Running beyond empty
If you’re a Kiwi business owner, you’re be glad to see the end of the past two Covid-ravaged financial years. This stress-busting wellness guide can assist you in recharging and refocusing. I take my hat off to New Zealand’s business owners. Collectively, and individually, in recent times they have navigated and endured the trickiest of […]
If you’re a Kiwi business owner, you’re be glad to see the end of the past two Covid-ravaged financial years. This stress-busting wellness guide can assist you in recharging and refocusing.
I take my hat off to New Zealand’s business owners. Collectively, and individually, in recent times they have navigated and endured the trickiest of economic waters.
Sadly, for many, Covid’s fallout has forced them to walk away from their livelihood. Others battled on through multiple disruptions.
It has not been easy. A terrible personal toll has been extracted.
Business coach Leone Evans, a mentor with Business Mentors New Zealand (BMNZ) since 2012, says small business owners especially have been hit hardest.
“Not only have they taken the brunt of impacted turnover, staffing issues and welfare – they have also faced their own family welfare issues, both here and overseas. Many have, and still are, finding that their resilience levels are nigh-on empty. They’re exhausted.”
Having a mentor whom they can talk frankly to about their mental wellbeing, toss around ideas to help the business stay afloat and navigate the ever-changing environment of lockdown rules and mandates, has been an absolute lifeline, she says, along with exploring what support can be obtained and getting help with the various application processes.
In 2022 demand for both mentoring and coaching is significantly up. “Some have sought advice on how to exit the business, often after having exhausted their savings to keep the business afloat,” says Leone. “They simply can’t do it anymore and have compromised their retirement plans.”
The closed borders have impacted business owners too – both their business and their private life, separated from their loved ones.
“So, yes, mental wellbeing is high on the list of ‘other services’ business owners need help with right now,” she says. “But not all will ask [for help] either.”
One business owner who can vouch for the positive effect of professional mentoring on stress levels is Hamish Rush, co-owner of Aporo Orchards, near Motueka in Nelson. Having endured challenges around labour and logistics especially, he knows what sustained pressure is all about and is grateful for the network of support available within his industry.
Hamish and wife Kylie are fourth generation owners of the business and have had a four-year relationship with a local BMNZ mentor. They sit down together monthly and have covered everything in the business from successional stewardship to problem solving, or just providing that unbiased opinion. If the couple are looking for advice on any particular aspect of the business, no matter what time of day, it’s simply a phone call away.
“It has been a very valuable resource and we’re very grateful to have it,” says Hamish. “We’ve also recommended the mentoring programme to other people, who’ve not been aware of it.”
He says there has to be a rapport between mentor and mentee and that largely comes from mutual trust built up over time. It’s different to counselling, he explains. In a mentoring relationship both parties are willing to make it succeed. Or as Hamish puts it – “get on the dance floor”.
“To the credit of BMNZ, our mentor partner was a perfect match.”
Hamish has two suggestions to help business owners who are mentally struggling with the restrictions and stresses of the current business environment, and its ever-changing rules.
“Just take a day-by-day, week-by-week focus. Don’t get overwhelmed by what’s coming up in three- or six-months’ time. You can’t predict that so there’s no point stressing.
“Have a long-term, and resilient, business plan you can be confident in too. Remind yourself of why you’re in business – because Covid will eventually pass. You may not get back on your feet as quickly as you would like, due to the disruptions, but you will eventually.”
Always remember the ‘why’, he says. There are multiple challenges facing businesses – from labour shortages to logistics issues, and unexpected weather events. To get through you must focus your mind. “Work out what you really want in life, and what you’re prepared to sacrifice in order to achieve your goals.”
Dealing with stress
Business coach Karen Ross of Start With You (pictured below) believes the nature of Covid’s lockdowns and restrictions put a lot of people, not in ‘flight’ or ‘fight’ mode, but rather ‘freeze’ mode.
In the workplace this manifested with people being more hesitant or confused about decisions or initiatives.
For business owners it has been particularly tough to continue to lead others positively whilst dealing with their own personal journey and challenges.
“Owners often feel very responsible for their employees and families,” explains Karen. “Being able to manage their own state of mind, emotional temperature and mindset is essential. And this kind of resilience is often one of the main toolsets I prioritise with people.”
People often assume that being more resilient means being able to handle more stuff and more stress, adds Karen. “I don’t believe this at all. Resilience is about being less stressed in the first place.”
She describes ‘acceptable stress’. This could be the pressure of meeting a deadline, or of an increased workload, but it has generally dissipated within, say 30 minutes.
‘Excessive stress’, on the other hand, is repeating throughout the day or constant. It’s day and night. “It’s a sense that the nervous system is never really coming back down again from the stress response. It’s like you’re never quite calm.”
‘Chronic stress’ goes on for a long time. “Those who’ve had burnout over the past couple of years were typically already quite chronically stressed in the first place and the pressures of the pandemic have exacerbated that,” says Karen. “For others, this period has created chronic stress or has highlighted past stress or trauma, and they’re now struggling to deal with day-to-day matters. This happens because of the build-up of pressure in the body from past emotional and stress states that have not been dealt with.”
Karen uses the example of a business owner who had a traumatic situation to deal with five or 10 years ago – perhaps a merger or a difficult employee or a cashflow glitch – and that unresolved stress or trauma has then been triggered by the pressures of the pandemic.
Finding that calm state
One way for a business owner to navigate their emotional growth is to recognise that we can’t distinguish between our personal and professional selves and we shouldn’t try to. It’s all personal, says Karen. “As a business coach I learned very quickly that even when we’re working on business-related matters, it always comes back to the person and the level of self. When you get this and start to focus on growing yourself, how you run your business starts to take care of itself.”
For clients with high stress levels, the first thing Karen does is “reset the nervous system” – clear out those typical triggers that send them into the stress response so that they are no longer automatically going there in certain situations.
“A good example would be if somebody tends to trigger into stress during meetings or when dealing with certain people. If they tend to have a short fuse in some situations we will release those emotional patterns so that they can have a more balanced and calm response.
“When we can stay in a calm state in the first place, we naturally make better choices about how we respond and behave in those situations.”
Become more aware of what you can, and can’t, control or influence, advises Karen. Acknowledge that the pandemic’s mandates and restrictions have caused many people to feel out of control within themselves. It’s time to regain your sense of agency and sovereignty over your emotional state, your choices, and how you run your business, she adds.
There’s further scope for managing stress in your business and life too, which Karen calls “living a soul-led life”. This is about taking a holistic viewpoint.
“It’s essentially living as a whole human being and not just from the mind, which is what so many people get caught up in,” she says. “Instead of relying solely on your mental intelligence, you have a vast reservoir of wisdom within and around you that you’re missing out on.”
But perhaps the two most important steps business owners can take to address stress is to delegate more, and ask for help.
Remember that your spouse won’t necessarily have the answers, so seek expert advice. And the old Kiwi approach, particularly among men, of just “getting over it” is not going to work.
You’re in charge
Stressful times or not, it’s easy for business owners to get caught up in the ‘busy-ness’ of running their business. Go to Girl’s Natalie Cutler-Welsh, an impact and visibility coach, says businesses must adapt and evolve over time, and for that to happen owners must reconnect via the following five steps:
- Intentions – what is the impact and income you want to have? How do you want to feel?
- Mission – and your message. What is it?
- Product – do your products/services align with your business impact and income goals?
- Actions – what empowered actions can you take to achieve your intentions?
- Connections – who can you connect with (potential clients/customers/collaborations)?
- Transformation – what transformation do you want to create in your own life and others’?
Never be afraid to ask for help, says Natalie. “People love to help others.
“And get out of the ‘should zone’. Instead of thinking ‘I should be able to do it myself’, flip that perception by thinking ‘I can do it faster or better when I ask for help’.”
She says wellness has become a priority more than ever in 2022. “So asking for, and getting, support now has less stigma and more respect.
“Looking beyond the pandemic, people realising that they are essentially the CEO of their own health and wellness gives me the most cause for optimism.
“One of my favourite questions to ask business owners is: What does upping your brave look like to you? For some, it’s putting themselves out there more on social media, Instagram for example, or being interviewed on a podcast. For others it’s evolving their business model or message.
“Acknowledging this and taking empowered actions can help improve both their mental state and their business performance.”
Story by NZBusiness editor Glenn Baker. For a free copy of Karen Ross’s ‘Beating Covid Stress’ e-book go to https://www.startwithyou.co/product/beating-covid-stress-ebook/ before June 20th. Use the code ‘NZBfree’.
Most business entrepreneurs have effective coping mechanisms for stress.
Eva Neshat, founder and CEO of CannaPlus+, advises people to take regular time off – a day or half-day off at least once a week, and truly unplug. “Your energy levels dictate the energy levels of your team. You can’t build or scale when you are exhausted. Take the time out when you need to and know your limits.”
If you have other directors, lean on them as much as appropriate, she adds. “You choose your directors for a reason. Don’t take on all the heavy lifting yourself.”
Two other suggestions are a) trust your gut and, b) prioritise your health.
“Don’t make decisions from a place of panic. Give space to situations. Know when to push and when to step back.”
Erika and Will Palmer, founders of Cupla app, have an effective strategy for stress-busting as well. “Have a routine of things you can control that set you up for success mentally and physically,” they say. “So much of business is out of your control; the pandemic has definitely demonstrated this. But you can control how you show up each day. What this looks like for us is gym, walk the dog, meditate, journal. We try to nail these practices first thing, which means a 5am rise.”
The couple also deliver a strong point about living in fact, not emotion.
“When faced with tough decisions ensure you have data in front of you to lead your decision making,” says Erika. “Emotions will change but facts in that moment shouldn’t.
“It’s far easier to convey decisions made in fact to your team, board or investors, than trying to explain a gut feeling.”
How are your people (really) doing?
Kerryn Strong, co-founder of HR consultancy Freerange Works, has been observing closely the impact of the pandemic on the country’s business owners and managers, as well as their staff. Understandably the pressure has been on managers to keep their teams connected, the company culture alive, and customers fully engaged under the new ‘work from home’ environment.
“Flexible working has gone too far the other way and now employees just expect it since working from home became the new normal over lockdowns,” she says.
“One of the key HR issues for business owners and managers is how to retain their star people who are very likely being shoulder tapped now for competitive job offers.”
Covid fatigue and mental health challenges have continued to be a concern throughout the pandemic. Raising that awareness and doing what you can for your peoples’ wellbeing is very important, says Kerryn.
“Business owners need to take a balanced and supportive approach to people’s risk appetites. “For example, pushing people to be back in the office is not the best way forward if it makes them uncomfortable. It’s more important to make sure people are adequately set up at home because otherwise they will lose productivity.”
If anyone truly understands the toll Covid-related stress has on the health of business owners, it is Wellington-based functional nutritionist Shelley Gawith.
This year in her clinic she is seeing a lot of exhausted business owner clients heading towards burn-out. The past 24 months has seen them punishing their bodies and missing breaks, and under Omicron they’ve had to take on an even heavier workload.
“When business owners have to do the day-to-day of their business it means they’re bringing work home at night, going to bed later and basically pushing themselves to fit in as much as possible,” says Shelley. “Humans are not designed to live under this level of stress for this amount of time.”
So, what strategies can business owners adopt to beat the burnout?
Shelley says the easiest tool to use is simply deep breathing. Even if it’s just once a day to begin with.
“I like to think of our nervous system as train tracks. There’s the stress train (sympathetic nervous system) and the ‘rest and digest’ train (parasympathetic). It’s OK to be on either train throughout the day, but most of us, by default, are on the stress train. So, we need to flick the switch to get on the other track.
“This can be as simple as doing a square breath throughout the day. It can be putting your legs up the wall for ten minutes before bed. Smelling lavender oil. Or putting your bare feet on the ground – a technique called ‘earthing’.”
Shelley explains why stimulating your vagus nerve is good for calming nerves. It is, after all, the body’s longest cranial nerve, stimulating the cardiovascular, immune, endocrine and respiratory systems.
“Spend more time on that rest and digest train. Every time we do it, we build more resilience.” Once people know the why, they will do it, she believes. “And then they will feel better, so they will keep doing it.”
Burnout can also impact staff, and their wellbeing has to be your greatest focus, she says.
“Keep open communication with your people and almost have an inhouse menu of all the support options available to them.
“Ask for their feedback. What are their needs?”