How To Handle Stress at Work for Entrepreneurs

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Mia Sullivan

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Stress. Everyone feels it, but what exactly is it? While it has many definitions, the most relatable one might be: the emotional or physical tension that comes up when you feel like you don’t have enough capacity to meet a situation’s hefty demand.

Handle stress at work

Studies show that work stress is the main type of stress Americans experience. A recent Gallup report also found that globally, “60% of people are emotionally detached at work and 19% are miserable.”

Consequently, American companies lose ~$300B each year due to stress-related absenteeism, diminished productivity, and accidents. Stress also leads to burnout, a psychological condition characterized by exhaustion, cynicism, and ineffectiveness.

Being your own boss can bring on a different level of stress. In a Hustle survey of more than 300 entrepreneurs, 63% of business owners reported that they’ve dealt with or are currently dealing with burnout.   

A thriving business needs energized and focused founders and employees. Therefore, mitigating stress and creating a healthy work environment are key to sustaining long-term success for any company.   

Common stressors for entrepreneurs

As an entrepreneur, the dollars and cents are probably always floating at the top of your mind. Maybe you’re self-funding your business or hustling to get an investor or two. Even if you’ve secured investment dollars and are building a team, it’s likely that money (or lack thereof) is a stressor.

“I think our biggest stress is the money part,” says TripOutside co-founder Julie Singh. Julie started the outdoor adventure company with her husband, Reet Singh, in 2018. 

“We had a decent amount of money saved up, which we thought would be enough, but of course it wasn’t,” says Julie. “We’re constantly having to think about: What are we spending money on? How are we getting income?”

Feeling overwhelmed is also a common stressor. You likely have so many ideas about how to grow your business, yet only have limited hours in the day to execute them. The thought of an endless pile of work on your plate can easily cause strain.

Being the only person behind your business can lead to stress, too. If you’re the only founder, you are solely accountable for your company’s success or failure, which can be hard to take, especially when things don’t go your way.

Loneliness is another common feeling among founders. Solopreneurs are especially susceptible to feeling alone in their work, but the feeling tends to persist for founder CEOs even as their companies grow. 

Tips for dealing with work stress

While coming under the strains of work is inevitable, managing your stress correctly can mitigate many of its effects. Here’s a collection of tips to help you through as you try to destress; though they’re geared toward entrepreneurs, many can be used for any stressful work situation. 

1. Identify why you’re stressed: Is it because you’re procrastinating on your tasks? Maybe you have an impending deadline, or you’re late on one. It’ll be easier to manage the issue once you get to the root of the cause, so try exercises like journaling to self-reflect. 

Write down what’s working at work and what’s stressing you out, and chronicle your relationship with stress on a daily or weekly basis. 

Talking to a friend, colleague, or loved one may also be a salve. “I find being vocal and sharing the specific issues that are plaguing me really helps me unlock answers to problems,” Nausheen Abdul Aziz, founder and president of Gravity Speakers, says. “Something about having that emotional release helps to make the problem feel smaller.”

2. Limit multitasking: Multitasking can add more stress to your day and make you less effective. Research shows that the human brain isn’t designed to do multiple things at once, and performance drops when people try to multitask versus complete a task in isolation.

“When we think we’re multitasking, we typically make between two and four times as many errors, even when we think we are quite effectively juggling more than one task,” Caroline Webb, a behavioral economist, told the Wall Street Journal.

Instead, give monotasking a shot, and turn off notifications and sign out of email while you’re focusing on work. This may be especially helpful for tasks that involve creativity and higher-order thinking.

3. Practice mindfulness: A host of scientific studies suggest a correlation between mindfulness practices and decreased stress levels. “Mindfulness” is rooted in ancient spiritual traditions and can take many different forms. But at its core it’s paying attention to your own thoughts in the present moment, in a nonjudgmental way.

“A lot of times we’re avoiding our thoughts, so just being able to sit with them really helps as a daily practice,” TripOutside co-founder Reet Singh says.

Try meditating in a quiet room with no phones or distractions. Set a time limit and, if you’re new to this, start by sitting for just a couple of minutes. Focus your attention on one thing, leaving out judgments, and get curious about the thoughts that come up. If you’d prefer a guided meditation, there are many meditation apps, like Calm, Headspace, or Insight Timer.

Stress often comes up when you’re disappointed with yourself for not doing something you think you should’ve done. Mindfulness, with its focus on the present, can help temper guilt and foster acceptance, allowing stress to dissipate. 

4. Breathe deeply: Similar to meditation, deep breathing can help your brain focus on one thing. Here’s a technique that’s recommended by Harvard Medical School: 

  • Sit or lie down in a quiet, comfortable place.
  • Take a regular breath first, then take a deep breath.
  • Breathe in slowly through your nose, and let your chest and lower stomach rise as you fill up your lungs.
  • Allow your abdomen to fully expand.
  • Breathe out slowly through your mouth or nose — whichever feels more natural.
  • Then practice controlled breathing: sit with your eyes closed and combine deep breathing with mental imagery. Maybe add a relaxing word or phrase to focus on.

For a more drastic approach, Reet Singh swears by the Wim Hof method, which involves actively engaging in stress to practice destressing. How it works: You put your body through a stressful situation — like a 40-degree shower — and then use deep breathing to work your way out of it. The idea is to teach your body to deal with stress purposefully, so you’re better equipped when it (inevitably) comes up.

It sounds kind of kooky, but research suggests that practicing the Wim Hof method has the potential to lessen anxiety and create a feeling of well-being.

5. Reframe negative thoughts: Chronic stress can cause you to develop a negative mental filter, where you automatically view situations through a cynical lens. 

Try reframing negative thoughts. To start, consider your thoughts to be hypotheses instead of facts, and contemplate the counterpoints to your hypotheses. 

For example, if you’re thinking: I’ll be so upset if I don’t get funding from this investor, because it’ll mean my business idea isn’t a good one. 

Consider: Does the value of your idea really rely on what one investor thinks? And, if she doesn’t invest, does it definitely mean your idea isn’t a good one? (There might be several reasons why she doesn’t want to invest that aren’t related to the quality of your idea.)

Thought reframing, or cognitive reframing, is used in cognitive behavioral therapy. Practicing it regularly can help mitigate negative emotions in response to stressors.

6. Stay organized: As an entrepreneur, you likely have an endless to-do list and tons of projects on your plate. But you can’t do everything at once, so prioritize your tasks and get clear on what you’re trying to accomplish each week, month, and year.

Start by making a ranked to-do list. Julie and Reet Singh like Asana for prioritizing tasks and organizing projects, but there are several similar project management tools out there. 

Understanding how you spend your time can help you use it more efficiently as well. Time tracking tools like Toggl and Harvest have free versions, and they’re easy to use.

Additionally, break big tasks down into smaller bite-sized work. Meeting small goals frequently can help you feel accomplished which, in turn, can relieve some stress.

“It’s [sometimes] overwhelming to think about how big of a thing you’re trying to build, so break things down into smaller chunks and implement those chunks [first],” Reet advises. 

7. Live healthfully: This is basically what your mom’s always told you to do: eat well, exercise, and get plenty of sleep.

Diets full of vegetables, fruits, and omega-3s — and low in saturated fats — have been linked to lower stress levels and reduced risk for developing stress-related psychiatric disorders.

Exercising and spending time outdoors is a great way to destress, too. “If we can get out on a hike or a bike ride, it doesn’t matter how stressed out we’re feeling. By the time we’re done, it’s gone,” Julie says.

There’s also a strong correlation between sleep deprivation and stress. The CDC recommends that adults get at least seven hours of sleep per night. On average, adults who report lower stress levels get more sleep than those reporting higher stress levels, according to the American Psychological Association. Getting ample sleep is an essential way to minimize stress, and it can positively impact your mood.

8. Nurture your network: If you have colleagues, develop strong relationships with them. Meeting in person, at least some of the time, is helpful, as face-to-face contact lowers cortisol levels and reduces stress.

If you’re a solopreneur, try finding a group of entrepreneurs to bounce ideas off. Industry conferences, networking events, tech meetups, and pitch competitions are good ways to meet like-minded people. Online communities like Trends are another option for building relationships with fellow business owners. 

9. Take breaks: You may feel like you don’t have time to take breaks because you have too much to do. Take breaks anyway! Research shows that the human brain can focus for  around 90 to 120 minutes before it needs to rest

Taking intermittent breaks throughout the day — especially ones that involve movement or deep breathing — will help you perform at your best.

10. Don’t get caught up on perfectionism: Constantly striving to do perfect work can add a lot of stress to your life. It can also be counterproductive to your goal of getting things done. 

If you tend toward perfectionism, it’s important to differentiate between work that needs to be nearly perfect versus stuff that can be merely good. Knowing what needs perfecting — and what doesn’t — will help improve your efficiency and, hopefully, your stress level.

“I had a VP when I was at Home Depot who used to say ‘done is better than perfect.’ You need to put something out there, even if it’s not perfect, and then you can keep perfecting it as you go,” Julie says.

11. Set boundaries between work and personal lives: This seems tougher than ever in the era of remote work. But even if you WFH in a studio apartment, try to draw a line between your work and life.

Keeping regular work hours, having a dedicated workspace, and disconnecting from work emails and texts after hours all help create healthy boundaries and lower stress

As an entrepreneur, especially in the early days, you may not be able to set clear demarcations between work and life, but striving for them can create a sound foundation for good work-life balance.

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