Bonnie M Brown is President of Transition Dynamics Inc in Eugene, Oregon, USA.
Family businesses may have a better time weathering the economic downturn on the business front – all the more reason to work hard to keep themselves and their businesses in balance
Recently I facilitated discussions among families in business on "finding well-being amidst chaos: keeping yourself, your family and your business in balance". We began with an informal assessment of stressors at the end of a typical family business day in the post-9/11, post-Enron United States.
Not surprisingly, business families identified a long list of stressors in each venue. Many related to decreasing wealth, an uncertain future, an absence of peace in their lives and more work than the time and energy to do it. If I distill those lists down to the factors most likely to move people from stress to distress, the four winners would be: not enough time; money; good health; and too much risk. Symptoms of distress in these four categories are easy to recognise: employee burnout, cash flow crises, heart attacks, ulcers, headaches, sleepless nights and increased conflict among employees or family members, to name a few.
The OED defines well-being as a "healthy, contented, or prosperous condition". In the past two years I've heard many people ask, "How much is enough?" Will they have enough money, enough time, enough power, enough love, enough security, enough good health to maintain a sense of well-being now and in the future?
Given the reductions many have seen in the value of their portfolios and pension funds, anxiety about short- and long-term cash flow is high. Given that people are living longer, will those reduced assets provide for them until they die? Given that heirs who may have been counting on inherited wealth now may have to learn to live with less or earn more, do they have the skills and drive to adjust their life styles and expectations accordingly? How do people measure the quality of their lives? Can wealth ensure well-being?
The answer to all of the above questions is, "it depends". Like their publicly traded counterparts, many privately held companies are experiencing a decrease in demand for products and services because of our current economic downturn. Family businesses may have an easier time weathering this economic downturn because they have low debt/equity ratios and a strategic commitment to the long-term management of their assets. I have seen other multi-generational family businesses face bankruptcy in the last year because they grew too fast when times were good. On the other hand, many entrepreneurs and family businesses are experiencing growth in demand for their products and services because their niche markets, experience and skill sets add value in these uncertain times by helping people and businesses rebuild, assess risk and manage wealth.
Perspective greatly affects "facts": the glass is half empty; the glass is half full. Finding well-being may require us to shift how we define our boundaries and to recognise the impact of perspective on our ability to cultivate well-being. Stressors aren't always negative. Certainly, we feel stress due to a loss of personal assets or abrupt changes in a career path. On the other hand, falling in love, the birth of a child, building a dream house or an unanticipated growth spurt in business may increase our stress even as it increases our joy.
Change: the constant
Change is the one constant in life. Most of us have experienced the way change in our external world precipitates change internally. It is also true that a change in our internal state changes our external world. It may not be easy to say "no" when in the past one has said "yes" to requests for time, money or effort. Likewise, it may not seem easy to say "yes" to life after a stroke, a bankruptcy or a loved one's death. The ability to thrive during times of intense and rapid change depends more than one would expect upon an internal sense of well-being. At the centre of such well-being one stays mentally alert and physically relaxed, feels emotionally calm and spiritually at peace, no matter what kind of storm is brewing in the outside world.
Recipe for calm
Over the past several months I have taken an informal poll, asking people what they do to reduce stress – in ten minutes or less. I've queried clients, family members, friends, colleagues, and strangers in airports or at parties. "Why ten minutes or less?" almost everyone asks. Because it is doable and it works. Ten minute getaways are a recipe for feeling calm, relaxing physically, increasing mental acuity and finding a sense of spiritual peace.
Consider the next generation of family business leaders, who juggle the needs of young children, aging parents and a spouse who also works outside the home with increasingly demanding roles as business and community leaders. I call this juggling apples, oranges and the occasional chainsaw. In more than one facilitated discussion, people said, "I have almost no free time. When I do manage to get out of the office early, how do I choose between helping my son with his homework, spending some kind of quality time with my spouse and getting enough exercise to avoid having a heart attack before I'm 50?" This challenge sometimes appears insurmountable. Ironically, it seems that often we find that time only when stress has already morphed into extreme distress. That's why I ask for ten-minute stress reducers. How would you respond to that question?
You might notice that what reduces stress for one person might increase stress for another. When I asked a friend why he would call his senator – something that would surely increase my stress – he said it gave him a sense of satisfaction just to voice his concerns. Someone who was crossing things off a "to-do" list in an airport lounge said she felt less anxious when she could measure what she had accomplished in a day. Someone else said just the opposite – crossing things off a list reminded him that the list would never end because every time he completed one task, he thought of three more to add to his list. I know people who feel anxious if they don't watch the news and read the paper daily. I know others who feel anxious if they do. This is a very individual exercise.
When people tell me these ten minute getaways will not reduce stress or enhance their sense of well-being, I suggest that they consider testing that hypothesis. How might you do that? First, spend a week watching how and when you waste time. See if you can free up 30 minutes of time each day by setting clearer boundaries about what you can and can't do, what you will and won't do. Second, during that same week, notice where anxiety and pain surface in your life mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually. Third, find three ten minute blocks in a day when you can try a variety of activities that might help reduce anxiety and pain.
Do your own informational interviewing to discover what works best for you. Think outside of the box. Set your intent: what do you want to achieve in these ten minute getaways? Determine measurement criteria and evaluate what works. Try it for a month, making adjustments as needed. Finally, exercise your sense of humour. Laughter is a great healer.
If you do nothing else, breathe deeply, stretch, drink lots of water and laugh every single day. Even on days when it feels like someone put your life in a blender and turned it on high, a few simple, stress-relieving activities that you can do in less than ten minutes will enhance your sense of well-being.