Stress is inevitable in the startup world. There is stress to compete, produce, and perform. There is less “down” time and fewer opportunities for non-work activity. It is fast-paced, unforgiving, uncertain, competitive, and demanding, to name a few of the pressures. Entrepreneurs are not only expected to innovate, but also to manage, perform, and scale in this environment. It’s no wonder mental health is an issue for the start up community.
When you come to the table with an understanding of where you are, you are more able to have empathy for others.
Fortunately, investors and founders are now realizing that emotional intelligence (EQ) is key to personal resilience and peak performance for sustainability and scale. It is also a fact that many founders are missing some fundamental stress management, communication, and interpersonal skills, which make up a big part of EQ. In a very recent study by Shawn Andrews (2018), both CEOs and millennials had the lowest EQ scores in the workplace, and the top performers in any position were those with the highest EQ.
EQ competencies are essential building blocks for top performance in life, work, and relationships. However, whether stress becomes disabling or builds resilience depends upon how you handle it, and there is good news.
The tools for building emotional intelligence can be learned! Just as creating a company required different skill sets (e.g. backend development, marketing, and HR), so does building your personal resilience and mental health.
Building personal resilience
Even though industry leaders consider physical health and fitness to be important to high performance and success, it is ironic that many founders neglect their own self care. In the race to start and scale up, normal patterns of eating, sleeping, and exercise are often interrupted. While the mind-body connection is acknowledged, few companies specifically address the social and emotional elements of well-being. This mindset and resulting pattern of behavior — to work harder, longer, and faster – come at a high cost and are not part of the solution.
Start with self care.
Good nutrition and regular routines for eating, sleeping, and physical exercise are things that you can re-establish right away. Locate where you carry stress in your body. You may target those spots and notice what you say to yourself. “Frustrating” may be reframed as “energizing” for example. “Disappointing” may become “challenging“ and feeling “powerless” can be translated as providing “choices.” Self talk guides feelings thoughts and behaviour. You are in charge of what you say to yourself, as well as to others!
You cannot work harder, so work smarter.
At work, intentionally schedule breaks and routinely plan interruptions for exercise, networking, reflection, and digital “unplugging.” By doing this, you are assuming more control over your very demanding environment. Pace to sustain, not sprint. These skills need practice to become habits.
You cannot create work life balance, so aim to create work-life flow.
Establish oases, relationships, and networks to mitigate the effects of high and persistent stress. For example, reach out and become involved in industry organizations such as BNI, YPO, YEC, Tech, or Vistage to provide opportunities for networking and support. Set and review boundaries which reflect your family, social, and community values and priorities.
You cannot reduce stress, but you can build a menu of strategies that mitigate it. Explore a range of popular activities and select some that are relaxing for you. They may include some of the following:
Build your emotional intelligence
By intentionally and deliberately building your EQ repertoire, you position yourself to become the best that you can be. EQ skills include: people skills; communication; self confidence; understanding and knowing how to manage yourself and others; and using social and emotional information in the best way to make optimal choices; tolerate stress, weigh risks, and impulses; and have a positive attitude.
As innovators and disruptors, you are creative and industrious. You are quick to learn and possess laser-like focus. When you come to the table with an understanding of where you are, you are more able to have empathy for others, negotiate, and connect with colleagues, investors and customers. You are also more prepared to have difficult conversations.
Create the opportunity to strengthen your EQ and as a leader even with limited resources, bring emotional intelligence into the workplace. Read, take a seminar or introduce a coach, or psychologist to help build your personal resilience and reach your work, social, and relationship potential. A specialist can demonstrate and design communication modules, conflict resolution scenarios, and specific training for you, for your C-suite and managers. As organizations grow, they become even more dependent upon relationships, talent, and the ability to see the larger human context.
Look, listen, and respond. Recognize signs of difficulty coping with stress in yourself and in others. Take your head out of the proverbial sand – or keyboard — and recognize malaise or general fatigue, difficulty concentrating and distractibility, uncertainty in decision making, lowered productivity, withdrawal, lethargy, anxiety, making promises you cannot keep, to name a few.
Talk to someone who can help and seek an appropriate resource. Respond to someone who talks to you. Ramp up HR training to support mental health initiatives and identify risk. Consider the trend toward hiring in-house or “resident” coaches who have drop-in times at the office. Offer information and training to support skill transfer and mental health promotion.
Talk about what you are doing. Your ROI is worth it!
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