People who run their own business have a multitude of priorities to contend with every day. When you’re in the thick of it, it can be easy to lose sight of the simple truth that the people you depend upon for your business’ success are, like you, only human. But they are, and it’s well worth taking a proactive approach to safeguarding their psychological wellbeing. It’s good business.
There are stressful times in virtually every business, and we all know it’s virtually impossible to run a business and not get stressed at all. However, too much stress is bad for us.
And for business owners it can be a double-whammy. It can cause more significant mental health problems for you as an individual and also affect your ability to successfully manage and run your business.
To help business owners understand more about stress, how to spot the symptoms and how to tackle it, we asked Dr Mark Winwood, Director of Psychological Services, AXA PPP healthcare to share some of his knowledge and advice on the subject with ByteStart;
Overcoming the stigma of stress and mental health
There’s been lots in the news of late about the need to treat mental health on a par with physical health. If an employee breaks an arm or a leg, as an employer you encourage them to get the treatment they need and allow them the necessary time to recover.
The same should apply to mental ill health but, unfortunately, owing in part to the stigma associated with the condition, people with mental health issues are often reluctant to tell their employer and, in some cases, even reluctant to seek treatment that could help them to get better.
We know from our own research that a quarter of non-exec employees who work for SMEs say they feel stressed all or most of the time – and this figure rises to a startling 49% for bosses.
People experience stress when they perceive the demands being made upon them are greater than their ability to cope and, while stress is not a medical condition per se, mental and physical illness can develop if it becomes too excessive and prolonged.
Like stress, mental health issues are also prevalent in the workplace – one in four people in England will experience a mental health problem in any given year. No employer, however large or small, is immune to the damaging effects that stress and mental ill health can have on employee motivation, performance and productivity.
Stress is not something you can ignore, however, and arguably the best approach to managing it is to be proactive and tackle it head on. This helps to normalise the concept and, in turn, to reduce fear and stigma.
How to spot the signs of stress
But, for the busy owner, it can be difficult to spot the signs and symptoms of stress and mental ill health, which can vary widely. The following may indicate an employee is suffering from stress or a mental health problem:
- Psychological symptoms – confusion, anger and aggression, low mood/mood swings, being tearful, an inability to make decisions, low self-esteem, poor motivation, worsening memory
- Physical symptoms – lethargy (such as, moving around the workplace more slowly than usual), change in weight/appetite, unexplained aches and pains
- Behavioural/social signs – becoming more nervous, changing eating habits, increasing absence, neglecting work, no longer attending social events, withdrawing from social media, loss of interest in their own appearance, drop in performance at work, fatigue.
However, recognising these signs and symptoms may be the easy part. It’s the following step – raising your concern with an employee about the state of their mental health – which can be difficult.
Indeed, before initiating such a conversation with someone who seems to be suffering from stress or mental ill health, it may be helpful to get professional advice – for instance, from a professional counseling service.
Having a better understanding of these conditions and taking a positive, supportive approach to dealing with them should help you to feel more at ease in talking to employees about their situation and guiding them to suitable support.
You could, for example, do this through your company health scheme (which may offer access to professional counseling) or other sources such as the employee’s GP or helplines provided by mental health charities such as Mind.
How to tackle stress in your business
The following pointers can help relieve stress and, hopefully, help to prevent it from escalating into a mental health problem;
Keep on the lookout
Stress can build up gradually for some people, wearing them down slowly so that it may be difficult to identify tell-tale signs until it’s too late.
Stress can be triggered by a multitude of causes so regular catch-ups not only help to build and maintain rapport, they provide an opportunity to gauge employees’ mood as well as spot the warning signs and, in turn, take steps to address them.
Owners generally have a good idea of what’s normal for the members of their team so dips in productivity or behaviour that’s out of character could be a sign that something significant is amiss.
Make sure an employee’s workload in manageable
While it goes without saying that you should ensure that your employees are properly trained and supported to deliver what you expect of them, it’s important to be attentive to workload and performance.
It’s essential not to overload them and, if you do see unusual changes in mood or performance slipping – for example, regularly staying late or making uncharacteristic errors – make time for a constructive conversation.
See whether something in their work or home life is affecting their performance. The sooner you identify the issue, the sooner you can begin to address it – again, by steering them to your own resources or to suitable alternatives.
Work well – take breaks
Taking time to relax and recover helps both to relieve stress and build resilience.
Encourage your people to take regular breaks when at work, avoid routinely working overtime and, where practicable, avoid having to deal with to emails and calls outside of their normal working hours.
Also try to ensure that they use their full entitlement of annual leave. You can also consider flexible working, which may be a real boon to your ‘sandwich generation’ employees.
Encourage a healthy diet and exercise
While you may be nervous to advise employees on their lifestyle choices, these can have a significant effect on mood and psychological wellbeing.
Even simple measures such as encouraging them to try to have a healthy, balanced diet and take regular exercise can make a big difference to wellbeing and resilience. For your part, you can help by trying to ensure that your canteen or vending machines offer a selection of healthy choices.
Follow these steps and you should go a long way to reducing the risk that your team will be affected by stress and, if it should come to pass that they are, you will be well placed to take early, positive action to help them to get the help that they need.
About the author
This article has been written exclusively for ByteStart by Dr Mark Winwood, Director of Psychological Services, AXA PPP healthcare. Whether you’re a sole trader running your business single-handed, or a small business with a team of employees, At AXA PPP healthcare, it’s our job to help keep you healthy.
More on dealing with stress
You can find more help on handling stress in your business, in these other ByteStart guides;
- 9 ways to strike the right work/life balance as a small business owner
- 5 ways for small business owners to de-stress
- How businesses can encourage a healthy work/life balance and benefit from more engaged and productive employees
- A Guide to mindfulness in the workplace – how it can help staff wellbeing and productivity
- How to manage anxiety and depression in the workplace
And for more tips and ideas on how to motivate, reward and keep great staff, read these guides;
- How to motivate employees and create a loyal workforce on a budget
- How to design an effective incentive scheme for your small business
- Using staff benefits to motivate and retain employees
- How setting up a salary sacrifice scheme can reward staff and mean lower tax bills for employers and employees
- 5 ways to motivate your staff without spending a fortune