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Owning a business is stressful at the best of times. You're responsible for day-to-day operations, planning for the future, and the livelihood of your staff. It's a lot to shoulder. Add in a global health and economic crisis, and the weight of responsibility and related stress can snowball quickly.

Business owner burnout is a real thing. And considering that getting through COVID-19 more resembles a marathon than a sprint, burn out can happen quickly, yet have lasting effects. While much has been written and discussed about how leaders can support employees during these times, the emotional and physical well-being of leaders is often overlooked. But really, how can you be strong for the business and your staff if you’re struggling to keep your own head above water?

Consider the oxygen mask analogy: You can’t truly help others until you take the necessary steps to help yourself. Registered psychologist Karin Klassen works with Wello to offer support and guidance to business leaders. In a recent conversation, Klassen shared ideas and insights that may help owners manage stress and avoid burnout during this time of great uncertainty.

Here are seven tips to consider:

1. Infuse Some Balance Into Your Day

Many business owners are known for working around the clock and getting no sleep. For some it’s like a badge of honour. But as Klassen explains, if we take care of our body, our brain will be sharper and more attentive. “We tend to think that where our brain goes, our body will follow. However, you’re not going to get to the mountains if your car doesn’t work.”

She further explains that when we get stressed, our biochemistry actually changes. “When we go into fight or flight, we get filled with adrenalin and cortisol, and this protective response can impede the functions of our prefrontal cortex. That prefrontal cortex is where all the higher order thinking, processing and working memory happens.”

That’s why those pieces of advice you may have been hearing for years – get enough sleep, take natural breaks in the day, start a hobby outside of work – are incredibly important. And during this time – when the line between your business and personal life is blurred – consider finding a way to create a formal separation between work and home. Adding structure to your day can help you, your staff, your clients and your family rally around a consistent end of the workday.

2. Put Yourself First

We’ve already mentioned the oxygen mask analogy. But besides the physiological need to take care of yourself before you take care of others, your own self-care can have a positive influence on your staff. As a business owner, you model behaviour to your employees. “Managers set the tone, they inoculate the environment with the culture they want to grow. Even if you’re not feeling it, behaving in a way that is open, responsible, and directed towards a productive, positive outcome can influence those around you to do the same,” Klassen explains.

When you show others that you make time for sleep, family, exercise – and anything else that makes you feel good – it demonstrates to your staff that it’s OK to prioritize your own needs.

Klassen puts it even more bluntly: “Do you want sick employees who can’t go the distance? Well then don’t be one yourself. Every day is an opportunity to demonstrate positive, effective, resilient behaviour. Your body, your brain and those around you will respond in kind.”

3. Reveal Your Vulnerabilities

Chances are, your employees are worried about giving off an impression that they’re not hard at work, that they’re being disrupted by family, or having a hard time coping with the stresses of today’s situation. Revealing your vulnerabilities can take the pressure off you, and can show others that perfection is neither expected nor intended. Ultimately, a more honest and open relationship with your staff (and yourself) can lead to a more relaxed, compassionate culture that’s easier to lead during difficult times.

So go ahead, show up in your sweats one morning, let your two-year-old jump on your lap during a Zoom meeting, and share your own ups and downs with others. Letting go of the idea that everything is – or should be – normal, can go a long way to relieving any additional pressure that could be weighing you down.

4. Recognize Signs of Stress

Signs of stress can be directed both inwardly and outwardly at others. For instance, snapping at others, getting frustrated easily, or displaying other behaviour that has to be apologized for is a sign of burn out. Poor sleep, negative self-talk, and instant gratification also indicate rising stress levels. “Giving into self-soothe urges we would normally have the strength to overcome – such as eating too many bags of chips or drinking too much red wine – can be clear signs of burnout,” says Klassen.

“The less well we treat our bodies, the less able we will be to get through to the other side,” she further explains. Just recognizing signs of stress can be a powerful way to diffuse burnout before it becomes unmanageable. And this acknowledgement can help you make healthy choices that lead to more productive days and restful nights.

Positive mental well-being is critical for your personal health and the health of your business. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it might be time to seek the support of a professional.

Crisis Services Canada offers a directory of local support phone and text lines that are accessible 24/7.

5. Do What Brings You Happiness

And if you are feeling stressed? Think about all the things that bring you happiness. You can even cope ahead by writing down all those things that make you happy, so that when you are feeling stressed, you can check in with your happiness list. Consider making a happy playlist or doing something fun like planning a virtual dinner. Having something to look forward to is important during these times.

Klassen also reminds you to generate endorphins through exercise, as well as doing something nice for someone. Consider going for a run or a walk, picking up groceries for a neighbour or donating to a cause that needs assistance right now. Those happiness levels may just get the boost they (and you) need.

6. Bracket Anxieties

If you feel overcome by all the responsibilities in your life, and find that anxiety is shifting from a nagging feeling into something less manageable, consider ‘bracketing’ your worries. “Take some time out of the day and say: ‘OK, this is the time I’m going to talk about my worries and concerns. Outside of that, I’m going to move forward,'” encourages Klassen. By containing anxiety within a bracketed period of time, you’re more likely to be able to focus on your business and work towards achieving your goals of the day.

7. Fake it Till You Make it

The idea of ‘fake it till you make it’ has been studied by scientists for decades, who say that pretending you know what you’re doing (like dressing the part of the job you want) can take you a long way. The concept also applies to pretending to feel confident, happy and in control at times when you’re not necessarily feeling this way at all.

“Even if you’re feeling full of anxiety, if you exhibit confidence and decide on a productive path forward, your brain may be convinced to join you,” says Klassen.

In other words, the more you believe that you can guide your business through this pandemic, the more likely you will in fact see success.

It’s natural to feel anxiety these days. In fact, a recent study shows that more than twice as many Canadians have felt consistent or constant stress during COVID-19 compared to before the pandemic. As a business owner, stress can indeed propel you forward, but it can also hold you back from a healthy lifestyle, a clear mind, and an industrious path through the crisis. Taking care of yourself will help you take care of your business, your staff and the people who matter to you.