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Managing work stress

Ever find it hard to 'switch off'? In many jobs, it can be hard to ‘leave the tasks at work’ and go home for the night. This can be exhausting as it doesn’t give you a break at the end of the work day. It can also be particularly hard to 'switch off' when you feel solely responsible for the business’s success.

Learning how to identify, manage and reduce workplace stress is an important part of staying healthy and productive in your business.

It’s normal to have some stress in your life, and often it can motivate you to reach your goals. Our bodies respond to high stress by releasing stress hormones which activate our flight or fight survival response. This is our body’s natural response to threat or danger, and in the short-term, can help us deal with stressful situations.

But stress becomes a problem when it tips over from being helpful to overwhelming. Too much stress over a long period of time leads to exhaustion and burnout, and persistent stress can increase your risk of developing mental health concerns or mental illness.

Just like an athlete, a small business owner can benefit from finding the right balance between too much stress (for example, overwhelmed) and too little (for example, unmotivated) to perform at an optimal level in business. This is known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law, a psychological explanation of the relationship between arousal (or stress) and our performance.

What are the signs that your stress is too high?

Prolonged exposure to high levels of stress hormones can negatively impact our mental and physical health. Signs that your stress levels are too high might include:

  • being on edge, tense or irritable
  • feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope
  • sleeping problems or constant fatigue
  • difficulty concentrating or feeling unmotivated
  • an unexplained drop in work performance
  • feeling physically unwell
  • having trouble with relationships.

If you’re experiencing any of these signs, it’s a good indicator that you need to prioritise self-care and add some stress relief tactics into your work life.

Sources of work-related stress

There are a number of common stressors that can have an impact on small business owners, such as:

  • financial stress, including access to finances and reliable cash flow
  • isolation – either working on your own or feeling like there’s no one with whom you can share your business worries
  • heavy job demands, long working hours and having multiple responsibilities within the business
  • a blurring of boundaries between work and home, both physically and mentally
  • feeling solely responsible for the business and the impact of its success or failure on others, particularly family and any employees.

Pressures outside of work such as relationship difficulties, fatigue as a new parent, an experience of bereavement or other life events, may exacerbate these stressors.

Knowing the source of your stress is important in selecting the best strategies to manage it.

Tips for managing stress

While all small businesses are different, these general tips may help you manage stress and build resilience to work-related stressors.

  • Define your regular hours of work: Try and stick to these as much as possible, as working too many hours can increase stress, fatigue and burnout. Make sure you schedule in annual leave on a regular basis.
  • Schedule work activities: Take your wellbeing into consideration when scheduling your work. Give yourself a break after periods of intense effort by scheduling less work or some time off. Whenever possible, schedule meetings within usual working hours, and take regular breaks during your working day. Getting away from your job for even a short period can make a big difference.
  • Stress management techniques: Learn and put into practice stress management and reduction techniques. There are a number of online stress management programs. Try Coping with Stress or My Compass. These programs are self-directed and free, which makes it easier to fit them into your schedule.
  • Define the problem: Use a structured problem-solving process to assist you to clearly define the problem, come up with a potential solution and to break the solution down into manageable steps. This way you are responding to tangible difficulties rather than vague worries, which should help to enhance your sense of control.
  • Practice relaxation techniques: Techniques including meditation, yoga, or deep breathing can assist you managing stress. Try out ReachOut’s breathe app or Smiling Mind’s mindfulness in workplace program.
  • Say 'no' or delegate: It’s important to manage expectations and set realistic deadlines with your clients and any staff. When your work demands greatly exceed your available resources, sometimes the best course of action to maintain your wellbeing is to say “no” or think about who else you could delegate to.
  • Think differently: The way we think about or interpret difficulties can add to the sense of pressure we experience. It can make a difference if we identify and challenge unhelpful thinking patterns, and work towards replacing them with more positive, problem-solving approaches.
  • Develop and maintain good habits: Eating well, catching up with friends and staying active can make a positive difference to how you manage during stressful times.
  • Talk to your GP: An essential component of stress management is knowing when to ask for extra help and how to access it. If you notice that your level of stress is starting to interfere with your ability to manage, or you experience a combination of stress signs for more than a couple of weeks, talk to your General Practitioner.

Further reading

TED Talk

Psychologist, Kelly McGonigal discusses how to make stress your friend.

Smiling Mind

A mobile mindfulness app with a small business program to support healthy minds.

More Resources