Small Business Owners have been hit hard by the pandemic both financially and emotionally. In Canada, the federal government has stepped in to help on the financial side.
But not much is being done for Small Business Owners on the emotional side. Instead, Small Business Owners have been left to fend for themselves as best they can. Emphasis should be being placed on helping Small Business Owners to manage their stress better because managing stress is critical to making good decisions.
Whatever your business, there are several things you can do to reduce the stress caused by the pandemic so that you remain on your feet and do not succumb to panic or exhaustion.
You may own a dental clinic or an accounting practice. Maybe you own a mid-sized oil services company or an independent law practice. You may own a fabrication shop or an architecture firm. Perhaps you own a medical clinic or a restaurant. You may own a trucking company or an electric contracting company. Or, you may own a hair salon or a gardening centre.
Feel free to bounce around and to pick and choose from the headings presented in this article that apply to your situation.
1. Practice acceptance
It is important that you practice acceptance about what is happening all around you as a result of the pandemic. This applies, in particular, to your own situation. Accept the situation for what it is. It’s stressful to be small business owner, in large part because we have all been taken by surprise.
Instead of being hard on yourself, a significant trick for managing stress is to be patient with your situation, whatever it may be. We are all in the midst of a huge learning curve. If you can accept that things have changed and that your job today is to respond as best you can, then things can quickly become easier for you.
Still, you would like to be more in control, and you may be chastising yourself for not being more on top of things when the pandemic struck. Maybe you would be in better shape if you had done things differently. The problem with this style of thinking is that it’s too late to change history. Hindsight is 20:20. Rather, accept where things are now. Grieve your losses, whatever they may be. And then determine to get on with it as best you can.
2. Know when to fight and when to let go
It is an invaluable skill to know when to fight and when to let go. If you plan to fight, ensure that you enjoy running your company, mostly because being a Small Business Owner takes a lot of time and energy. Determine to state you are having fun, most days, if you decide to stay in the game.
An accountant who worked in bankruptcy and insolvency said that the biggest predictor of whose small business will fail and whose small business will survive is how tenacious the owner is. He said that how hard owners fight to hold onto their businesses predicts who will survive. A bank manager seconded this assessment.
So, fight for your business to survive and even thrive if you can and if there is a possibility that you will succeed. But know when to let go. Sometimes, no matter how hard you fight, you will lose. I don’t mean that you should give up the fight when you can be effective, but it’s helpful to know, at the same time, when you have lost.
3. Focus on what you can do
Now is the perfect time to focus on your marketing if business is slow. Doing so will help you feel you in the driver’s seat, which will reduce your day-to-day stress because you will be doing something effective.
I spoke with several copy writers and SEO experts prior to writing this post. They said that a lot of Small Business Owners are currently working on their marketing. During any slow down is a great time to update a neglected website. That project is going to be critically important over the next five years, and you were going to have to make time to focus on it anyway, so tackle it now.
At the same time, be realistic about what is possible to achieve. Maybe this is not the best time to make cold calls to drum up business. Focus on what you can do today.
As a psychologist in private practice, I remember being told to run away from my office when times are slow because show periods end. After I’ve done everything I can on the marketing side, I plan to take a day off a week if things are slow. I know things will pick up when society re-opens.
4. Adopt a longer-term perspective
It has helped me – yes, my practice has slowed down along with other small businesses because of the pandemic – to remember that I don’t have to retire when I thought I would. My stress melted away when I had that realization.
If you are covering costs and can keep your business afloat, maybe it will be okay if you postpone retiring for an additional year. Maybe this won’t be a year when you contribute very much to your retirement fund. Maybe this will be okay if you can look at your situation from a different perspective. Maybe, instead, you will get to slow down this year and spend more time playing.
5. Find someone objective to talk to
Talking to someone objective about what is happening in your business can help reduce your stress. The best person to talk to might not be your spouse because he or she may be concerned about having less money coming into the house, or possibly losing the house if things are less stable in your business. They may lack the ability to be objective.
A similar argument may apply to your business partner if they are panicked over the state of the business and how long the pandemic may negatively impact you.
Maybe you know someone level-headed who can support you. Maybe you have a good relationship with a former colleague who can be a sounding board. Maybe you have a mentor who ran a successful business and has retired but will be happy to help you weather the storm.
If you lack someone objective to talk, or perhaps would like additional support, you might want to find someone new to bounce ideas off who specializes in helping Small Business Owners. Whoever you choose, find someone solid who can help you reduce your stress.
6. Completely separate work from when you relax
You will function better, and your stress level will reduce, if you can delineate where you work from where you relax. To do this, ideally, create separate areas for each.
If creating separate areas is not possible because you are sharing limited space with your spouse and children, there is still much you can do to formally establish work and relaxation zones.
One way is to do this is to go for a 20-minute walk before you begin to work in the morning. Formally leave the house after breakfast and return to “the office.” Repeat the walk at the end of your workday. But this time, reverse the process and return to find that the office has reverted into being “the bedroom.”
Another effective idea you can implement is to change your shirt as part of the transition from home to work and from work to home. Even if you work in sweatpants and a t-shirt, change your t-shirt before you begin your workday, and then change it again when you stop working at 5 pm. These changes will help your brain and your body know what function you are performing. If you have to work again in the evening, put on your work shirt again. Changing shirts will help reduce your stress because you need to know when you are at work and when you are at home.
7. Pace yourself so you don’t burn out
Leaving your desk at a reasonable hour each day will help you better manage you stress. It may be difficult to leave your desk when you feel overwhelmed, but you need to do so to maintain perspective and to keep your energy levels up.
Research has documented that the human brain can only focus with effort for four hours a day over the longer-term without burning out. If you push your brain too hard, you will burnout, and you will be no good to anyone. Instead, pace yourself so that you can remain effective over the long haul.
To pace yourself effectively, keep your eye on your priorities when you are at your desk. When it’s time to leave, pack up your things and step away. Everything that was not on your priority list will have to wait.
8. Establish routines
People establish routines because they are beneficial. Routines reduce the number of decisions you have to make. Before the pandemic hit, you know you functioned best, for example, when you ate a healthy breakfast and then hit the gym for a workout every morning.
Things have become complicated in recent months, in part because you are unable to go to gym and your morning routine has been upset. So, now is the time to get creative and establish some new routines that you can follow during the pandemic. Many people are going on-line to participate in virtual exercise classes to maintain their fitness. If you’re not doing this, you may want to give it a try.
Everyone is establishing new routines. Explore substitutions. Get creative about it. If you’re not comfortable eating out because of the inherent risks, maybe you can call Skip the Dishes and order in on Friday nights.
9. Schedule time off
It might feel difficult at the moment, but you need to take good care of yourself to successfully shepherd your business through the pandemic. You need to manage your stress, which means giving yourself regularly scheduled downtime to play and experience lightness.
Your relationships need attention, too. So, take a good look at your calendar and figure out when to days off. Then actively schedule them into your work schedule. You might want to take several long weekends if it feels impossible to step away from your business for a week. Even half days off can do a lot to regenerate your energy level and maintain a healthy perspective.
If things are really slow in your business, now might be the perfect time to take a week or two off to paint the exterior of the house. You may feel better about your situation if you accomplish something quantifiable.
10. Look at your spending
Many Small Business Owners have discovered that their monthly credit card bills have been lower than normal for the last couple of months because they’re not taking clients to lunch or having dinners out with their families. This is a good thing, because seeing a lower credit card balance each month helps reduce your stress.
These monthly savings, both on the corporate and personal side, may help you weather the downturn without much additional belt tightening. If you need to do more, consider whether to move forward with the office renovation you’re been considering. Whether to replace the office carpeting deserves careful thought. If you know your business will experience an upswing when the pandemic ends, now might be the right time to do cosmetic work to the business. But consider your current cash flow and make calculated decisions.
11. Check-in with your accountant
Many Small Business Owners do not know their financial numbers at the best of times. Today, however, it is more stressful to not know what sort of shape your business is in than to know, so get on top of your numbers. Don’t avoid taking a closer look because your imagination can play havoc with your stress level.
Your accountant or bookkeeper can compare this year’s numbers to last year’s numbers so that you can quantify how your business is performing. You may discover your business is in better shape than you thought. You may also discover the opposite, and that your business is in worse shape. But knowing how your business doing can provide you with a reality check and help you make better decisions, regardless of what state things are in.
12. Update your personal financial plan
Feeling the financial crunch can be extremely stressful. If this is happening, take a hard look at your finances and create a plan. Maybe forgoing that trip next year will help to right the boat. Look as far out as you need to until you can see solid ground. The pandemic will end, and your business may be able to stand up again. If you create a financial plan and take a look at the big picture, your stress level will likely go down. You may just need to take a long-term view to spot stability on the horizon.
13. Update your corporate financial plan
Many Small Business Owners don’t create an annual pro forma. In this context, a pro forma is a projection of what your expenses will be and how much money your businesses will bring in over the coming year. The best way to do this is to review your previous year’s numbers and estimate whether your costs will increase or decrease, and whether your income will increase or decrease.
To be safe, create three pro formas, labelled poor, anticipated, and excellent. For poor, create a scenario where bad things happen. For anticipated, create a scenario where things go as expected. For excellent, imagine things going well and having a banner year.
Remain realistic when you create the anticipated scenario. Make sure you plan for the poor scenario, too, so that you aren’t broadsided if things don’t go as planned. Doing so will help you feel more in control and will reduce your stress level because you will be able to forecast the future more accurately.
14. Talk to your bank’s small business advisor
Ask the small business advisor at your bank if any additional federal financial programs are coming down the pipe to help your business. Staying on top of things like changes to the Canadian Employment Wages Subsidy will help you manage your stress. I know many businesses have had the interest on their government-approved line of credit, to a maximum of $40,000, suspended until the end of 2022. It may not seem like a lot, but every bit of help might make a difference.
15. Talk to your commercial broker
If you rent office space rather than own your building, your commercial broker may be able to negotiate lower rent or a rent deferral plan with your landlord. Jump in and give it a try if you haven’t already. Landlords don’t want to talk to their tenants directly, but the door will likely be open to your broker.
16. Exercise every day
Your body releases adrenaline when you perceive danger. This reaction was helpful two hundred years ago when we lived in the woods and faced predators like wolves and cougars. During the pandemic, however, it doesn’t feel like adrenaline is helpful. It makes you less patient and quicker to anger. It blurs your thinking and makes your muscles crave movement.
The best thing you can do when you feel adrenaline is to move. The adrenaline is there so you can fight or run, so schedule a lengthy walk or a virtual exercise class into your daily routine. That movement will help you get out of fight-or-flight mode and give you access to your thinking brain again. It will also do a lot for your quality of sleep at night.
Exercise is also the single best thing you can do for yourself to stave off burnout if you are currently under the gun.
17. Get enough sleep
You can’t work flat out for more than a short period without becoming exhausted. And you won’t manage your stress very well if you are tired. To the extent that you can, make a list of tasks you need to accomplish and address the highest priority tasks at a reasonable pace so that you can knock them off your list.
If you are having trouble sleeping because you are anxious rather than overworked, find ways to wind down two hours before you head to bed so that your body will know bedtime is coming. Writing your thoughts out, either at a computer keyboard or by putting pen to paper, can help your brain process the thoughts that would otherwise keep you up at night. If you’ve written down your thoughts, your brain will know you are paying attention to what is niggling at you and will allow you to sleep.
18. Eat well
When you are stressed, your body needs the best fuel you can give it, so eat healthy. Your brain, which weighs three pounds, consumes 30 percent of the calories you eat in a day. On a 2000 calorie diet, that’s 600 calories.
Don’t scrimp on healthy eating when you are stressed. Rather, eat regularly scheduled, healthy meals to help you brain figure out how to forge ahead and deal with the pandemic. Nurture your brain. Don’t hamper it by skipping meals or feeding it poor food choices.
19. Get help for panic attacks
Panic attacks feel like stress manifested at its worst. Get professional help for panic attacks so you can nip them in the bud, either from a physician in the form of medication or from a psychologist in the form of talk therapy. For most people, a psychologist can help you dismantle panic attacks in two sessions, so don’t suffer needlessly.
Talking to a psychologist once a week for an hour about the stresses in your business can help reduce your stress level. This is a well-kept secret in society. No one talks about how much their psychologist helps them hold it together during stressful times because of the stigma. But psychologists are well versed in how to help people manage stress, so this is a great time to see a therapist who will maintain confidentiality and help you deal with persistent sleepless nights.
20. Don’t succumb to bad habits
Don’t use alcohol to help you unwind at the end of the day. Don’t tell yourself that those two drinks are necessary to help you sleep at night. Find a healthier way to cope that will be less harmful. Alcohol is a depressant and will knock your mood for a loop. You will feel better almost immediately if you head out the door for a run or a 30-minute walk instead of reaching for the Jim Beam.
The same argument goes for marijuana and anxiety. Marijuana makes your stress level worse, even thought it may feel like it helps in the short term.
In both cases, your energy level will be better if you stay away from substances to help you cope. If you can’t gain control over alcohol, marijuana, or other substances of abuse, now is a good time to contact a psychologist. After all, you don’t need a second problem to develop or get worse when you are shepherding your small business through the pandemic.
I have 17 years experience as an engineer and 20 years experience as a psychologist. I have built two successful businesses and have consulted with dozens of Small Business Owners on multiple aspects of their personal and professional lives. I will be happy to explore how I can help you, too.