Quake stress takes toll on businesses

Last updated 09:48 11/08/2012

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Tired? Ratty? Snapping at your staff for finishing the staples? You are not alone. A growing number of Canterbury business owners, and staff, are struggling with stress and fatigue. TAMLYN STEWART looks at what lies beneath the brave face of Canterbury's small businesses, and what help is on hand.

Christchurch rehabilitation practice Pelim founder Mary- Anne Hewitt says being a business owner can be a really lonely place to be.

In the first couple of months after the February quake, Pelim's 12 Christchurch staff heard a lot of traumatic stories from the clients they were working with, and while it is an important part of the work they do, it was difficult, Hewitt said.

Nearly 18 months later those stories have changed, but the longevity of the effect of the earthquakes has started to weigh heavily on clients and staff.

"As a sole owner of a business your job is to lead and support everybody else. But it can be a really lonely place, and if you're not careful you don't get looked after yourself."

Hewitt is not alone.

Business support organisation Recover Canterbury reports that of the 520-plus businesses that have contacted the organisation for help since the start of this year, more than 46 per cent cited stress and fatigue as major issues.

A recent survey of 651 businesses by the Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce revealed 60 per cent of respondents reported issues with stress.

State-funded business coaching and stress management programmes for Canterbury businesses were launched in April this year. The counselling and training is provided by EAP Services and Workplace Support.

But so far only about 50 businesses have accessed the service, the majority with fewer than 15 staff.

EAP Services South Island manager John Squire urges firms to ask for help sooner rather than later and says time off to rest and recover is important - mini-breaks, not six months in Fiji.

Squire said the most common causes of stress for business owners and managers were cashflow, staffing, dealing with insurance claims, broken plant or premises and dealing with distressed customers.

On top of those issues, business owners and managers were dealing with personal issues at home and in many cases were not sleeping well and were fatigued.

Squire said employees were suffering too.

Common issues included staff taking considerable sick leave, staff non-performance due to their own quake issues, drug and alcohol issues and fatigue.

Cantabrians are waiting too long before asking for help: "And I think that's a little bit possum in the headlights . . . 'There's so much coming in I just need to knuckle down'."

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In many cases EAP Services should have been involved with that business much earlier on, but for some reason people were reticent about asking for help with stress and anxiety, he said.

"Business owners and managers have so many balls in the air, and because they are intrinsically involved in the businesses their anxiety and distress is exacerbated by the fact they are unable to walk away from it."

Business survivor guilt is rife.

"Business owners are saying 'Yes it's tough, but someone else has got it much tougher than me. I've got nothing to complain about . . . help those who need it more'.

"We help them with their ability to focus, their flexibility, their ability to take some time off.

"If you're a weightlifter you don't spend all your time lifting the heaviest weights you can lift . . . You're preparing yourself for the time when you need to compete.

"What we're seeing is folk who are effectively competing all the time because there's so much coming in."

Business owners were dealing with a broken supply chain, staffing problems, relocating, on top of the usual personal issues like personal finance and sick children.

"Which means that folk effectively spend their life competing instead of just training."

People who had previously been performing well as a team were now not performing as they should.

"People who generally manage stress fairly well have that rhythmic oscillation between energy expenditure and recovery but because there's just been so much going on for folk they're not getting that recovery time.

"So now we're seeing folk with an issue that maybe 18 months ago they would have had the capacity to deal with quite well, they're just not able to deal with it.

"If you give a muscle time to rest and recover not only will it heal but it'll grow back stronger."

Hewitt said she had not realised how much pressure she was under until she had to move out of her house for earthquake repairs to be done.

A number of her staff also had damaged homes and those sorts of issues understandably affected people's capacity to focus.

Hewitt's own home needed just superficial repairs, but having to move out of her home tipped her over, and pushed her to ask for help. "And I think that was where I'd got to that place, that I needed some looking after myself."

Recover Canterbury referred Hewitt for free Workplace Support assistance, which had been excellent, she said.

An adviser at Workplace Support told her it was OK for her to be struggling, and it was OK to ask for help.

"If you are leading a team, and you haven't got it together, then how can you lead other people?"

The programme also made her more aware of her staff's needs. "Christchurch people are just expected to get on and do it, and I think that the impact of that is showing up in health."

This year was the first time staff had been off sick for extended periods of time.

"It's related to significant stress, the long-term effects."

She is now more mindful of the balance of staff workloads - not just the amount of work, but the type of work people were doing - and she keeps an eye on staff stress levels.

For herself she is in closer contact with her business mentor, talks to other business owners, socialises more and goes for walks.

"It's all helping."

Automotive repair business owner Steve Welford said his Sydenham-based building had suffered little damage in the earthquakes but surrounding buildings had.

"We were like a shiny pin in all this stuff. But it definitely impacted quite heavily on the workflow and stress levels were pretty high.

"You tend to get into high adrenaline, that's what I found I was running on. You had so much to think about.

"It didn't get me down until later on, probably 12 months, then it hit me, that we were struggling, and what had happened, and losing customers - we lost two people who died in the CTV building that were clients of mine."

A phone call from Recover Canterbury prompted Welford to make use of the free business resilience training.

"I just felt at that time it might be worth talking to somebody about things.

Welford said he had wanted to protect his three staff. His staff had all had their own difficulties, with damaged homes.

"You're so busy thinking about what's going on you're just rolling along on adrenaline, and then one day it just sort of dawns on you what's happened, and you've got to start thinking about looking after yourself."

"If I was a mess it wouldn't help them, would it."

Dealing with his insurance company had been worse than the earthquake, Welford said.

Insurance costs had doubled but insurers' performance levels had halved.

Welford said using the counselling service had definitely helped and Business Network International networking sessions were also useful because it was an opportunity for business owners to compare notes.

"I think everybody has things sitting in the back of their mind that have happened and stress is a killer, if you don't get it out of your system that can cause you problems later on."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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