Managing Stress Can Improve Company Performance

Health effects aside, stress can be a business buster. Here's how to keep it in check
Istvan Banyai

Many entrepreneurs say they thrive on stress, but there's an important difference between healthy pressure and toxic stress. One keeps you motivated, and the other can be a disaster. Psychiatrist Edward Hallowell says anything that causes you to fall into what he calls an F-state (when you're frantic, fearful, forgetful, frenzied, and frustrated) counts as the bad kind. "When you're in an F-state the quality of your work declines, so this is very related to the bottom line," says the founder of the Hallowell Center for Cognitive & Emotional Health in Sudbury, Mass. Not to mention that tumbling into toxic stress can make you vulnerable to illnesses such as heart attack, stroke, back pain, migraines, and gastrointestinal problems—none of which are exactly revenue enhancers.

That's why managing toxic stress is an increasingly critical business practice, especially in a crummy economy. You might enjoy the challenge of brokering a deal, or troubleshooting a problem, or resolving a conflict between employees; these things, of course, may produce good stress. But when, say, intense worry about the business causes you to blow up, make mistakes, or alienate people, it's time to find some relief.

Whether it's the good or bad kind, chronic stress can cause physical changes in the brain that affect decision-making and memory, says Bruce McEwen, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University in New York. "If you take people who are chronically stressed . . . like small business owners trying to keep their business afloat over periods of time, their physiology and brain function is going to change, along with the rest of their body," says McEwen. "The longer this goes on, you can do your body harm. That is cumulative, [and you] won't necessarily recover quickly."

Medical experts say commonsense tactics such as maintaining a social support system, getting enough sleep and exercise, and eating healthful foods can safeguard you from the negative effects of toxic stress. A positive attitude counts, too—a lot more than you might think, says Dr. Sheila Jowsey, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Mayo Clinic, who recently completed a study of heart transplant patients. "These were all patients who had gone through the same, very stressful event, but those who had this more optimistic outlook reported less pain, felt a better energy level, and their ability to cope was better," says Jowsey.

Staying positive, however, does not mean ignoring trouble. Whenever you find yourself falling into that dreaded F-state, do something to knock yourself back into what Hallowell calls a C-state (cool, calm, collected, courteous, and convivial). A simple method is to connect with colleagues, peers, and loved ones. "When you're isolated, you tend to exaggerate danger, imagine worst-case scenarios, and underestimate your own power, resources, and assets," he says. "You make bad decisions."

Another easy, fast stress reliever is exercise. Can't make it to the gym? Walk up and down the office stairs or go out and walk around the building. "Even if you do 10-minute spurts during the day, that's enough to de-stress you," says Kathleen Hall, founder of the Stress Institute in Atlanta. "Exercise will quickly start producing [mood-boosting] seratonin and endorphins, and it lowers your blood pressure and heart rate."

When choosing stress relievers, be sure to come up with several things you truly enjoy so you have options and they won't feel like chores, says Susie Mantell, a stress management expert. "If you're a swimmer but can't make it to a pool, you need to have other things to relieve stress, like breathing techniques, finding ways to laugh, or getting outdoors," Mantell says.

We asked several business owners to tell us how they blow off steam. While their techniques vary, the result is the same: Each allows the entrepreneur to step away from tension long enough to achieve that coveted C-state. By finding your own stress management method, you can prevent what otherwise is sure to be a battering on your mind, body, and business.

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