Understatement of the year: Being a business owner can be incredibly stressful. Whether you're running a business, working for one, or both, where you are on The Freak Out Scale any given day can be a slippery slope.
According to a 2016 study by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, National Public Radio and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 44 percent of the 1,601 adults surveyed said that their workplace affects their health. However, only 28 percent of those same adults felt those effects were positive. That's one heckuva disconnect. So, if what you do is stressful, and that stress is affecting you and your health, could your stress be costing you business?
Laura Gassner Otting is the founder and Chief Possibility Officer at Limitless Possibility—a Boston-based global strategy firm focused on the startup, nonprofit, political and philanthropic sectors. As a Presidential Appointee to the Clinton White House and one of the minds that helped shaped AmeriCorps, Gassner Otting knows a thing or 17 about stressful work environments.
For years, Gassner Otting lived by the age-old "bigger, better, faster, more" mantra. She would promise clients deliverables as quickly as she thought she could produce them, even if that meant pulling all-nighters and taking hours away from every other part of her life.
"I did this because I thought it would impress them, and because I knew I was capable of jumping higher each time," she says. "We promised the almost-impossibly possible, never thinking that the client would be just as happy if we took a little more time."
—Laura Gassner Otting, founder, Limitless Possibility
After months and years of her incessant churn towards better and faster, she came to a stark realization.
"I realized my entire staff was emulating my behavior," Gassner Otting confides. "I had created this pressure cooker environment based solely on intrinsic motivation to be the best, and measured only by the level of anxiety and exhilaration I felt by besting myself each time."
To both her and her team, stress had become their modus operandi. "We felt that if we weren't stressed, we weren't doing our best."
Taking the Stress Out of Her Business
For Gassner Otting, being addicted to stress and infusing her team with the same addiction wasn't acceptable.
"The fact that this stress was almost entirely self-imposed was a hard truth to swallow," she shares. "Harder to swallow, though, was the fact that I was poisoning my entire team with my needless drive for speed as a false measure of success."
Gassner Otting decided there had to be a shift. So she took a deep dive into her business, team and client base to assess what changes could be made to this pressure cooker she had sealed both her and her entire team into over the years.
The truth? The pressure cooker had its benefits for the work they did and the clients they served. What it truly cost everyone was joy.
"Some will tell you that the pressure cooker leads to staff burnout or a drop in quality. We experienced neither of these things," Gassner Otting states. "The pressure cooker was created in the first place because we cared so deeply in our performance for our clients, whom we loved.
"But," she continues, "where we paid the piper was in our joy for the work. The pressure cooker steamed out all of our joy for the work. Business owners start their businesses because they have a joy for it; the work of running a business is relentless, and if you don't have joy to refill your fuel tank, it gets old really fast."
Making Joy a Business Metric
This led to Gassner Otting making changes on multiple levels, both business and personal. She shifted deliverable deadlines from ASAP to three days. Her clients simply said, "Okay." Gassner Otting is quick to tell you she wishes she'd thought of doing that one simple thing sooner.
The other change was slaying her calendar demons by optimizing time for both business and personal pursuits. For her, it came down to figuring out what her energy levels were like through the day.
"Creating and feeding stress demands working hard around the clock," says Gassner Otting. "For me, this resulted in my needing to be 'on' in ways that were incongruous with my energy."
Now she works out in the predawn hours (she's an avid rower). While her endorphins are up and stress-inducing cortisol levels are down, she dives into big-brain-focused activities like strategic planning and writing.
Gassner Otting takes face-to-face meetings over lunch and puts the pick-her-brain-type calls and meetings near the day's end as her brain's ready to call it quits. Then, when she's ready to head for home, her brain is done working and she can recharge with her family.
So, what's going to be your tactic for assessing the stress in your business and determining if you're the one creating it? As Gassner Otting has shared, simple shifts and some strategic planning can keep you from slowing down in the areas that demand your energy and keep you on task when you're at your best for specific activities.
And while figuring our your sources of stress, not to mention how your body handles it, can be stressful in and of itself, Laura Gassner Otting is just one example of how it's possible to lower stress and still make it all work.
Read more articles on work-life balance.