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Entrepreneurs and COVID-19: how to deal with stress, stay resilient and regain control

Practical insights from the science of entrepreneurs’ well-being

A man holds his head in his hands. He is sitting in the window of his home

Running your own business and being an entrepreneur is stressful in the best of times, let alone during a crisis such the Covid-19 pandemic.

If you feel stressed and overwhelmed, you are not alone. At the moment, very few entrepreneurs are seeing 'business as usual' let alone increasing demand for their goods and services. For most entrepreneurs, there is a very real threat of business closure. Sales are dwindling or have ground to a halt, fixed costs accrue, and staff may have to be let go. Recent research in the UK shows that 70 per cent more businesses closed in March 2020 compared to the same time a year ago. While much has been written about how to maintain well-being and mental health during the pandemic, the unique situation of entrepreneurs has not been considered. When the business you built and which is ‘you’ is in turmoil, how do you cope with the emotional stress and develop resilience?

Below are five steps to support you to get through this crisis. The insights provided are drawn from the science of well-being and latest research on entrepreneurs’ stress and resilience.

1. Acknowledge stress

Feeling stressed – overwhelmed, anxious even hopeless - is a normal human response to any crisis. It is not a pleasant state of mind, but it is functional, it allows our body to mobilize resources to face adversity. The first step in coping with stress and building resilience is to ‘face reality’ and to notice and acknowledge that your current situation is very difficult. This builds a basis for enduring it. There is little point in engaging in wishful thinking and pretending that things will get better. In fact there is evidence that financial downturns and crises are especially stressful for entrepreneurs, more so than for employees. This is on top of entrepreneurs having already more stressful jobs.

What stresses you now? Paying your employees? Your suppliers? Meeting your personal financial obligations? Not having enough time for your family? Worrying about your health or that of your loved ones?

Noticing and acknowledging what specifically stresses you helps to give you a sense of control and allows you to show compassion toward yourself (it’s not you, it’s the crisis). This sets the scene for step 2.

2. Make time for recovery from stress

Stress not only exhausts us, over time it damages our mental and physical health, if we don’t allow ourselves time for recovery. To deal with challenges and crises, the body mobilizes energy, but it can only do so for short amounts of time without damaging the body. Therefore, it is essential to look after yourself, be compassionate towards yourself and allow yourself time to unwind and recuperate from stress. This is especially important for entrepreneurs, because entrepreneurs already experience higher levels of chronic stress both mentally and physiologically and they are least likely to make time for recovery when they most need it in challenging times.

So what can you do? Build time for recovery into your daily routine, grant yourself mini-breaks throughout the day (although recommendations vary about five minutes every hour is effective– and there are various apps to help you with that), detach yourself from work in the evening (e.g., don’t look at your emails after 8pm), exercise regularly (aim for 30 min moderately intensive exercise each day), spend time in nature (at least two hours per week: your garden or a nearby park will do during lockdown), and get enough sleep (aim for at least seven hours of good sleep but do find out whether you need more).

Recovery activities allow your body to re-set the physiological changes created by stress, and they make you more productive and creative. Thus, they are a valuable investment in yourself. In fact, they make good business sense: entrepreneurs who are able to psychologically detach from work and who sleep well, not only feel better and have more energy, they are also more creative, innovative more and are better at identifying business ideas.

Finally make sure that you don’t forget your significant others and friends in these turbulent times. They are an important source of social support – key for dealing with stress and detaching from work – especially for entrepreneurs who often have fewer high-quality relationships that they can rely on.

Once you start reaching out to others, talk about the current situation as a wider problem that you both share, rather than focusing solely on a specific problem....framing negotiations that way builds appreciation of the others’ perspective which can lead to more creative solutions.– Finding the right way to initiate a difficult conversation can help

3. Seek Support: Don’t be afraid to ask for help and support

As an entrepreneur you are used to making decisions and being in charge. Often asking for help and reaching out to others is seen as a sign of weakness, when in fact it should be seen as a sign of strength. Friends and relatives aside, where might you get support?

The coronavirus doesn’t discriminate, we are all in the same boat. This makes it easier to initiate conversations with suppliers, customers or funders about payments, delays in delivery or the like. Once you start reaching out to others, talk about the current situation as a wider problem that you both share, rather than focusing solely on a specific problem (e.g., about a particular payment to be made). Framing negotiations that way builds appreciation of the other's perspective which can lead to more creative solutions. Also, in the time of social distancing, try to ‘keep it personal’ by preferring video calls over phone calls. This also allows you to see the body language of your counterpart, which makes negotiations easier.

Many governments have implemented schemes to help entrepreneurs through these difficult times from income support for the self-employed and employees, deferral of income tax, temporary loans and guarantees, to cash grants for businesses in certain sectors. An overview of these measures by country which is updated daily can be found here (and here for UK entrepreneurs). Again, exploring these offers is not a sign of weakness but rather of business acumen to get help in times of need.

And on a personal level, perhaps it is time to see what counselling is about. Again, this is not a sign of weakness. As one entrepreneur recently explained to our students “I hire management consultants to improve my business’s productivity and I go to counselling to enhance my personal productivity”.

4. Improvise and plan to regain control

Crises like the Covid-19 pandemic take away control and increase uncertainty. The lockdowns in place in many countries dictate which businesses have to close, as well as how and where we can work, shop and live our life. One essential part of dealing with stress and building resilience is to accept that you cannot change certain things. What are these for you? Knowing them will free up your mental capacity; rather than dwelling on things that you cannot influence you will be able to focus on re-gaining control over the aspects of your business and life that you can influence.

Regaining control can take many forms:

  • For your business, exploring new offerings or markets is an effective way of regaining control in a crisis. A study of entrepreneurs during the 2009 financial recession found that entrepreneurial teams reacted differently. Those that weathered the recession and other crises more successfully experimented with their offerings and business models or looked for new partners. They leveraged their personal and business connections and engaged, for instance, their employees to find new ideas, products or services, re-purposed existing ones, co-created new offers with customers or targeted new markets. The cost of not daring to explore was often failure.
  • For you individually, you can re-gain control in the little things in life from establishing new work routines (e.g., for home-working), learning a new skill, to planning for the future so that you have something to look forward to after the pandemic is over. Do not start with a big personal project but rather with a small one: the aim is to see progress and experience success quickly in order to re-gain a sense of control.
Consider what this current challenging period might be able to teach you.– Taking a long-term view is an individual process

5. Take the long-term view

It may be difficult to appreciate it right now, but crises often help building resilience for the long-term. This is especially the case if you learn to manage the stress that comes with it and if you can find meaning in the crisis. Consider what this current challenging period might be able to teach you.

This is a very individual process. Some people gain a new perspective on work-life balance by reaffirming the importance of family; others may realize that if they can manage to keep a business afloat in stressful times like this, there is little they cannot achieve in life. And still others find that they gain new insights into how not to run a business and treat others with a newfound resolve to do business differently going forward.

Adversity can help recognize that there is a different way of doing business attending to community and stakeholders needs. Indeed, ‘giving’ and prosocial behaviour are important drivers of well-being, as they increase our sense of control and purpose. Thus, volunteering or using your business acumen to support your community can be another way to re-gain control. For instance, Brewdog the Scottish craft beer maker now makes hand sanitizers and gives them away for free, while many restaurants supply local hospitals with free food. What can you do for others?

As Winston Churchill once remarked: “If you are going through hell, keep going”. Self-care is now needed more than ever before. By acknowledging what stresses you, making time for recovery, seeking support, improvising and taking the long-term view, you will not only be taking care of yourself but also of your business.

Stay healthy, stay sane, stay resilient.

 

Notes and resources: 

  1. For information and advice on mental health and the pandemic visit: www.apa.org/practice/programs/dmhi/research-information/pandemics, www.bps.org.uk/responding-coronavirus Or check out the NHS Mind Plan Quizz .
  2. Apps related to the pomodoro technique can help you manage your productivity and ensure that you combine it with rest breaks. Alternatively, look for Workrave which combines this with exercises to address repetitive strain injury.

In this story

Ute  Stephan

Ute Stephan

Professor of Entrepreneurship

Przemysław (Przemek)  Zbierowski

Przemysław (Przemek) Zbierowski

Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellow in Entrepreneurship

Pierre-Jean Hanard

Pierre-Jean Hanard

PhD Student in Strategy, International Management & Entrepreneurship


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