Running a small business is stressful enough, and then small business owners recently have had to deal with operating during the COVID-19 pandemic, which only magnifies that stress.
Entrepreneurs had to shut down their companies for a period of time, adjusted to operating in an entirely new environment, adapted to new rules and regulations, and worried about their employees and even their companies’ survival.
All that can take a toll on someone’s emotional state through higher stress and anxiety, depression and feelings of dread, powerlessness or concern about what the future holds.
“When it’s a small business, it often is as much personal as it is professional, which makes it even more stressful because it may be members of your family, your extended family, friends, and people you have gotten to know much better than if you were a large business,” said Bob Vandepol, executive director of the employee assistance program at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services in Grand Rapids. “That adds a whole other layer.”
Vandepol and other mental health experts say small business owners can manage the heightened stress and anxiety from the pandemic, both for themselves and their employees, and better cope by taking some commonsense steps.
The first is simply recognizing that perhaps they could use some help with coping.
After all, if a small business owner isn’t taking care of herself, she may not take very good care of the business or her employees during this time, said Amy Ritsema, co-owner of wellness vendor OnSite Wellness LLC.
“We’re in crisis mode. We’re not thinking about ourselves. We’re thinking about everything else,” Ritsema said. “If you’re not taking care of yourself and your own personal stress and your personal well-being, your leadership skills are not going to be top notch. You have to be the best person yourself and take care of yourself, so that you can be the best for your employees.”
To cope, Ritsema and others remind people to follow or get back to the basics: Eat well, get some physical activity each day, set boundaries to balance family time from work time, and get enough sleep.
Ritsema emphasizes the need for physical movement or daily exercise to manage and reduce stress.
“To me, that does not mean you have to go out and run five miles. That might be make sure you’re getting out and taking a walk around the block. Just move, get some fresh air and clear your head once in a while,” Ritsema said.
Professionals say feelings of anxiety and fear are normal responses to crises and living in uncertain times. That requires people to become more deliberate and intentional about finding ways to cope to ease the resulting higher stress and anxiety.
High stress can affect people’s physical state, such as causing the heart to race, in addition to their emotional state and their decision-making abilities, said Kristin Gietzen, president and CEO of Arbor Circle, a nonprofit whose services include substance abuse and mental health counseling at locations in Grand Rapids, Holland, Allegan and Newaygo.
“It can cause your mind to be cluttered with thoughts you can’t get rid of, or it can cause problems with concentration because your mind is just busy in the back of your mind,” Gietzen said. “That can impact the way you function in the world and your ability to make decisions or think things through, or just feel like, ‘I’m just not feeling quite right.’”
Gietzen and others urge business owners and managers to reach out for help to manage their stress and anxiety before it overwhelms them.
That’s not easy for some people to do, particularly those go-it-alone personality types who just aren’t wired to reach out for help when needed.
Some people need to find how to “get out of your own way” so they can maintain their mental health, said Bryan Nixon, a psychotherapist and owner of Mindful Counseling GR, which has three locations in Grand Rapids and Standale.
“That’s the shadow side of a lot of entrepreneurs. It can become about ego and achievement and continuing to focus on goals and all these things that in one sense really do matter. If you’re going to succeed in business you have to have some of that, but it can quickly get out of balance and start being really costly in other ways,” Nixon said. “It can cost relationships, it can cost mental health. If we implode as individuals, the business is going to implode as well, mostly likely.”
As a small business owner himself, Nixon has looked for ways to “stay grounded.” He’s also sought clarity and to focus on “what really matters in my business and the things that can be cut out, and how to really deepen our roots on what our mission and purpose is.”
“If there is any bit of an opportunity in the midst of this, maybe it’s the silver lining that while COVID-19 is obviously difficult and disorienting in one way, the gift can be the opportunity to have some different clarity on the purpose,” Nixon said.
Back to basics
Now that many restrictions have been lifted and businesses are reopening and re-engaging, employees are returning to the workplace.
Taking care of themselves “will be the number one thing” small business owners need to do “so that they, too, are prepared emotionally and physically to face these business decisions,” said Peaches McCahill, the owner and president of The McCahill Group in Grand Rapids.
“I talk to business leaders all of the time and they say, ‘Oh, we want some wellness,’ but they don’t want to drink the Kool-Aid,” McCahill said. “Just because you’re a business leader doesn’t mean you don’t need some support. It’s lonely at the top.”
McCahill, who’s run the wellness company for 30 years, said meditation and prayer help to ease her stress and anxiety. She urges others to have a plan to cope and to reach out to their personal and professional networks for support or to seek professional assistance.
“It goes back to that basic foundation you have to start with, even as a business owner,” McCahill said. “This is hard for people. I see it, especially if you’ve built an organization your whole life and things are crumbling. That means you may need some support.”
Gietzen at Arbor Circle offers the proverbial reminder that we’re all in this together. After months, there are lessons that have been learned about how to cope that people, organizations and businesses may offer one another.
“Do not be afraid to reach out and ask for help because we are all learning in this. We are all dealing with the same issues. There’s a whole new peer group out there with things that we can share,” Gietzen said.
The pandemic caused great disruption to daily routines, from people suddenly having to work from home and quickly adjusting to stay-at-home and shutdown orders that closed many small businesses, to the economic downturn and resulting uncertainty.
Individuals and small business owners often can better cope by finding some way to settle back into a daily routine, Gietzen said.
“One of the ways that people can learn to cope with this situation is to try to return to some things that were calming in the past or provided some kind of stress relief and to create routines for those things,” she said. “People need to ask themselves not only how to cope with it or what kind of new skills they might need to learn, but what are the things that do provide some comfort for them that they may have moved away from during this time.”
Follow the leader
How small business owners or corporate executives handle themselves personally during the crisis also may dictate how their employees perform.
Experts say small business owners, managers and executive leaders need to remember that employees follow their lead to model their responses.
“Leaders lead through their behaviors,” McCahill said. “It will create your culture.”
In talking about the future, their plans for the business and problems, leaders needs to speak honestly and “fully acknowledge what’s going on” and not “milquetoast it,” either for themselves or their employees, Vandepol said.
“For business owners, there’s a tendency to try to hide from your own fear, to try to hide your own uncertainty in the middle of this ambiguity. Sometimes there’s a tendency to try to minimize and deny the severity of what’s happening, and all of that only jeopardizes trust,” Vandepol said. “Acknowledge the fact that this is really hard. ‘It’s really stressful for all of you. I understand the fear you all have. I understand the financial ramifications. I get it. I join you in that.’
“Just doing that says, ‘Hey, my leader is tough enough to handle this and my leader cares about me. We’re dealing with real stuff.’”
News coverage in the small business section of MiBiz is made possible by advertising support from the Small Business Association of Michigan. SBAM is the statewide and state-based association that focuses solely on serving the needs of Michigan’s small business community. This advertisement has no effect on editorial consideration in MiBiz.