Manage your overall energy instead of just time and tasks

How to handle stress and prevent burnout

Effective workload management can help protect entrepreneurs against stress and burnout—and has become especially important in the current pandemic crisis, with its unique challenges.

COVID-19 is what we call a ‘landscape’ crisis,” says Richard Steele, a partner at McKinsey & Company. “It’s bigger and broader than the usual kinds of ‘emergencies’ entrepreneurs deal with: It has more unknown unknowns. There is no set playbook to follow.”

With COVID-19, lives and livelihoods are at stake as well as many entrepreneurs’ sense of self-identity, which Steele notes is often closely wrapped up with their businesses.

“When entrepreneurs create a business, they bring forth something that didn’t exist before,” Steele says. “Running that business is more than just a job. If the business is threatened, it’s personal and the level of anxiety can be intense.”

With COVID-19 imposing the need to work from home, many entrepreneurs find they are missing the valuable thinking time that used to come with daily commuting and office rhythms. Steele says without that mental space, it’s easy to stay in work mode all the time—increasing the risk of overload and burnout.

“Being overwhelmed can have an impact on your attention span and ability to execute, and your personal relationships can suffer,” he says.

COVID-19 is what we call a ‘landscape’ crisis. It’s bigger and broader than the usual kinds of ‘emergencies’ entrepreneurs deal with: It has more unknown unknowns. There is no set playbook to follow.

Energy over time

In Steele’s view, people tend to get workload management “wrong” because they focus on managing time and tasks instead of managing their overall energy.

“You can’t add more hours to the day,” he says, “but you can do things to maximize your energy and make it go farther.”

Delegate what you can

To use energy wisely, Steele says leaders should prioritize what’s truly essential.

“You have to be disciplined about where you draw the line,” he admits. “A leader is likely the best person to handle certain tasks, like liaising with the bank to extend a line of credit, and since that could be vitally important to the organization’s success, it’s the kind of thing an entrepreneur should focus on.’’

If someone else could take on other tactical tasks such as negotiating with vendors, then they should, Steele adds.

Practice self-care

Steele emphasizes the importance of reserving time for activities that generate energy: Sleep, exercise, meditation and maintaining good relationships with inner circles of family and friends. He notes that getting ample sleep is especially important, as a lack of sleep can ultimately affect performance.

“It’s easy to let those actions slide in crisis mode,” he says. “But you’re going to be much better able to manage the demands of work if you’re not running on empty all the time.”

Bring focus to your activities

The best way to conserve energy is to use only as much as a situation truly calls for, with meetings a prime opportunity for making gains, says Steele. Instead of scheduling all meetings for the same length of time, he suggests making them only as long as they need to be to come to a decision.

“In some cases that might be seven minutes and in others it might be three hours,” he says. “The key is to know going in what’s the point: What decision do you need to come out with?”

Increase communication

Employers of all sizes tend to underestimate how much their employees depend on them as trusted sources of information. Communication in a crisis is one of those responsibilities an entrepreneur often can’t or shouldn’t delegate, Steele says.

As a crisis evolves, different forms of information can help employees stay safe, cope mentally, and connect to a deeper sense of purpose and stability. Steele notes that trust is never more important than in a crisis: Be honest about where things stand, don’t be afraid to show vulnerability, and maintain transparency to build loyalty and lead effectively.

With fewer unstructured opportunities to touch base when working remotely, Steele recommends making a point of checking in regularly with employees: “Keep them as informed as you can, knowing that the situation is constantly changing, and remember to demonstrate compassionate leadership by asking how they’re doing personally.”

Steele cautions entrepreneurs to avoid becoming overly “transactional”—communicating purely to assign and follow up on tasks—as this can lead to a style of leadership that may be effective in the moment but doesn’t nurture the relationships needed for the long term.

Balance your optimism

Entrepreneurs tend to be optimistic because it takes a lot of belief in what’s possible to win people to their vision and succeed long-term, Steele says.

“It’s important to balance bounded optimism with realism, especially in a situation like COVID-19 when there are so many unknowns. You have to account and plan for very real potential consequences,” he says. “Act decisively and quickly in the moment to keep the business on track, but keep the long term in view by maintaining a through-cycle perspective—thinking beyond the crisis.”

Reach out to advisors and seek support

Steele says it’s also important during a landscape crisis for entrepreneurs to seek help where they can get it. He stresses that it’s OK to feel out of your comfort zone.

“Don’t hesitate to reach out early for guidance, advice and support,” he says. “Your relationships—with business and financial advisors, with family and friends—those are what will help get you through all of this. Everyone is in this together.”