When the novelty of being your own boss wears off, many small business owners finds themselves stressed out.
Running your own small business can be one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences of your professional career.
But that doesn’t mean it’s all sunshine and rainbows for small business owners. There are a variety of challenges and frustrations you may encounter while running a small business, from demanding clients to cash flow issues—and that workplace “business stress” can wreak havoc not only on your company, but on your personal life, mental health, and physical health, and well-being.
It’s no secret that stress management is important. Research has found that chronic stress—and the increased cortisol levels associated with it—are linked to everything from high blood pressure and heart disease to lower immunity and sleep issues. (That’s where all those stress-induced sleepless nights come from!)
Basically, stress affects just about every part of maintaining good health. So, more effective stress management isn’t just a matter of supporting a successful company—it’s an act of self-care that allows you to live your healthiest (and happiest) life.
Luckily, as small business owners you can navigate the inevitable challenges you’ll face without letting them negatively impact your mental health, happiness, or productivity. All you need is a plan to deal with each of those challenges—and a plan for reducing stress and managing stress associated with them.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common drivers of business stress that could threaten to take the joy out of running your small business—and, more importantly, how you can effectively navigate stressful situations, reduce stress, manage stress, and keep yourself and your small business moving forward.
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In a perfect world, all of your clients or customers would fall under the “ideal client” umbrella; they’d be pleasant, engaged, and fulfill their end of your business relationship, whether that’s by paying their invoices on time or getting you the assets you need to get your work done on time.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world, and at some point, most business owners will find themselves dealing with a client that is challenging at best—and full-blown terrible at worst (just another challenge of having your own business).
Challenging clients can be extremely stressful to deal with—and that stress can manifest in a variety of ways. For example, if you have a client that’s rude, you might feel anxiety anytime you have to speak to them about a project. If you have clients that can’t seem to pay their invoices on time, you might worry about your ability to pay your bills. If you have a client that takes forever to respond when you have questions about a project, it could lead to feeling overwhelmed and having to rush to hit deadlines.
The best way to deal with challenging clients—and keep your stress levels in check in the process—will depend on how, exactly, the client is challenging. If you find yourself struggling with a client, ask yourself, “What about this client do I find challenging?” Then, develop a plan of action for how to eliminate that challenge.
For example, if your client doesn’t make themselves available when you have questions, add a stipulation to your contract that taking more than 24 hours to respond to project-related requests will result in an extended deadline. If your client is always late paying their invoices, start charging late fees. And if you have a client that’s rude, move your communication to email only. Figure out what about the client relationship is challenging—and then set clear boundaries to eliminate that challenge.
(One thing that’s important to note? There’s a difference between a client that’s rude and a client that’s abusive. If you have a client that’s crossed the line into abusive territory, the best thing you can do for your small business and your mental health is to stop working with them completely.)
Employees can make or break your business. When you have great employees, managing them is a breeze; they get their work done, they get it done on time, and they contribute to an overall positive work environment.
On the flip side, when you have challenging employees, managing them can suck up all your time, energy, and resources; they never complete their tasks on time, they cause conflict with their coworkers, and no matter how much effort you put into the relationship, managing them always feels like an emotional rollercoaster.
Similar to dealing with challenging clients, the best way to deal with challenging employees will depend on what specifically makes them challenging. If you have employees that struggle to perform their job duties, schedule a time to talk to them to find out why they’re struggling.
In some cases, they may be dealing with a personal matter, like a family or health issue—in which case, you can figure out a plan (e.g., giving them some time off the deal with the problem) to help get them back on track. In other cases, they may just not have enough time to check everything off their to-do list. In that case, you might consider investing in tools or software to help them more effectively do their job—or consider reassigning some of their tasks to lighten their load. The point is, many employee issues have a clear solution—and often, all it takes to find that solution is talking to them about what’s going on and what kind of support they need to succeed.
That being said, there are some employees that are toxic to your organization (e.g., employees that cause drama or consistently lie)—and in those cases, the best move for your small business is usually to part ways.
You’re working with a client. You both agree on the scope of the project—including what they want, how they want it, and when they want it by. Contracts are signed and you’re weeks into your work. Then, the client reaches out, letting you know there’s been a change of plan, and actually, they’re going to need something new/more/different than what you originally agreed upon. Or maybe you’ve already delivered the work, and the client keeps asking for “just one more thing,” until all of a sudden, you’ve done the work of an entirely new project—just without getting paid for it.
This is called scope creep—and not only can it cause productivity to plummet, but it can also leave you feeling stressed out and stretched too thin.
The good news? Scope creep can only happen if you allow it. Set clear boundaries with your clients. Let them know that any requests outside of the stated scope of the project will require additional time and additional money—and that those fees will be due upfront. If a client pushes you to do work outside of your agreed scope, remind them of your policy—and let them know that if they want to move forward with additional work, they’ll need to compensate you for it before you get started.
It may seem harsh, but keeping firm deadlines with your clients is the only way to keep scope creep from negatively impacting your small business—and causing you unnecessary stress.
Trying to Wear Too Many Hats
Many entrepreneurs think that in order for their companies to be successful, they need to do everything themselves. Not only are they business owners, but they also have to be accountants, administrators, marketers, salespeople, graphic designers…whatever has to be done for their small business on a daily basis, they’re the ones that have to do it.
But the truth is, trying to wear too many hats is a surefire way to develop serious workplace stress. It can also lead to serious issues with work-life balance; when you’re trying to do everything on your own, it can monopolize all of your time—impinging on your personal time and causing a serious work-life imbalance. And ironically, trying to do everything yourself? It can put you at higher risk for burnout—and when you burned-out, it’s just about impossible to get anything done.
No one—not even the world’s most successful entrepreneur or business owner—can do everything themselves. And so, if you want to get better about managing stress, you need to get clear on what areas of your business you want to focus on—and then figure out how to offload everything else.
For example, let’s say you own a graphic design business. In that scenario, you’d want to focus on your area of expertise—design—and find a way to offload the other tasks associated with running your business. You might hire an assistant to manage your administrative tasks or use an accounting software to manage the money and financial side of your small business, like invoicing, expenses, and financial reporting.
The point is, if you want to keep business stress to a minimum, determine what areas of your business you want to focus on—and then let other people and/or tools manage the rest. The less you have to do as a business owner, the less stress you’ll have to deal with—and the better you’ll feel about your business and your job overall.
“Feast or Famine” Cash Flow Cycles
If you’re a business owner that runs a project-based company, chances are, you’ve experienced the dreaded “feast or famine” cycle. One month, you have more work than you can handle; then, all of those projects wrap up—and suddenly, you have no jobs (and no income) on the horizon.
Erratic income can cause serious business stress; managing your personal and business expenses when you’re not sure what your cash flow will be a month from now will throw even the most seasoned business owner for a loop.
The best way to move away from the feast or famine cycle (and lay the foundation for more effective stress management in the process) is to establish “anchor” clients. Instead of hiring your company on an as-needed basis, anchor clients work on a monthly retainer.
Retainers are a win-win situation—both for small business owners and for customers. For the business owner, the benefit is steady, reliable income—and for the customer, the benefit is better budget forecasting and knowing that they have a set number of hours/projects they can tackle with you each month. (And if you want to reduce stress even more? Set up recurring invoices, which will help streamline invoicing and save you time and stress on the invoicing process.)
Most small business owners and entrepreneurs have at least a few bad habits that are making it difficult to stay healthy—and, as such, making it difficult to manage stress. For example, some spend all day in front of screens (and the blue light those screens emit), making it harder for them to sleep. Others ignore the way their body reacts to stress or sickness—and instead of taking sick days when they need them, push through and continue working. Others don’t carve out the time to take care of their physical, emotional, and mental well-being—and end up feeling stressed, overwhelmed, and burned-out as a result.
If you have a bad habit or two that’s keeping you from feeling your best and from feeling like you can effectively manage work stress, it’s time to identify those habits—and take steps to get them under control and create new, better habits.
For example, is your late-night scrolling keeping you up all hours of the night and making it harder to get the rest you need to function at your highest level—not only as a business owner, but as a person? Make a commitment to power down your phone every night at 8 p.m.—and replace those pre-bedtime hours with more relaxing activities, like reading or meditating.
Do you have a tendency to push yourself too hard—and end up working so much and so long without a break, you make yourself sick? Commit to creating a work-life balance plan—and then take concrete steps towards fostering a healthier relationship with work (e.g., committing to stopping work every day at 6 p.m. or making Sundays a “no work no matter what” day).
The more you replace bad habits with better ones, the better you’ll feel—and the easier the stress management process will be.
Don’t Let Work Stress Take the Joy From Your Business
When work is too stressful, it can steal the joy of running your own small business. But now that you know some of the most common stressors facing entrepreneurs and small businesses (and how to deal with those stressors!), you’re armed with the information you need to keep work stress at bay—and keep the process of running your business as enjoyable as possible.
This post was updated in March 2022.