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Don't Let Your Startup Kill You

If you ever feel like you're working yourself to death, it may be more than just your imagination. Running a business can take a significant toll on your health and personal life, according to new research.

A study by MYOB UK, a London-based business-software maker, found that nearly 70% of the 400 entrepreneurs surveyed feel their companies are adversely affecting their health or personal lives. "Quite often, people go into business because they want control of their own destiny, they want to make money, or they just want a change in lifestyle," says Simon Smith, MYOB's general manager. "And what we found was that the reality tended to be quite different."

Experts say their American counterparts may be every bit as unhealthy. "I see it every day," says Dr. Kathleen Hall, an Atlanta-based stress-management expert and author of Alter Your Life.

NO SLOWING DOWN. Forget cash flow, employee turnover, and insurance premiums. Many entrepreneurs, Hall says, would be better off focusing on a new list of concerns -- from heart disease and hypertension to impotence and insomnia.

Thomas Pray learned the hard way. As refugees from Corporate America, he and his wife Susan thought they were prepared for all the rigors of business when they purchased a three-employee custom-installation company in 1995. But after a grueling first year at the helm of the Laguna Hills (Calif.)-based outfit, Pray was diagnosed with testicular cancer. And his doctor said the disease, which may have been dormant since birth, was likely triggered by his recent stress over the company's early cash crunch and other headaches.

What's worse, even while he was going through chemotherapy and Susan was pregnant, the couple didn't have the luxury of slowing down. "You just really can't," Thomas Pray says. "It's your livelihood, and you still have to work at it just as hard." That hard work eventually paid off: Today, Pray's cancer is in remission, and the company has steadily grown to 15 employees, which have helped lighten his load.

MISJUDGING THE TASK. The near-constant pressure of entrepreneurship doesn't always have such a dramatic impact -- at least not in the short term -- and some small-business owners actually say it gives them an energy rush. But chronic stress also impairs memory and increases aggression, depression, and anxiety -- not exactly a prescription for winning new clients or keeping employees happy.

It also doesn't make for much of a life beyond the company. In the British survey, more than 27% of small-business owners complained of not seeing their loved ones enough, and 10% said running their startup had given rise to relationship problems.

Though many, like Pray, misjudge just how sticky things may get, the days when people naïvely looked at business ownership as a ticket to freedom are ending, says Patricia Greene, an entrepreneurship expert and the undergraduate dean at Babson College. "There's so much more conversation than there used to be about what it's like to start a business, and that will continue to increase," Greene says.

HIGHER STAKES. For Graham Opie, the researcher who oversaw the study who is himself the co-owner of Vanson Bourne, a small market-research firm based in Berkshire, Britain, the findings weren't necessarily surprising. "It's one of the prices that you pay, really, when you make that crazy decision to start your own business," he says. "You're going to have to trade in something or other." (Those surveyed owned outfits with no more than 20 employees, and a quarter of them were sole proprietors.)

Of course, small-business owners aren't the only ones who are more than a little wound up. In 2000, a Gallup poll found that 80% of all U.S. workers suffered job-related stress, and the American Institute of Stress estimates that at least 75% of all visits to primary-care physicians are now stress-related. But in the small-business world, where an entrepreneur tries to be all things to all people, "the stakes are generally higher," Greene says.

Besides, not all anxiety is created equal. In "regular" jobs with fixed hours and set benefit packages, people are apt to feel more predictability, which can make any subsequent stress more positive, even energizing, Hall says.

MENTOR MATTERS. That's typically not the case for entrepreneurs, especially during the startup years. "When you're out there constantly working and growing your business, there's not an 8 to 5 and not a Monday through Friday with two weeks vacation," she says.

No. 1 on the Brits' list of worries was -- unsurprisingly -- money, with 51% feeling that they were not in full control of their company's finances. One problem is that many entrepreneurs start out knowledgeable and passionate about their product or service but lack experience in handling day-to-day business functions.

For Pete McAlindon, whose Winter Park (Fla.)-based Keybowl produces computer technologies for people with disabilities, working with mentors helped him overcome concerns about manufacturing, pricing, and other areas his engineering background did not prepare him for. "Just knowing that you're not the first to blaze the trail alone reduces a lot of stress," he says.

RELAX LATER? NOT NECESSARILY Setting a limit on how many hours a day and days a week you'll work -- and giving your partner or spouse the "authority" to hold you to it -- can also make a huge difference, Hall says. But even if your business really needs you 24-7, weaving a few simple practices into your workday can go a long way. Here's what she suggests:

Sing: A study from the University of California, Irvine, shows that singing boosts immune cells by 240%. Keep CDs at the office and let loose with your favorite singers for at least five minutes a day. You're not trying to win a Grammy, just keeping yourself sane.

Laugh: When you're stressed, the diameter of your arteries shrinks by more than a third, but when you laugh they expand. So make a point to add some humor to your day, and try not to take yourself -- or your business -- too seriously.

Eat: Pass on the bacon, eggs, and sausage, but don't skip breakfast altogether. Research shows that the simple act of fueling up before you start the day boosts metabolism as much as 25% and keeps you energized throughout the day.

Most of all, Hall says, don't assume that you'll have a chance to relax and unwind once your company is up and running smoothly. Staying successful can be even more stressful than striving for it, and for many entrepreneurs, all that adrenaline becomes something of an addiction.

So, unless you make a conscious effort to ease the pressure, your health and personal life will still be in jeopardy whether you've got $2 or $200 million in the bank.

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