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De-stress v Distress - The Choice is Yours

I have recently been asked whether stress is an inevitable part of running a business. It is of course, but stress is not just inevitable for business owners, it’s an inevitable part of being alive (the only truly stress-free state is death). Stress is an ancient piece of human programming, built in to help us survive. It’s a good servant but a bad master. So the key mental approach is to welcome and accept that it will happen but learn to manage it and indeed turn it to your advantage whenever possible. You cannot control everything that happens to you no matter how rich or successful you are. You’ll go seriously crazy if you try to do so. All you can control is your response and if you can learn to do that you will save yourself a good deal of pain.

Like most business owners, I am a bit of a control-freak (most of the business owners I know set up their own business because they can’t bear to be told what to do by others and I am no exception) accepting that I can’t change the universe is tough. The Victorians put it rather well: “what can’t be cured must be endured”. It’s still true today. If something is causing you difficulties or unhappiness change it if you can. If you can’t change it altogether, take what steps you can do to minimise the pain. If there’s nothing you can do, learn to accept the situation.

While there will be common elements to stress inducers (I should think all of us would feel our heart beating a bit faster and break into a sweat if someone pointed a loaded gun at us),different people respond differently and to different degrees to the same trigger. For example, standing in front of a group of strangers and engaging them in the delights of employment law is fun for me (I love it!),but for many it would be hideously stressful. By contrast I dislike heights. Getting into a cable car terrifies me, especially when it bumps over the points (the last time I did so it didn't help that just before we arrived at our destination there was one of those large, rather flamboyant Catholic cemeteries nearby. I walked back down the hill!).

My tips for stress management in business are as follows.

Be a plan full optimist. By all means follow your star, but think it through and plan carefully. Expect things to go wrong. The universe hasn't got it in for you - just as rain follows the sun, things go wrong. That’s life. Anticipate and plan for it.

Learn the art of taking a step back before responding to a stressful situation. I've had some horrible problems in my 15 years running a business. In each case I pondered very carefully before responding and it paid dividends.

Lastly, learn from and turn stressful situations to your advantage. More than once a stressful situation had led to me reviewing the way we do things. Recently I have been recruiting for a new HR Consultant. We have clients all over the UK, so anyone doing the role can expect to be out and about at least 50% of the time. This was very carefully explained to prospective applicants. Eventually an offer was made and the successful applicant told me that her husband would be the primary carer of their children to give her the degree of flexibility needed. Shortly before she was due to start she told me she would need to leave the office at 5.30pm three times a week. “No,” I said. “Oh, but my child care arrangements only extend to 6pm and my husband works shifts”, she replied. I reminded her about the conversation we’d had and she told me that he would need to change his job. I said I could offer her some support while he was doing so, but only for a maximum of three months, by which time she would have to have her arrangements in place. Frankly, if I end up doing the job, I don’t need her. She decided she didn't want to work here which is fair enough. It does beg the question why apply for a job that you know you can’t do? Anyway, that aside, you may think that with an outgoing consultant I was stressed, but in fact I thought it was a good opportunity to review things (and I was relieved that I’d found out before she started). Together with another incoming consultant, we have decided to create a family-friendly (part time working, term time only) local HR consultant role. One door shuts and another opens...

It’s stressful to talk yourself into thinking you have no options. You almost always have options. You may not like the options available, but there’s almost always more than one choice. Before he retired, my father was a highly paid and well-respected executive in an organisation. Unfortunately his boss and Dad did not work well together and had a very tense relationship. He stayed though because he couldn't get an equivalent paid job elsewhere and he had a young family to support. He almost had a breakdown and I know my mum was very worried. But we could have coped perfectly well if he had gone to a lower paid role. It saddens me that he voluntarily placed himself in this position. You might say, why didn't he raise a grievance if the boss was so awful? It’s true that‘s an option, but it rarely achieves the results desired and I have known the raising of grievances to make things worse.

On a final note, bear in mind that however bad things are they eventually fade away. Tony Robbins always says “this too shall pass”. It’s true. Keep smiling, keep going, keep planning and think about options and remember that every day above the ground is a good one.

Russell HR Consulting provides expert knowledge in HR solutions, employment law training and HR tools and resources to businesses across the UK.

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