the leader barks orders, defaults to telling people what to do or fails to listen effectively. Although this can work in the short term, left unchecked, this approach to management can cause learned helplessness where the team stops thinking for themselves, becoming overly dependent on the leader/s. Course correction once that happens is very hard!


  1.         We can catastrophise

It’s easy to fall into a negative trap when we’re stressed, fearing the worst and worrying and ruminating about what might happen. Not only does this affect our ability to perform as a leader because it drains our energy, it can seep out into the team, slowing them down too. Being negative around the team tends to drain the positivity and enthusiasm out of them. 


  1.         We are less creative (we can get stuck)

Stress basically stops our brain from functioning well as we tend to operate in fight or flight mode when we’re feeling stressed. This means that creating new ideas, achieving mental clarity, and problem solving becomes harder. If you’re struggling to come up with answers to your problems and challenges, consider whether it’s stress that is getting in the way. 


  1.         We get sick

If you are experiencing physical symptoms like headaches and migraines, a bad back, aches and pains, tummy troubles, regular cold and flu like symptoms or other physical symptoms, it’s likely that you’re under mental strain and that it’s now affecting your body. When your body starts to regularly niggle you, it’s likely that you’ve been suffering with stress for some time as your body is often the last thing to be impacted. 


  1.       We can be an a**hole

Many of us will have heard about the ‘no a**hole policy’ that operates under the surface in teams. When we’re stressed we can just behave badly and can be difficult to be around. No one wants to work with an a**hole and so if you think that’s you right now, you need to sort it out!


Managing your stress


So, how do you manage your stress if you are experiencing any of these symptoms? Firstly, you need to recognise the signs – and being honest with yourself is the starting point. It can be very easy to convince ourselves that we are feeling fine or that we’re not having an impact on the people around us. Or that everyone else is the problem. There are several ways in which we can manage our stress.


  1. Notice how you feel

Many of us are very good at ignoring our feelings and pushing on through. Yet it’s a false economy, especially when we suppress our feelings over a longer period of time. By paying attention to the way that you feel, you are more likely to be able to get in control of it, and to minimise the impact your stress is having on you and the people around you.


  1.         Avoid negative certainties

We can tell ourselves that things are going to fail, go wrong, feel bad, be uncomfortable, when in fact, these stories often aren’t true. We waste an awful amount of energy fearing the worst or getting anxious about what might go wrong. Instead, having a more optimistic approach helps to keep us in a healthy place mentally. 


  1.         Look at your language

The language we use, whether that’s in our own heads or with others, can influence the way we feel. If we use deficit based or negative language, it will influence how we feel about something and what we believe to be true (whether it is or not). Watch what you’re saying and catch yourself if you notice negative language. 


  1.         Get clear on where you want to be

Often, we feel unsatisfied because we aren’t clear about where we are going or how we are going to get there. This leads to an unconscious discomfort and sense of dissatisfaction. Think about what it is you ultimately want to achieve and consider the steps you need to take to get there. It may take a while and it may not be straightforward but if you have a map, you’re more likely to reach your destination.


  1.         Don’t take it out on others

We often go on the attack or the defence when we’re feeling stressed. The way you feel is up to you to own. A key part of emotional intelligence is our ability to emotionally regulate in times of trouble and so take responsibility for the way you are feeling (and the way you may be acting towards others as a consequence).


  1.         Take time out

Sometimes we just need a break. Many people end up running on empty and continuing to push through, despite the fact that they don’t have much left in the tank (sometimes they may not even be aware that they’re exhausted). Just taking a break and taking time to recharge can sometimes be all you need to start feeling better again. If you take a break and don’t feel better, then there is a more serious problem to tackle.


  1.         Be grateful

There is a huge body of evidence showing the impact of gratitude on our wellbeing and stress levels. Simply by regularly (ideally daily) considering what we are grateful for and why can have a big impact on our mindset and positivity over the long term. It also helps us to avoid too much negative rumination and anxiety around what is not working.


  1.         Get help

Sometimes we simply can’t get ourselves out of the ‘funk’ we are in and we need help. A well trained coach or therapist (or even a wise and trusted friend) can help to get us back on track.


  1.         Move more

This won’t be new news to most of you, but regular exercise and movement can make a big difference to mental health. Body and mind are connected, and one feeds the other. That means paying attention to what we put into our bodies too. 


  1. Stay present

Try not to get caught up too much in what has been and what is to come. By staying present in what is happening in the here and now can limit the space for anxiety to build up, allowing us to stay more in control.