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First published for National Stress Awareness Day 2020 in SME News.


They say that moving house, death and relationship change are the three most stressful experiences you can have. But whomever they are, they haven’t factored in a pandemic and running your own business.

Over the last eighteen months I have moved from Gloucestershire to Edinburgh, sold a house (we’re still battling a year-long completion challenge), restructured and rebranded a business, lost my father suddenly (with all the administrative and emotional responsibility that being the ‘sensible, elder daughter’ brings), ended my marriage, weathered (like everyone) the COVID-19 pandemic and the epic cash-flow challenges it has brought (as well as having contracted it myself in March) and, just last week, said “goodbye” to my 14 year-old Labrador, Benedict. By anyone’s standards it’s been a roller-coaster ride.

Those of us that choose to run our own businesses know – in an abstract sense – that we’ll have to deal with stress. But following National Stress Awareness Day this week, I’ve been reflecting on my own personal experience of stress and how not to let it get in the way of business growth.

For more than a decade I have run a virtual marketing agency, with a team of sub-contractors working around the world. Stress has always been an integral part of that –  cash flow challenges, identifying the right people to advise me (and, on one occasion recognising that the advice I had so innocently trusted stood to shut my business down for good if I didn’t act), supporting team members, and balancing all this with the pressure heaped on by clients. I saw stress as a badge of honour – a part of, rather than preventing, my success.

I like to think that I’m a reasonably intelligent person, but it was only this year, when things got really bad, that I realised the power stress has to destroy. Stress isn’t something to be proud of, it’s something to take seriously. It’s as debilitating as any major illness and, as business owners, we need to stop seeing it as that badge of honour and start seeing it as a business risk.

Over the years I have worked very hard to help manage the stress levels of those that work for me – whether through social activities, team days, flexible ways of working, job sharing, flexible payment approaches or promotion of open and honest communication.

In March, however, I contracted COVID-19 and I am certain it was as much to do with exhaustion as the pandemic. I had no choice but to put the out-of-office on and watch Game of Thrones (ok, I didn’t have to watch GoT).

As I was in residence on the sofa, I started to consider how I’d got there. I thought that in ‘managing’ stress I had been prioritising my business when, actually, it was the opposite. The business hadn’t grown very much because I was holding it back in managing rather than resolving my stress. I hadn’t developed the skills I needed to drive growth because I felt like I was already always busy. I must have been, right? I was stressed all the time.

As the first lockdown started (on my birthday – how’s that for an additional kicker?) I started to make some changes so as to tackle my stress and not stand in the way of business growth.

1. It takes a village

I don’t have children but I am now, firmly, of the view that it takes a village, also, to build a business. I don’t necessarily mean a team of people within the business (although this is, also, important), I mean a team of people that are there to support you as the business owner. Because my birthday was on the first day of lockdown my oldest, best friends decided to have Zoom drinks and it started a weekly ritual that transformed my emotional wellbeing. It helped me to realise that we all need someone to talk to, who doesn’t judge but who will also tell it to us straight. We also all need fun.

2. A creature of habit

I started setting my alarm, walking the dogs, having a good breakfast and then starting work. Did I manage it every day? Nope… but on those I did I was able to maintain a more realistic, practical distance from overwhelming stress.

3. Lifelong learning

I started listening to podcasts on my morning dog walk. One morning Emma Gannon (Ctrl Alt Delete) was talking to Lucy Sheridan, The Comparison Coach and although initially sceptical this really struck a chord with me. I realised that the things holding back my business growth were more about me as a person than whether I could work Xero or manage a sales pipeline. I worked through Lucy’s excellent book The Comparison Cure (which is designed to stop you judging yourself through comparison to others and helps you work out your own values, goals and measures) and signed up for her 11-day Inevitable programme (which combined elements of her book, linked to planning for business growth). It transformed my understanding of the things that I need to change to ensure commercial success.

4. Not available

I also realised that, if I wanted my business to succeed, I needed to think more realistically about how I balanced my time. I guaranteed myself Saturdays off. I implemented a day a week as ‘unavailable’ (when I wouldn’t look at emails or answer my phone). I introduced a monthly business growth ‘away day’. And I stopped being afraid of setting my out-of-office.

5. Home comforts

I made my home office space feel not just professional but comfortable – a space I want to be in and that feels success-focused. I realised getting dressed for work and putting on makeup impacts how I feel about myself professionally, so that has become part of my everyday morning routine too.

6. You are what you eat

I started working with women’s health and hormonal nutritionist Le’Nise Brothers. We looked at what I was eating, as well as the effect it was having, adding in elements and removing others. Although I was seriously skeptical it totally transformed how I felt, physically, as well as reducing the emotional roller-coaster I was on.

7. Strong foundations

There’s an old saying that the fear of anticipation is worse than the reality. In my case I have always been hopeless at planning, reporting, measuring and organising, within my business. I do it every day for clients but never, before, saw the correlation between not doing this and increased stress levels as a business owner. I enlisted Kelly Goss from Solva in reviewing all of our software systems, not only changing some of them but automating a lot and setting up clearer processes and reporting. Coupled with time working with Bill Quinn from 1 Cloud Consultants, on ways to use Zoho more effectively for CRM and marketing, this has not only reduced the element of the unknown but underpinned a cultural change of focus towards growth and success.

8. Getting others to step up

Over lockdown, despite worrying about cash flow I realised that I needed to trust certain key people within the business and replace those I didn’t. It hasn’t been an easy transition, but it has not only helped me when I needed time out but also to allowed me increased time for developing the business.

9. Listen to your heart

I’ve also spent a lot of time learning to understand why I react the way I do and when I need time out. Like many people I can convince myself that I’ve messed up even when I haven’t. In the same way I can convince myself that wanting to pull the duvet over my head is weakness, rather than a sign my body is exhausted. Understanding that we can control this – through listening and augmenting the negative voice with a positive and compassionate one – has transformed how I feel about myself as a business owner as well as helping me to become more ambitious in my business planning.

10. Celebrate the success

Ok, a little point but a crucial one. I’ve started not only praising and rewarding my team when they do well but giving myself a pat on the back when I do. That might mean awarding myself a long lunch hour on a Friday or indulging my love of Pat McGrath makeup (anything sparkly has to be good).

I’m not out of the woods – not least, like so many, in recovering fully from the impact of COVID-19 physically and financially – but for the first time I understand the power stress has to stop me from achieving what I want. I have ambitious goals that we’re already starting to realise across the agency, and I believe in myself as a business leader. That’s quite some lemonade made out of this year’s lemons.

Mind, the mental health charity, has published some helpful guidance here.