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Is your start-up making you sick?

Tuesday, 20 September 2011 | By Michelle Hammond
Starting a business usually involves long hours, copious amounts of stress and plenty of time hunched over a desk while coming up with a brand or grappling with paperwork.


As a lifestyle choice, there are certainly healthier career choices than becoming your own boss.


Maintaining a healthy lifestyle when you’re a start-up is a bit of a catch 22 – do you compromise your health in pursuit of success or prioritise your health so you last the distance?


“When people decide to start their own business, they generally do so to have more money, more freedom and more time,” says Greg Stark, founder and director trainer of Better Being.


“The reality with most small business owners is that they have less time, less money and less freedom.”


According to the Australian Work and Life Index 2010, released by the University of South Australia, 50% of men and 66.6% of women are “often or almost always” rushed for time.


It seems time-poor Australians don’t even allow themselves a lunch break, with another report revealing a quarter of men and a third of women eat at their desks.


Associate Professor Paula McDonald, from Queensland University of Technology Business School, says long lunches are a thing of the past as people cram more work into their days.


“Eating lunch at one’s desk may be a very small marker of work intensification and the increased pace of life,” McDonald says.


“It often means rising expectations for productivity and outputs – the ‘doing more with less’ phenomenon.”


It’s not even a case of work hard, play later. Yet another report highlights how the rise of mobile technology has made it impossible to completely switch off from work-related tasks.


Recruitment firm Robert Half International surveyed more than 400 finance and accounting professionals about their work/life balance.


According to the survey, 68% of employers expect staff to be available to some degree while on annual leave or afterhours.


“Mobile technology has created a culture where employees are always connected to work and many find it difficult to strike a balance,” Robert Half director Andrew Brushfield says.


“It’s common across all businesses. But I would say that in smaller start-up firms, people wear more than one hat and therefore need to be across more issues.”


This invariably leads to stress, which can have a negative effect on your business, particularly if that stress starts to impact your health.


John Toomey, chief executive of Global Wellness, says trying to run a business while key staff are sick has the potential to bring a business to its knees.


“When a key player in a business becomes sick or incapacitated, it can be devastating,” he says.


“If you are the central figure in your business, a bout of illness can take you out of the picture, leaving your prized customers… looking elsewhere to get their needs met,” he says.


So if you’re a start-up, how do you avoid stress and sickness without sacrificing your success?


According to stress management guru John Tickell, author of The Stress of Success, the only person who can manage your stress levels is you.


“My tip for managing stress is to become a self-manager. You need to keep everything in perspective and set realistic goals when setting out to achieve something,” Dr Tickell says.


“A healthy lifestyle can build resistance to the negative effects of stress and help people cope with situations that would otherwise bother them.”


Stark and Toomey offer some insight into maintaining your health for the sake of your start-up:


Move it

“Running a successful business, particularly from start-up phase, requires a lot of hard work, dedication and time… It is crucial we find solutions that allow for minimal output with maximal gain,” Stark says.


“Research suggests that physical and psychological benefits can be experienced with as little as 25 minutes of high intensity exercise two to three times a week.”


“This is supported by clinical recommendations of either 75 minutes of vigorous exercise or 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week.”


According to Toomey, the best time to exercise is early in the morning, which means the session is complete before the day starts.

Time out

Start-ups are inclined to run themselves into the ground in their bid to launch and can pay the price once the business is up and running.


“High amounts of physical and psychological stress over a long period of time can lead to burnout,” Stark warns.


“Numerous studies have shown how continuous psychological stress can cause physical changes such as lack of energy, tension, anger, anxiety, depression, insomnia, fatigue, injury and illness susceptibility.”


“However, many people continue to push through this.”


By staying in top physical condition, Stark says your body and mind are better equipped to deal with chronic stress, which can make or break an entrepreneur’s mindset.


In addition to getting plenty of sleep, Stark suggests having a massage, taking a walk, or yoga or mediation as methods to reduce the impact of daily stress and allow for optimal recovery.


Toomey has a quirky tip to keep yourself calm when worry and stress start to take their toll.


“In a corner of your office, have a card table with a 500-1,000 piece jigsaw on it. When your mind gets a little too agitated, spend 10 to 15 minutes on the jigsaw,” he says.


Put it in writing

“Years of economic and behaviour research show that when we put money or reputation on the line, we are more likely to succeed,” Stark says.


“Make a verbal or contractual commitment to achieving your goals. Use social media to let the world know of your challenges and accomplishments.”


It’s also worth making daily to-do lists and ticking off items as you complete them, without adding more tasks to the list.


Go green

When you’re in need of an energy boost, opt for fresh air over that third cup of coffee – it will clear your head and leave you feeling refreshed.


“Want to be revitalised? Get outdoors. Nothing beats exercising in the great outdoors with the fresh air, open spaces and warm sunshine,” Stark says.


“Studies have shown individuals who train outdoors when compared to training indoors report greater feelings of revitalisation, increased energy and positive engagement.”


Greenery in the office has also been proven to have a positive effect on workers’ attitudes and productivity levels, so make a point of displaying some indoor plants or fresh flowers.


Laugh it up

According to Stark, laughter has been proven to change one’s mood within minutes. If you’re a start-up, how do make your staff – and yourself – laugh?

“Get outside, kick a ball or go for a walk,” Stark suggests.


Most importantly, don’t take yourself too seriously. Make jokes, play games and arrange Friday night drinks.


You are what you eat

“You will never outrun a poor diet,” Stark says.

“People often justify to themselves that they can get away with eating whatever they want as long as they exercise. This is not the case – both are equally as important as each other.”


“Optimal health is achieved through a stable internal environment, known as homeostasis. To achieve this, think like a hunter-gatherer.”


Stark’s top tips for a healthy diet:


  • Avoid processed carbohydrates containing starches and sugars such as confectionary, pastries, breads, chips and soft drink.
  • Eat whole foods with low density fats, protein and fibre. Focus on consuming meat, vegetables, fruit, nuts and legumes.
  • Stay hydrated. As a general guideline, consume 25 millilitres per kilogram of body weight, consumed throughout the day.
  • Avoid stimulants such as caffeine, and depressants such as alcohol.
  • Choose your foods based on what is in season and those from your local area, especially meats, fruits and vegetables.


Toomey says the way in which you eat is just as important as what you eat. In addition to eating breakfast every day, he says everyone should stop to eat their lunch.


“Even if it is for 10 minutes, stop work to eat. Do not drink coffee at your desk. During the day, drink herbal teas – find out which herbal tea is best for you,” he says.


“Save coffee for when you go out for meetings, and take time to enjoy your coffees.”


If you work from home, avoid having items in the cupboard that you’re inclined to eat when you’re stressed. If you work in an office, have fresh foods on hand to create healthy meals.


Do all of this and, hopefully, you will remain healthy enough in body and mind to get your business into optimal shape too.