Dealing with stress

Is the financial downturn getting you down? Or business or home life not ideal? There are ways to cope, and LUCINDA SCHMIDT gets good advice from stress experts.

By Lucinda Schmidt

Stress busters

Is the financial downturn getting you down? Or business or home life not ideal? There are ways to cope – we get good advice from stress experts.

If you’re not feeling a bit stressed by the financial downturn, you probably need to check your pulse.

Your customers are cutting their spending, the banks have tightened the screws on lending, and maybe that new staff member you just hired, or your move to bigger premises, is looking a little dicey. Then there’s the cost of the Christmas party…

We all know that a bit of stress can be a good thing. A surge of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol will activate the “fight or flight” response and make you motivated, productive and focused.

Most entrepreneurs thrive on it. But too much stress, over a long period, can have serious consequences.

Niki Ellis is a specialist workplace stress consultant at the University of Queensland, and the resident “stress buster” on ABC television’s program of the same name, which screened earlier this year (it’s running again soon).

She says stress over a short period of time – say a few weeks or a couple of months – is no big deal. But over many months, or years, it leads to an increased risk of heart disease, musculoskeletal conditions such as neck and back pain, and probably Type 2 diabetes.

“I sold my business because of stress”

The first step is to recognise you are stressed. Ellis says the classic sign of work-related stress is not wanting to come to work. Other signs include fatigue, sleeplessness, lower productivity, drinking or smoking more, irritability, and changing your eating habits, either over-eating or having little appetite. At the physiological level, stress indicators include an elevated pulse-rate, churning stomach and diarrhoea.

Entrepreneur Phil Leahy knows exactly what Ellis is talking about. In July, cashflow problems forced him to sell his online retail business Entertainment House, which had employed 17 staff selling DVDs and CDs through eBay. “I felt terrible about everything and I couldn’t make decisions – and the people I was dealing with couldn’t make decisions either,” he says.

Leahy started recreational running to give him some time-out, and hatched a plan to launch a new business that was less reliant on staff. The result is online shoe store “It’s really good because I’ve faced the demons and I’ve got a plan to move on,” he says, in true entrepreneurial fashion. “When things get like this you’ve got to put your head down and reinvent yourself.”

Tony LaMontagne, an associate professor at Melbourne University’s McCaughey Centre for the promotion of mental health, says his studies of job stress have about 15% of respondents who are self-employed, of which half could be classified as entrepreneurs who employ others in their business.

What’s fascinating about the entrepreneurs, he says, is that they tend to have a high degree of job control, are better educated and earning a good income – all factors which point to lower job stress. But they tend to work really long hours, which can be a cause of stress, as is employing others and trying to handle too many aspects of the business at once.

LaMontagne also says entrepreneurs are often self-critical and demand more of themselves than other people, and these personality traits can make them more at risk of being stressed. “Try and cut yourself a bit of slack,” he advises.

Finding solutions

So what to do about it? Sure, there are the usual basics we all know help reduce stress, such as exercise, eating healthily, getting enough sleep, taking regular holidays and even deep breathing or yoga.

But Melissa Lehmann, a clinical and organisational psychologist with Work Solutions, says these things help, but they won’t lead to real change.

“Being told what to do, such as ‘you must exercise four times a week’, is one of the things that people hate most, they feel under more pressure,” she says.

Instead, Lehmann says the key thing is to make sure that what you really value – whether it is work, family, friends or health – accords with the way you live life and allocate your energy.

One tool to help you work out whether your values match your lifestyle is to take the stress buster survey. But you also need to take a bit of time out to quiet your mind and think about things.

Change your mindset

That’s not easy in the hurly burly of running your own business. Lehmann suggests two techniques to still your mind.

First, swap language such as “I should” or “I must” or “I have to” for “I choose” or “I prefer”. And second, take a minute or two to notice something – a tree, a cup, a bird. “That will quieten the mind, with no tapes or couch required,” she says.

If things are more serious, and the stress is leading to psychological distress and perhaps anxiety or depression, Lehmann says the best course of action is a visit to your GP for a referral to a psychologist. (Here is a self-assessment checklist.)

“It’s the old frog in the heating water scenario,” says Lehmann. “Sometimes you don’t know when to jump out.”




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