Making stress work for you – a founder’s guide

Stress is the ultimate multiplier: it manifests in so many, often imperceptible ways. As human beings, we each have individual triggers and a whole swathe of vulnerabilities to it. Stress is hugely personal.

It also has a negative connotation when science shows us that eustress or ‘good stress’ is what keeps us on our toes and operating to our best. We just need to notice our tipping points and when we are moving from eustress to distress.

But let’s take a moment now as you read this – how are your shoulders? What’s your jaw doing? What’s the quality of your breath? Exactly.  

Here, Kate Hesk, CPO and Founder, Cognomie, discusses how to make stress work for you.

As founders, there’s a specific narrative that accompanies the “thriving under stress” mandate. It’s part of the contract, right? As founders we’re chasing and creating The Next Big Thing. We’re Always On.

You don’t need me to tell you, too much stress will threaten more than your startup’s wellbeing. It can quickly lead to an overloaded nervous system, to burn-out, and longer-term health issues – physical, psychological, and emotional.

Stats show  that an estimated 17 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression, or anxiety in 2021/22. Which is over half of all working days lost due to work-related ill health.

How can we model a more positive relationship with the reality of startup stress? So how can we manage our own stress levels as leaders, staying replenished and topped up in our wellbeing? For our teams, our partners, our investors.  

Perspective can be your superpower – ‘Founder’ is often synonymous with juggling 12 dozen things at any one time – be it an investor issue or an HR challenge.  It’s a lot. So being able to harness your perspective as matters arise can create distance from stress – and stressful situations.

The power is in the pause. Notice when stress happens, pause and try to delineate your thoughts and your response. By stepping back and reflecting inwards, you can effectively acknowledge the situation, map out a response, rather than be consumed by it.

Connection can be key when it comes to maintaining perspective – and founder loneliness is more common than I think any of us are prepared to acknowledge. Invest in connecting with peers and likeminded colleagues to cultivate that community, support, and accountability.

We all need a space of psychological safety where we have open and candid conversations around challenges, stress and our emotional wellbeing. And by creating this for ourselves, we can extend this environment into our own cultures for our teams.

Get comfortable asking for support – working with founders – and as one – I know that this is something we’re are notoriously bad at. We can be CPO, CFO and CEO at any one time – making sure the needs of our team, our investors, our partners are being met, too often neglecting our own.

When we’re spinning all the plates, answering all the emails – being so many things to so many people – we forget how to ask for something for ourselves. We live in a constant state of “After the next product announcement I can take a weekend off” or “When the new CMO starts I’ll be able to delegate more.” 

Overwhelm can quickly move to burnout: it’s cumulative

Have the courage to ask for help; you’d never expect or want your  teams to manage alone, so why would you. Stress is not a failing, or a weakness ― it’s a normal part of a full life.

Start building your trusted support team today.

Ask for a personal meeting with your investors. Reach out to a mentor. This is a great time to start working with a coach or a thinking partner who holds that space for quality conversatiions  that support your own self-awareness, reflection, and growth.

Tune back into your values

This is a huge part of the resilience work I do with clients. When stress escalates, we need to remind ourselves why we’re here, and refocus on meaning and our sense of purpose.

This could start in the smallest way by setting an intention for the day.

It’s so easy to forget to bring that awareness as we rush around our busy days. Get intentional. Think: what do I want out of this meeting? How do I want this conversation to go? Make it super-micro in this moment: what’s the next positive step I can take towards this task or goal?  

How can you course-correct in the next 10 minutes to get you back into alignment?

By bringing these strategies together, you can develop a powerful toolkit to help navigate those tricky, stressful moments that are woven into our working lives – from over-running Zooms to making sure you leave the office on time. And by becoming attuned to when “good stress” tips into “bad stress”, you’ll be able to manage it effectively and fully.

For founders too, when we can model this behaviour for our teams, we’re essentially giving other people permission to do the same, resetting the culture around stress in the startup workplace.