The Workplace Taboo

It’s been a busy week for me: Tuesday brought our annual event for TAB members – always a highlight for me – and on Wednesday I was at York races. Just remind me again: when it rains at York it’s low numbers in the draw isn’t it? Or is it high?

By the time I’d worked it out the damage had been done…

But I was in great company and – despite the rain – it was a thoroughly enjoyable day. So having been outside in the rain yesterday this morning I’m obviously at my desk as the May sun shines steadily in through the window.

…Which seems entirely inappropriate as this week I’m going to write about mental health and depression, something which a significant number of people are understandably – but regrettably – unwilling to talk about at work.

First, some stats:

  • In 2015/16 30.4m working days were lost due to self-reported work related injury or illness: only 4.5m of these were due to a workplace injury
  • On average injuries saw people take 7.2 days of work: ill health meant 20 days off work
  • Stress, depression and anxiety – plus musculoskeletal disorders – accounted for the majority of the days lost: 11.7m and 8.8m days respectively
  • The average number of days off for stress, depression or anxiety was 24: for musculoskeletal problems it was 16 days

I think those numbers are significant: 24 days for stress, depression and anxiety – that’s effectively five weeks off. To a small business a key employee having five weeks off can have a catastrophic effect. You can’t recruit someone: if you get someone on a short term contract it’s five weeks before they’re fully up to speed. It is simply a hole punched below the waterline for five weeks.

Two weeks ago it was mental health awareness week: worryingly, a recent survey for BBC 5 Live found that half of us would still be reluctant to speak up at work if we had – or thought we were heading for – a mental health problem. 49% of those surveyed said they would feel unable to tell their boss about problems such as anxiety or depression. Even fewer – just one person in three – said they’d be happy to tell colleagues.


As someone running a business you want to hire and retain the best people – but you need those people to be working efficiently and effectively. You also want them to be happy and healthy: as I’ve written before, health, fitness and performing well at work go hand in hand. More and more businesses will introduce ‘wellness’ programmes for their employees, covering everything from flexible working to help with emotional and psychological problems: if you’re not looking at it already, now would be a good time to start.

So much for the team: what about you?

Being an entrepreneur is a lonely business: it is also stressful and the feeling that the buck – and everyone’s livelihood – stops at your desk can be all too real.

It can also be a macho business: many people – men and women – constantly feel the need to act the part. In some ways I can understand that: confidence can be a currency, especially if you have outside investors to deal with. No round of financing is going to be helped by, ‘I’m depressed’ or ‘I’m having doubts.’

But we’re not always ‘crushing it’ – as my Fitbit constantly demands. Statistically the odds are stacked against any new business and virtually every entrepreneur will have occasional moments of doubt. There’s a theory that entrepreneurs are more prone to depression: a personality that will accept extreme risk and reward at one end of the scale also has its darker moment at the other end of the scale.

That, I am absolutely certain, is one of the very best parts of TAB. To paraphrase the old saying, when the going gets tough, the tough need someone to talk to. As I have written many times, no-one understands like your colleagues round the TAB table: not your wife, not your partner, not your parents, not your friends. The only people who truly understand the pressures are other entrepreneurs.

…And in The Alternative Board they don’t judge, they don’t compare, they don’t score points. In every instance they simply say, “Yep, I’ve been there. What can I do to help?”

The Entrepreneur’s Wife

As the old saying goes, “Behind every successful man is a strong, wise and hardworking woman.”

But that’s the whole point. It’s an old saying – dating back to the days when the man went out to work and the woman stayed at home. Now the chances are that both partners are working full time – and the entrepreneur is just as likely to be the woman.

So how important is an entrepreneur’s partner? Does the success or failure of your business depend not on your brilliant idea, your stellar crowdfunding or your strict control of the KPIs – but on the person you come home to at night?

It’s a subject I need to tackle – however great the personal risk! And bear with me: I’m not being sexist, but I don’t want to disrupt the flow of the post by constantly writing he/she or him/her. So I’m writing this one from my own standpoint and the pronouns are used accordingly.

First things first: being married to an entrepreneur is difficult. There are long hours, holidays that are interrupted by vital phone conversations and – as I wrote in the last post of 2014 – plenty of nights when you’re ‘there but not there’: when your body is watching Silent Witness and your mind is back at the office worrying about the cash flow.

Your wife can be bemoaning the problems one of your children is having at school, the fact that the kitchen wall is about to fall down, or the problems and frustrations of her career – when you suddenly jolt back to reality and say, “I’m sorry. What was that again?”

The bad news is, it may not improve.

Being married to an entrepreneur can put different strains on a relationship no matter how long the business has been established – and no matter how successful it may be. Different stages bring different pressures.

One day the husband comes home. “I can’t take any more,” he says. “I was determined to be at the Nativity Play this year. The boss says I have to be in Frankfurt. No more. I’ve resigned. I’m starting on my own in the New Year.”

Sadly, that may not be what the wife hears… “The dependable amount of money that goes into our account every month is going to stop. I’m going to be working a lot of late nights and we’re not going to have a holiday for three years. And there’s no guarantee it’ll be a success.”

You might not like what she’s thinking either. Oh £$%&. I was going to work part time. Spend more time with the children. Well that’s gone. Or… £$%&. That means I’m going to have to take that promotion. Longer hours, more driving, more stress, less time with the kids. But we need the money. Thanks, pal.

The decision to leave the security of a job and start your own business isn’t just about you: it affects two lives. You’re certainly changing your own career path – but you might just be changing your wife’s as well.

Three years on there’ll be another tipping point. The business has survived so far. The cash flow has evened itself out. There are even a couple of employees on the payroll. But now there’s a problem. A major customer has gone into liquidation; the business is under real pressure. Oh well, the wife thinks, if the worst comes to the worst he can always go back to Giant Corporate plc.

Across the lounge her husband is also deep in thought – and he’s worrying about two things. First of all his customer. But secondly, himself. Because he knows he can’t go back to Giant Corporate. He knows that the last three years of running his own business have changed him. In effect, he’s become unemployable. And it’s not something he shares with his wife: no wonder there’s a certain tension between them…

Ten years later it’s all very different. The business is a success. Money isn’t a problem any more. Everything in the garden is rosy. Except success can undermine a relationship every bit as much as failure. I was talking to a partner in one of our bigger firms of accountants about this. “I can’t count the number of marriages I’ve seen ended by success,” he said. “Suddenly the girl he married when he was 23…” He didn’t need to finish the sentence.

Being an entrepreneur is tough – but being married to an entrepreneur can be even tougher. Your wife needs to understand that being an entrepreneur is part of you – every bit as much as being right handed or having brown eyes is part of you. She needs to understand risk – and she needs to be able to live with it. Hopefully TAB plays its part in minimising that risk, but running your own business will always bring risk – especially if the bank are eagerly clutching the deeds to your house.

And that’s why your work/life balance is so important. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, when you’re planning your diary for this year, get the really important dates in first – the dates when you’re with the people you love. The entrepreneur’s wife pays a high price: make sure you repay her in full.

On Stress – and Tony Blair…

Well, it’s taken 186 blogs and 120,900 words but this week I finally turn to Tony Blair for business advice. ‘Never say never’ as the old adage goes…

The advice – I’ll come to the exact words later – was from his counselling of Rebekah Brooks during the phone-hacking trial. Irrespective of whether we think Rebekah Brooks is guilty or innocent there’s one thing we can agree on – she’s under a tremendous amount of stress.

You don’t need me to tell you that too much stress, especially when it’s prolonged, can play havoc with your physical and mental health. The trouble is that stress is inevitable – especially if you’re running a business.

And that’s fine: moderate amounts of stress are good for us. Studies show that intermittent stress keeps the brain alert and makes us perform better. I’d go so far as to say that there are plenty of TAB members who need some stress in their lives. “If there isn’t any stress I realise that I go out of my way to create it,” is a not-untypical quote.

After all, it’s not so long ago that TAB members would have spent their days in caves picking nits off each other – before they went out to hunt something that was horned and dangerous. We’re genetically programmed to need some stress – just not too much.

But supposing you can’t do anything about it – that whether it’s business or personal, your stress levels are in the red zone? You still have to run your business – so how do you cope? In JFK’s words, how do you maintain “grace under pressure?”

I’ve been reading an article in Forbes magazine by Travis Bradberry, one of their regular contributors. How Successful People Stay Calm is the title and you can read it here.

Bradberry outlines a number of ‘coping’ mechanisms and strategies, among them:

  • Successful people appreciate what they have
  • They avoid asking ‘what if?’
  • They stay positive
  • They disconnect
  • They sleep
  • And they use their support system

Let me pick up on just three of those. People who cope well with stress avoid asking ‘what if?’ Dead right. Deal with what you can deal with. Deal with the situation as it is now. Don’t drive yourself mad imagining a catastrophe: in my experience it invariably doesn’t happen.

They disconnect. It’s difficult to do but it’s invaluable. Whatever the crisis raging at work, you almost certainly can’t do anything about it at 8pm on Sunday. So don’t try. Read to your children instead. Drink a bottle of wine with your wife. Do something that’s really important.

And at last we come to Tony Blair. One of the best ways of coping with prolonged stress is to make sure you sleep properly. In the now-infamous e-mail Blair told Brooks, ‘keep strong and definitely (take) sleeping pills.’

How you get to sleep is up to you, but our former leader was right – if you’re under extreme pressure, you need to sleep properly. A crisis at work – like most things – will ultimately pass: the key thing is to make sure that you’re still standing when it has passed.

I said I’d only pick up on three of those points: that’s because I hope I can take the last point as read. Of course you should use your support network – and hopefully you’ll know that you have the ideal support network round the TAB boardroom table. ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’ as my Grandma used to say. A problem shared with eight of your peers is one that’s well on its way to not being a problem for much longer.

And with that it’s time to leave my cave and take this week’s stress out on a squash ball. Enjoy your weekend – and make sure it’s stress-free…

You Don’t Have to be Stressed…

“I tried to open this website, Ed. It was all about keeping calm. It took so long to open that I got stressed.”

…And that just about sums up today’s business world. Not only do we have meetings to go to, deadlines to meet and targets to achieve, we also have to contend with an ever-increasing tide of interruptions.

Once upon a time it was all so simple. “Just hold the calls, Gloria and tell everyone I’m not to be disturbed. I need to finish this report.”

“Yes, Mr. Brown.”

And Mr. Brown could either finish his report, or close his eyes and work off his excellent lunch…

Not now. E-mails; mobile phone; tweets; LinkedIn updates; Google+; Facebook… These days, all holding the calls does is guarantee that you’ve more time for other distractions.

So a Canadian company has turned to Kickstarter for funding to develop the ‘one button to silence them all.’ But even if you turn the interruptions off on a temporary basis, they’re always lying in ambush. The question for me is more fundamental: how do we relax at the end of the day or week? How do we get rid of the stress that work causes us? Especially when there may be an entirely new set of tensions waiting for us at home.

Here are five ways that the TAB York team use: I’m sure there’ll be plenty more added to the list!

Go outside. It seems to me that stress is produced indoors and reduced outdoors. Jackie is a devoted – but fair-weather – cyclist and I’m always ready to climb on my mountain bike. Julia swims – outdoors in all weathers, obviously. Even sitting in the garden with a glass of red wine works for me. I might even lie back and do some creative thinking…

Teach – or coach. I coach rugby on a Tuesday and a Sunday and I have to say it’s one of my favourite times of the week. I get to shout a lot – in a constructive way, naturally – and it’s a great stress-buster. Quite a few Board members tell me how much they love teaching or coaching: somehow you always feel better when you’ve helped someone else to improve.

Learn. It might be something as simple as reading a novel (and I’ve just started The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart, so watch out for Board meetings sprinkled with references to the Deep South); it might be finally learning a new language. Whatever it is, I find that learning something new makes me feel better about myself – and less stressed.

Get sporty. And I include in this something as simple as walking. The health and stress-reducing benefits of sending a few endorphins flowing round your body are well documented. Not quite so well documented are the benefits of standing on the touchline and cheering. As some of you know, Jackie’s son is a more-than-competent rugby player and I take huge pleasure from watching Dan and Rory. The ref blows his whistle, the game kicks-off and stress is banished…

Finally, have friends. This sounds obvious, but countless studies have shown that we’re happier and healthier with a well-developed social network. There are few things I like better than having friends round to dinner, but even a simple trip to the pub works for me. Again, it’s the change of scenery, and different company.

There is one more, but I hesitate to write it down. A good bottle of beer; a section of the Sunday Times, peace and quiet, solitude… Nope, I’m a husband and a father. Away with such selfish fantasies!

Have a great weekend and I’ll be back next week – unless my wife reads that last paragraph…

Grace Under Pressure

A friend and I were talking about public speaking the other day. “I was doing a presentation in York,” he said. “The Holiday Inn. I was miles out of my depth. Thrown into a situation I was hopelessly unprepared for. I stumbled through the speech. Made a complete cock of the questions. Then just when I thought I’d finished someone asked me one final, killer question. That’s when it happened…”

“What happened?” I asked.

“My left arm started floating away. It must have been some sort of muscle spasm. I was trying to answer this guy’s question and my arm just started lifting itself up. I was so stressed that I’d lost control of my body…”

What should he have done? (Apart from the fact that his boss should never have put him in that position in the first place.) Well, the text books are full of suggestions. Rehearse, visualize, rehearse again, anticipate what can go wrong, get the audience on your side…

So there’s plenty of advice for – as this week’s title suggests – showing grace under pressure. Performing at or somewhere close to your best when you’re in a really stressful situation.

But in nearly every case the advice is for a one-off event: a speech, a crucial client meeting, a job interview…

Let me ask what I think is a far more pertinent question. How do you cope – how do you deliver your absolute best – when there’s no escape from the pressure? Especially if the source of the pressure and/or stress is something you can’t control?

At some stage in our lives all of us have woken up at 3am. It might be your job, it might be your kids, it might be your relationship or your health. Or any number of other causes. All you know is that you’re so worried you’re in actual physical pain. Sleep is out of the question. All you can do is go downstairs and try to distract yourself.

Until, of course, it’s time to go to work. Where you’re supposed to perform to the same high standard you’ve always set yourself: where you have to meet targets and deadlines and – worst of all – the expectations of other people.

This is much more serious than your arm floating away. Because when stress and pressure comes from a source like that you’re not dealing with a one-off presentation that will be finished by lunchtime – you’re dealing with something which right at that moment has no end in sight.

So how do you cope? How do you perform? I was discussing this with a psychologist: here are three steps she advocates.

“This too shall pass.” Apparently it’s an old Persian saying, suggesting that all material conditions – positive or negative – are temporary. It’s very hard when you’re under enormous personal pressure but try to take a long term view. Three months, six months, a year from now, this too will have passed.

Take small steps. Achieve small goals. I’ve always been a big advocate of breaking your to-do list into manageable chunks. If you’re facing long term stress then it becomes even more vital. Don’t sit at your desk with a list of 20 jobs in front of you: sit there with a list of three. Work to the end of that. Write another list of three. What you need is success, not a list that you’ll never finish.

Exercise. This isn’t the place to go into the science of endorphins but get out there and take some exercise. It will make you feel better; it will help you put things in perspective. Somehow no problem seems quite as big after a long walk.

You don’t need me to tell you that long term stress is almost certainly going to damage your health. But in the short term – and quite probably in the long term as well – you’re going to have to work.

As another saying goes, “Into each life some rain must fall.” Sooner or later we’re all going to need grace under pressure: if it’s your turn right now, hopefully those three suggestions help. And if readers have found other ways to cope and succeed – and come out the other side – we’d all like to hear them.

In the meantime keep control of your left arm, enjoy your weekend, and – if it lasts – the Indian summer…

Stress? Not if I’ve anything to do with it.

Two stats about stress. Anywhere between 9m and 13m working days are lost to it every year. And stress apparently costs British employers £28 billion a year.

Lies, damned lies and statistics. If you do the maths that makes the average worker’s average working day worth £2,000 – so maybe the figures aren’t entirely reliable. But two points are undeniable: stress in the workplace is a major problem – and it’s increasing.

We all know the causes of stress – job insecurity, lack of recognition, ‘treadmill syndrome’, no feedback, mistrust, office politics…there seem to be as many potential causes as there are days lost. And as many solutions from the so-called experts: improve your time management, take more breaks, listen better, fix your working environment, lighten up, stop worrying about what you can’t change. So it goes on.

But supposing it’s your business? Then the causes of stress are clearly different. Listening to Board members – and even more so, potential members – over the past ten months, two factors seem to crop up again and again:

–       a feeling that there’s no-one to talk to (like I said in an earlier blog, running your own business is a lonely place)

–       and feeling that you’re not in control – that the business, (possibly aided and abetted by outside events), is controlling you

The trouble is, you can’t nip down to the GP and be awarded a week off. You’re the boss: suit up and get to work.

So what do you do about stress if yours is the desk where the buck always stops?

Speaking personally, there’s a short term solution, which is to go out and get sweaty. No problem seems quite as severe once there are a few endorphins charging round my body. But long term, the solution for a business owner is to be successful. Stress comes from missing targets, not achieving them. I’ve yet to hear anyone say, “Hey, I’ve reached all my goals for the year. I can’t cope.”

When I started this blog I didn’t set out to write about The Alternative Board – but if TAB’s about anything, it’s about helping the members avoid the negative impact of stress. The central purpose is to put you in control of the business – not to have the business controlling you. Like it says on the tin, “Improve business, enjoy life.”

And with TAB, there’s always someone to talk to – whether it’s me, or one of the other Board members.

So what’s the best way for us all to beat stress in 2011? It’s to begin the year knowing where you want to be at the end of it, to keep focused and keep on track.

What makes me stressed is the feeling that one of my members hasn’t achieved what they’re capable of. My new year’s resolution is to be stress free on Saturday December 31st 2011 – and I’m absolutely determined that every single one of my members will be able to look back on New Year’s Eve next year and say, “It’s been a great year. Targets achieved, stress eliminated. Pass the champagne…”