How to manage stress in a challenging climate

2022 has presented plenty of challenges for small businesses. From external factors like turbulent economic conditions and a difficult labour market, SME owners may be feeling the pressure more than usual. 

How to manage stress in a challenging climate

2022 has presented plenty of challenges for small businesses. From external factors like turbulent economic conditions and a difficult labour market, SME owners may be feeling the pressure more than usual. 

Research shows that 96% of small business owners already struggle sharing their stress, so during these challenging times, Naomi Humber, Head of Mental Wellbeing at Bupa UK shares what bottling stress does to health and business, along with her insights on the best ways small business owners can break the cycle of stress.

Finding a balance

Even the most resilient of people can get overloaded, stressed and need to let off steam – in fact, the best business leaders do just that. 

SME owners have a unique role, in that they have a responsibility to protect the health and wellbeing of their employees, whilst also setting an example with how they deal with their own stresses. As external pressures grow, now is a fitting time to reflect on how you manage your stress and set your company’s culture. 

Stress can manifest itself subtly 

You might not realise how much stress you’re dealing with on a daily basis and how it’s affecting your wellbeing and ability to work well. Though a bit of stress can help boost our productivity, feeling high pressure over a long time can impact our physical health and wellbeing. 

We’ve all got individual stress tolerance levels that help us to cope with life’s challenges. Though our individual stress threshold isn’t fixed, it can be influenced by our age, abilities, experience, and resilience levels. 

It’s useful to know the subtle signs that your body might be stressed, as this may help you to realise that you’re taking on more than you can handle at one time. Stress can affect you physically, as well as your emotions and behaviour. 

Emotional and mental symptoms of stress

  • Losing confidence in your working ability
  • Losing motivation or not feeling committed to your job 
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Finding decision-making more difficult 
  • Anxious feelings 
  • Feeling irritable or short-tempered
  • Feeling more emotional 
  • Feeling depressed 
  • Mood swings
  • Difficulty switching off after work 

Physical symptoms of stress

  • Digestive issues like diarrhoea, constipation, indigestion, feeling sick 
  • Feeling lethargic 
  • Sore and achy muscles 
  • Chest tightness or chest pain 
  • Headaches 
  • Weight loss or gain

Behavioural signs of stress

  • Appetite changes – eating more or less than usual 
  • Oversleeping or being unable to sleep as long as you would usually
  • Finding socialising difficult; isolating yourself from friends and family 
  • Turning to harmful coping mechanisms like alcohol, smoking or illegal drugs 

The impact of a stressed workforce

When we’re stressed, it likely impacts how we’re able to work, from the quality of our output to our working relationships. 

The longer we leave it to seek help for work-based stress, the more difficult it can become to address, which can potentially lead to burnout, as well as long-term sickness. We know that stress can affect the way our body functions in the short-term, but over long periods of time it can also increase the risk of developing mental health problems like depression and anxiety. 

Stress-induced absences are expensive, with costing businesses an estimated £17 – £26 billion to mental health issues each year, along with a further ten million UK workers affected by burnout related absences annually too.  

The good news is that introducing supportive policies and plans can help your whole business to manage stress more effectively, keep your workers at their best, prevent costly absences and retaining the best talent. 

SME owners: 8 tips to combat workplace stress

1. Understanding prevention is key

When time is poor, it may feel counter-intuitive to spend time reworking and introducing policies to reduce stress. However, it’s imperative to lay the foundations to protect your wellbeing, your workforces’ and ultimately, your business overall. 

Companies who implement and revise protective measures against stress during changing times put themselves in a good position to thrive and retain the best talent. 

2. Educate about the mind-body connection

Learning about how stress can affect your body can help you better understand how best to take care of yourself. Educating your team about this connection, directing them to reputable sources, can help reinforce the need to effectively manage stress for your health – both at work and at home. 

3. Research resilience 

Resilience work can help you to understand how your body reacts to stress, and how much of it you’re able to handle at once – and the good news is that this limit isn’t fixed. 

Understanding how you behave when faced with a stressful situation can help you to understand what drives your tolerance levels, which can equip you with the awareness to better control your reaction when faced with future stress. 

4. Free yourself with limits

If you rarely say no when someone asks you to help them with work tasks, there’s a chance you’re taking on more work than you’re able to do effectively. 

Though SME owners have a lot of responsibilities at the helm, it’s realistic to implement limits where you can – this reminds yourself and shows to others that saying yes to everything isn’t realistic or achievable. Saying no when tasks can’t feasibly be completed with current schedules, or to a standard you’re happy with, also alerts others to when you’re feeling the pressure. 

5. Set weekly goals for long-term boundaries

Reinforce what you’re able to achieve by breaking down your goals into weekly, manageable chunks. Though it’s good to think ahead and long-term, doing this constantly can be overwhelming. 

Start by writing down what you want to achieve for the week ahead and nothing more. Each time you complete a task, cross it off your list. When the week finishes, you’ll have a full record of everything you’ve achieved. 

If you’ve set yourself an unrealistic goal, this will be shown in your uncompleted goal list, which can help you to rethink and restrategise for the next week. 

6. Share your stresses and successes

Creating an open culture within your company about any achievements and failures can help to reinforce that you, and everyone else working for you, is human.

Transparency like this can encourage others to share their own stresses and reduce any shame or stigma around seeking help for stress, which can help reduce stress-related absences. 

7. Take time for yourself 

As you’re making your weekly goal list, don’t forget to set aside dedicated time to make time for yourself to do things you enjoy. When we consume ourselves in work, it becomes more difficult for us to retain focus, which can make it harder for to unwind and negatively impact our mood. 

Be sure to set yourself up for good physical health by eating healthily, sleeping well and doing exercise that you enjoy regularly. For example, you could start with something a simple as blocking out time in your diary to make sure you’re taking time for a lunch break so you’re able to get away from your workstation. Though these principles are basic, it’s essential to make them non-negotiables where you can as they’ll help put you in the best position to deal with whatever life has to offer. 

8. Remember reaching out isn’t a sign of weakness 

You’re coping with a lot right now, so if you’re feeling the pressure but are struggling to know how to offload, it’s worth refreshing yourself on any free outlets you can approach if you need to offload. Things like Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP), small business health insurance, occupational health, Samaritans and Mind can all make a big difference if you’re struggling with stress.

Naomi Humber
Naomi Humber

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