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Managing stress during COVID-19

There are many reasons why business leaders are stressed – from having to let people go, to revenue streams drying up, to chasing customers who owe them money. 

Some CEOs are struggling to sleep well at night and even those who exercise regularly and are in good physical shape are dealing with fear and anxiety. While we can’t control the events around us, we can control our response to those events, which is why it’s so important to learn to manage stress, especially now.

The oldest part of our brain – the reptilian brain – controls internal, automatic behaviour, including the “fight or flight” response to danger. Right now, 100% of the CEOs I know are sensing danger, even the 30% who are doing OK, or happen to be making toilet paper!

But as Franklin D. Roosevelt said during the Great Depression, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

When we are fearful, our hearts speed up in preparation for fighting our enemies or running away from danger. A moderate level of stress is good – it enables you to run faster, but too much stress is bad for your body and can damage your heart.  Likewise, being overly reactive to stress and anxiety can have negative impact on your company.

One reason CEOs are stressed and anxious is because COVID-19 is both a health risk and an economic risk. Fear plays tricks on our assessment of reality, and it doesn’t take much for even rational people to slip into the “Spiral of decline and destitution”. For a business leader, the spiral could begin when a customer stops buying your products or services, and you begin worrying how many more customers will stop buying, because if they all do, you will run out of cash, have to lay off everyone and close down the business.  With no money from the business to pay the mortgage, you could lose your house, then your partners and children might leave, you’d be forced out on the street, destitute and very likely die. In only a few turns of the spiral, you go from losing one customer – to death! Some people spiral down faster than six turns. One CEO I knew had the “I’m going to die” response when anything went wrong in his business! His stress levels were off the chart – and his “expecting the worst” made it very difficult for everyone who worked with him.

More for business leaders:

One of the responsibilities of the leader is to manage yourself – and that means being self-aware and recognising when you are losing confidence, feeling anxious, and beginning the downward spiral. Take the time to learn strategies that enable you to manage your mind and your stress. I have two things I say to myself when I feel myself sliding into the spiral: “My mother said there’d be days like this.” and “Nothing is ever as GOOD or as BAD as I think it is at this moment.” And I have learned to meditate each day.

Self-management, balance and resilience are essential for good leadership. If you are the CEO, MD, or member of the executive team, you must learn to manage yourself, because you are one of the most important assets of the business – even if you don’t appear on the balance sheet. So, establish a set of techniques and strategies to deal with the bad days so that they don’t turn into bad weeks or bad months. Learn how to catch yourself before sliding down the rabbit hole and into the spiral of destitution. Teach yourself and your employees to stay positive and envision success, i.e., stay focused on the future.

COVID-19 has thrown a spanner in the works for 2020. Although your company may not be able to achieve the growth you envisioned last January, resilience and the ability to stay forward focused can help you avoid the spiral of decline and destitution, take back the power, and move your company forward.


Dr Jana Matthews is the ANZ Chair in Business Growth, Professor, and Director of the Australian Centre for Business Growth at the University of South Australia’s Business School. She has a doctorate from Harvard, has founded five companies, and was on the founding team of the Kauffman Foundation’s Centre for Entrepreneurial Leadership.