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How to avoid the dangers of bottling up stress

Naomi Humber, Head of Mental Wellbeing - Bupa UK

Small businesses flourish when employees are at their best, however research shows that an alarming 96% of owners admit to keeping their stress bottled up. Business owners have a responsibility to protect the health and wellbeing of their employees but may forget that their own health and wellbeing is included in that pledge, too. With so many at the helm feeling the pressure, how does bottling up stress impact your business?

How stress takes its toll
Everyone handles stress differently, with your age, abilities and experiences all influencing your ability to cope with it. Whilst everyone has the odd day of feeling stressed, if it becomes a regular thing, it can be easy to slip into a cycle of work-related stress.

A certain amount of it can actually help motivate you and boost productivity, but if circumstances change – like your demands increase or team relationships become difficult – you might start noticing an impact on your wellbeing.

Though it affects everyone differently, stress can lead to a range of emotional and physical symptoms – some of them may be easier to recognise than others, so it’s important to be aware of them so you can recognise them and act.

Emotional and mental symptoms of stress

  • Losing confidence in your working ability
  • Losing motivation or not feeling committed to your job
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Finding decision-making more difficult
  • Anxious feelings
  • Feeling irritable or short-tempered
  • Feeling more emotional
  • Feeling depressed
  • Mood swings
  • Difficulty switching off after work

Physical symptoms of stress

  • Digestive issues like diarrhoea, constipation, indigestion, feeling sick
  • Feeling lethargic
  • Sore and achy muscles
  • Chest tightness or chest pain
  • Headaches
  • Weight loss or gain

You might also notice changes in your behaviour and routine when you’re stressed, like appetite changes, using coping mechanisms like alcohol, smoking or illegal drugs, trouble sleeping or socially isolating yourself.

What happens if I bottle up stress?
If you don’t have the right coping strategies in place to combat any stress you’re feeling, it can lead to several issues – both for your health and for your business. Likewise, if you’re showing visible signs of stress with your employees, these feelings may spread and lead to a negative work culture within your team.

Along with the physical consequences of stress, long-term stress can put you at higher risk of developing mental health problems like depression and anxiety. Mental health problems are the leading cause of long-term sickness absence in the workplace, but this can often be prevented if there’s early intervention.

Presenteeism is another issue that can affect your business – this is where you continue to work even though you’re unwell, or when you work unreasonably long hours. When you’re a business owner, it can be difficult to know when or how to switch off at the end of the day. Not taking the time to have a break and wind down can impact your health, productivity and put you at greater risk of burnout.

Absences – whether due to illness or presenteeism -– with unsupported mental health problems cost businesses an estimated £17 to £26 billion a year.

Practical steps to combat stress as a business owner
It may feel particularly difficult to admit that work is making you stressed, but the most important thing to remember is that stress isn’t a sign of weakness – and you can still be an effective leader whilst managing these feelings.

With mental health and physical health deeply connected, knowing the best ways to take care of yourself is crucial. Incorporating these simple steps into your routine can help reduce stress, lead by example and prevent presenteeism and absences.

Learn about resilience
You might think that you have your own specific threshold for the amount of stress you’re able to handle, however with resilience work it’s possible to build that threshold through changing lifestyle and cognitive factors.

Looking at the way you perceive situations and how your behaviour is influenced because of them can help you to understand your tolerance level and reduce your reaction turning negative.

Know your limits
Working on your assertiveness – for example, learning when to say no and knowing where your limitations are – can help reduce the amount of stress you’re under at one time. Similarly, learning to alert others when you’re feeling the pressure can be beneficial. Remember to focus on the things you can control and try to let go of the things that you can’t.

Though you’re a business owner, it’s important to remember that you’re also human.

The power of the to-do list
Write down your most immediate, achievable goals. Breaking things down into manageable chunks will give you a greater sense of accomplishment as you’re able to cross them off your list. Seeing what you’ve achieved will help to reflect on how far you’ve come, and to monitor how much you’re taking on at one time.

Take care of the basics
External factors like your diet, sleep and physical activity can also play a role in how well you’re able to cope with stress, so it’s important not to neglect these so you’re in the best position to handle whatever work life throws at you.

Take time for yourself
Running a business is hard, so make sure you’re taking time away to recharge. Dedicate time to enjoy yourself, whether it’s with your friends or family, getting outdoors, getting creative or seeing a show – a change in scenery can help you to gain a different perspective.

Implement a business-wide approach
Sharing your tips and techniques to help manage stress across your business helps reinforce to your team that there’s no shame in seeking help for stress, along with raising awareness of its consequences if it’s left unaddressed.

Know where you can turn
Familiarise yourself with free outlets you can approach if you need to offload, along with work schemes that you have for your team that can provide support. Things like Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP), small business health insurance, occupational health, Samaritans and Mind can all make a big difference if you’re struggling with stress.

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