What to do when your business is getting you down

Running a company is an intense business, with more twists and turns than a roller coaster ride. When profits are up and sales are high, being a CEO is a thrilling and exhilarating experience. However, in times of trouble, owning a business can start to feel like a heavy burden. Once malaise sets in, summoning the time and energy needed to turn the company around can seem like an impossible task and you can quickly run into burnout.

If your business is getting you down, it’s important to seek help. Burying your head in the sand will only make the problem worse. It could even prove dangerous – the economic downturn saw a tragic rise in suicide rates amongst European CEOs.

Summon your support group

Be honest with your loved ones – trying to hide stress from others can often make you feel more anxious. If you’re struggling to cope with the demands of running a business, confide in a trusted family member or friend. Even if they can’t physically help you, the act of talking through your concerns can alleviate your stress.

I personally try to avoid talking about work issues with most of my loved ones, because I prefer to keep business and pleasure completely separate. However, even meeting up for a quick coffee with a friend can instantly transform my day from stressful to fun.

That said, I do have an aunt who also runs her own business. Even though we work in completely different sectors (retail and broadcasting), I find it really helpful to talk through my problems and issues with her.

Talk to other business owners

You might be the only small business owner in your family. However, you can still seek out advice from other CEOs. Some communities benefit from ‘local enterprise’ groups and events, where home-grown CEOs can talk to other local business owners. However, if there are no nearby groups, a larger regional conference can also be highly beneficial.

My personal favourite is Prysm’s annual Business Startup Show in London. Although it’s one of Britain’s larger conferences, there’s a real focus on forging meaningful connections between small business owners. If you can attend, I recommend booking a place at one of the more intimate Boardroom events. Each session brings business owners together to discuss common issues and problems, and you’ll leave with some great suggestions for your own company.

For SME owners across the pond, I’ve also heard great things about the Small Business Expo. There are ten different Expos each year – all completely free to attend – held in different cities across America. Each event attracts hundreds of CEOs, exhibitioners, and keynote speakers. Book yourself into some of the workshops, take advantage of the official networking events, and use the opportunity to ask other business owners for advice.

Take a break

Stress can strike small business owners at any time – not just when sales are slow. Burnout is a prevailing cause of anxiety for CEOs, brought on by working long hours with very few breaks. This is an extremely common scenario, as business owners often pour their lives and souls into their enterprises.

It can seem impossible to take a break from your company – particularly in the early stages. However, when stress levels are mounting, a short break from the business could rejuvenate your entrepreneurial spark. Research has even shown that working for prolonged periods of time can actually lower productivity – all the more reason to take a vacation.

Admittedly, for small business owners, spontaneous trips are a thing of the past. However, with the help of some planning and foresight, it is possible to take a much-needed vacation.

When to go

It’s generally a good idea to go on holiday when business is slow. My own business is relatively unaffected by seasonal changes, so I tend to plan my vacations based on the previous year’s booking trends. However, this won’t be true for everyone. If your company has an obvious ‘slow period’ each year, this is when you should be making your getaway.

Handing over the reins

Many people – (and I myself am guilty of this!) – struggle to relinquish control of projects to others. However, unless you want a stressful vacation, it’s essential to put your trust in your employees. If the thought of handing over the keys for a week fills you with fear, start out small. Leave your most senior employee in charge for an afternoon, and build your way up to taking a longer break.

When disaster strikes

As seasoned business owners know, it’s important to develop damage-limitation strategies before disaster strikes. If you’ve already created a worst-case-scenario plan, share it with your senior staff members before you travel, and give them the authority to act in your absence.

Step away from the phone

Even if they do manage to take a vacation, most small business owners never truly switch off. Never underestimate the temptation to pick up your smartphone – I once ruined a holiday by obsessively checking my emails and texts on my iPhone. I recommend turning your email facility off before you go away (change your password if you have to!). You could also implement a one-way contact policy, by asking your employees to call you only if there’s an emergency.

Remember you’re in good company

If you’ve hit a stumbling block, it’s easy to blame yourself and feel like a failure. However, it’s important to remember that you’re only human – and humans sometimes make mistakes. I take solace in the fact that even the world’s most successful CEOs don’t always get it right:

  • Henry Ford revolutionized modern manufacturing methods, and is now regarded as one of the most successful businessmen of all time. However, his very first company folded.
  • Before founding the studio that would make him famous, Walt Disney drove an earlier company into bankruptcy.
  • KFC is now one of the world’s most popular fast food chains. However, it took Colonel Sanders 65 years to find success, ploughing numerous other enterprises into the ground along the way.

There are many different ways to deal with stress as a small business owner, and you may well find other techniques which work better for you. However, if your stress is becoming harmful to your health – mentally or physically – please speak to your doctor.

This post was written by Daniel Mason of Westminster Live, an internationally recognized television studio based on the banks of the River Thames. Connect with him on Twitter at @LIVEwestminster.


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  1. This blog was timely for me. As a job shop supplying tooling to the automotive industry, we’ve just finished a period where the sales were thru the roof, but to get all the work done, the staff worked tremendous overtime. High labor costs and slow paying customers have resulted in poor cash flow. I am not only stressed but somewhat resent the employees that were paid huge sums in overtime while sales were at records highs. Now when cash is at its worse, they are asking about holiday bonuses.

    • SJ:

      That is really discouraging! You’ve worked hard (as has your team) they’ve taken home the lion’s share of the cash and now they want a bonus! Ug.

      I really hate discretionary bonus plans for this reason. The only way that it’s a “win” is if the employees expectations are matched with the owner’s ability to pay! A more structured bonus plan that’s based on a formula (using *cash flow* and not profits as the trigger) can help remedy this for next year — but for this year you may have to just explain it to them.

      Don’t feel bullied into bonuses you can’t afford, that just starts a cycle that is hard to break.

      You’ll get through this! Next time around you’ll be better prepared and find a way to keep more of the cash!

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