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Betty Burke

According to the folk at BUPA, 44 percent of British adults say they are suffering from stress. Now a bit of stress is perfectly normal, is manageable. Some doctors reckon it can actually be beneficial.

However, when stress extends over long periods, it becomes a problem. That same BUPA survey found that 28 per cent of us have been feeling stressed for more than a year. That undoubtedly includes many who own and run SMEs: turning a profit, given the state of the economy in recent years, has been hard enough, quite apart from the regulatory burden we face in the UK. People suffering from stress will be operating below par. So it’s clearly something that firms ought to tackle.

Here are ten practical tips on how the self-employed, sole traders or micro businesses can deal with depression or stress at work, boost their profitability, and be happier.

1.Fess up to the problem.

Begin by admitting that you are stressed, and remember that there’s nothing wrong in doing so. John Cleese, who openly admits to having had mental health issues, says that accepting you’ve got a problem is half the battle. He’s certainly someone we should listen to: after all, his advice on subjects to avoid mentioning when dealing with our friends and neighbours from the EU’s most successful economy is a pertinent today as when he first said it.

2. Take a break.

Many self-employed think that they can’t afford to take a holiday. It means you aren’t generating income. But someone working 24/7, week in, week out, month in, month out, will eventually run themselves into the ground. We all need a break from time to time to recharge the batteries. Do you think that Sir Alex Ferguson rotated his squad because, a) he was worried that some overpaid prima donna would sulk if he didn’t play a game; or, b) he knew it would help to win trophies if he kept his players fresh? The question isn’t “How can I afford to take a holiday?” Rather, it’s “How can I afford not to take a holiday?”

3. Manage expectations.

While we’re on the subject of taking a break, think about the ‘out of office’ email message. Many of us say “I’m on leave, but will reply as soon as possible on my return”. A better idea would be to say something like “I’m on leave. I expect a backlog of 847 unread emails on my return. In all honesty, it’s unlikely I’ll be able even to read them all, let alone deal with them. So if your message is really important, please resend it after such and such a date”. That way, you’ve managed expectations, but you can still respond to those you want to.

4. Have break, have a Kit Kat

Excessive consumption of chocolate isn’t the answer to stress, though the occasional nibble never did anyone much harm. The point, however, is that it’s important to take regular breaks, especially if your work involves staring at a computer screen. When you do, make sure that you eat your apple or digestive biscuit, or drink your coffee away from the PC. By definition, snacking at your workstation isn’t a ‘break’. Sit somewhere else.

5. Get some sun.

I’m not on commission from VisitScotland, so this isn’t another holiday-related tip. If you are a sole trader running your business from home, make sure you’re working where you’ve got some natural light. Utilising that cubby-hole under the stairs might seem like maximising efficient use of space. But people need sunlight. Remember those POW films. Not the ones where the Senior British Officer is played by James Donald or Eric Portman, and the camp kommandant is basically a decent sort of cove. Instead, I mean the grittier end of the genre, perhaps starring Sylvester Stallone, where ‘solitary’ means a hole in the ground. It’s a hole in the ground because keeping someone in constant darkness breaks the human spirit. Artificial lighting is fine, but not a full substitute for the real thing.

6. Take some exercise.

Taking a bit of exercise is a great stress-buster, and will improve your physical and mental health. And you don’t have to join a gym or dress in Lycra. All you need to do is take a 20 or 30 minute walk each day. It’s excellent cardiovascular exercise, and a bit of fresh air works wonders. This is another tip that’s especially important for the home-working sole trader, as it stops them getting cabin-fever. While you are at work, and even at your desk, just doing some deep breathing exercises will also help. 

7. Get a pet.

Especially for sole traders, work can mean long periods without much human contact. There’s a wealth of academic research showing that a pet, such as a dog or a cat, provides companionship, and that having one around promotes physical and mental wellbeing. There are, however, two caveats. First, don’t try to relieve stress by kicking the dog or cat: it’s cruel, and you’ll feel worse afterwards. Second, if your pet is a white cat, do not stoke it while sitting in a huge leather armchair and contemplating a scheme to improve your cash flow by holding a government to ransom by hijacking one of their nuclear submarines, using a force of gunmen dressed in orange boiler-suits. Such plans always end in tears, even if your name isn’t Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

8. Keep it tidy

Many of us, especially if our concept of ‘tidy’ hasn’t evolved much since our teens, wouldn’t put keeping the office tidy high up our list of priorities; and actually it doesn’t seem as important as keeping the accounts up to date or finishing a pitch for some new business. However, just once in a while, tidying the office can be helpful in reducing stress, even for creative types who enjoy a bit of chaos. It gives us a guilt-free break, and is an assertion that we can be in control, even if in only small things.

9. Be nice.

Stress makes us grumpy. But if that makes us rude to others, chances are that they’ll be rude back. Try making a point of paying a compliment or doing someone a small favour every day. If you’ve had good service, say so. Don’t make a big deal of it. Nothing much will change overnight. But after two or three months you’ll start to notice a brighter tone to your email box, and in the way people talk to you on the phone. Folk like to be appreciated. When they think that you appreciate them, they’ll appreciate you in return.

10. Don’t be a slave to technology.

Technology is supposed to help us be in control. All too often, it seems to control us. Just because an email has popped into your inbox, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to respond to it there and then, particularly if you are in the middle of something else. TweetDeck, which lets you see your Twitter feed on part of your screen while still working on something else, is fine and dandy for news media folk, but can be a distraction for others. Reduce your stress levels by uninstalling some piece of IT gadgetry that hinders rather than helps you, or that you never use.