Why All Entrepreneurs Should ‘Stress Test’ How Their Business Performs Without Them
So widespread is burnout, the World Health Organization (WHO) has reclassified it as a “syndrome.”
The latest version of its International Classification of Diseases manual declares burnout an “occupational phenomenon” that stems from an inability to successfully manage chronic workplace stress.
Burnout sufferers experience exhaustion, feelings of cynicism towards their work, reduced performance, and mental distance, says WHO.
But those of us who’ve suffered in burnout’s cruel grip tend to agree that mental – and physical – distance from work is also a highly effective cure.
Eighteen months ago, Tracy Call, CEO and founder of Minnesota-based Media Bridge Advertising, was stressed and losing sleep. She had been running her business for eight years, which had grown to 15 full-time employees and 20 active clients.
“The main feeling I had was simply that the status quo was unsustainable on many levels,” she said. “My business brand was still tightly tied to my personal brand. The clients who trusted me to negotiate their media buys still thought of me as The Tracy Call Agency. I wanted them to know that my business was bigger, better and more versatile than I could ever be. I was frustrated that my clients still saw me at the center of everything, but that’s because I kept putting myself there!”
What Call did would terrify most entrepreneurs. She said: “I completely disconnected from the small business I started. I shut down my email. I left the country.”
She instructed her clients and employees not to contact her for a month – unless human lives were at stake or the office was burning down.
I called it the Entrepreneur Stress Test, or EST. Governments put banks through simulated financial crises to test their resilience all the time. I think small business owners should do the same.”
The impact was life-changing for her relationships: “I didn’t fully appreciate how much real estate the business was taking up in my mind, heart and soul. I didn’t realize how much of a barrier technology had become between my son and me until I took it away. I also feel like the EST saved my marriage, and I didn’t even know it needed saving!”
For entrepreneurs, Call believes burnout is self-inflicted and linked to a failure to understand how the founder’s role needs to develop as the business grows.
She explained: “Entrepreneurs start by breeding dependence and making themselves indispensable. But the more you build a company, the more the opposite needs to happen. Clients need to trust your team. Your team needs to know that you trust them. And you need to trust the idea that you can walk away and everything will be fine.”
Call says her stress test had nothing but positive results on the company: her team exceeded even her highest expectations.
I didn’t get any panicked phone calls from employees or clients. My team turned a profit for the month, landed some big new clients and even made two new hires while I was gone. What really made me smile was expecting to see thousands of unopened emails when I returned, only to discover that my team had responded to everything that needed attention and deleted everything I didn’t need to deal with. Being gone a month and coming home to a clean inbox – now that was amazing.”
The knock-on effect is that Call’s clients will now happily deal with her team – and she’s seen a noticeable boost in her staff’s confidence. The company is also prioritizing rest and has successfully introduced ‘Flex Fridays’ during summer months, when the whole team gets Fridays off if their work is finished between Monday and Thursday.
While Call has no plans to repeat the EST anytime soon, she wouldn’t rule it out for her employees. She said: “As more people rise up into new levels of leadership, they might find themselves at the same crossroads. As they take on more client responsibilities and acquire more direct reports, they might need to do their own stress tests as well.”
Call’s burnout cure mimics my own, which is to take a three-day break every quarter, when I am offline and cannot be reached unless in an emergency. I get well away from the office, and I use the time to contemplate, recharge and plan. But I, like many, learned this the hard way: I suffered from burnout for years.
Lucy Hackshaw, founder of leadership coaching specialist Flux, says many entrepreneurs forget rest is critical to both their ability to perform day to day, to business success and to good long-term health.
She said: “As an entrepreneur, there can be very little let up, you’re always on alert. It’s like an extreme sport. It’s high stakes risk – both financially and neurobiologically – and that must be properly managed to sustain entrepreneurial success.
“From a neurobiological perspective, the accumulation of stress on the body leads to allostatic load – or chronic stress – which must be monitored and actively reduced with calming activities to restore the body to homeostasis.”
Hackshaw recommends prioritizing moments of calm, mindful thought or meditation every day to reduce the risk of compromised cognitive functioning, which can limit working memory – needed for performing complex tasks such as learning, reasoning, and comprehension – as well as cognitive flexibility and empathy.
She added: “Longer breaks, with either a restorative or exploratory focus, allow for the allostatic load to dissipate and your neurobiological system to regulate. They minimize the risk of burnout, and of serious, chronic disease.”
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