Being a small business owner can come with higher-than-average levels of stress. That was especially true in 2020. Navigating your business through this type of uncertainty, while acting as a leader to customers and employees, may require unprecedented optimism.

Here are three ways you can approach staying positive when things are challenging.

Stay on top of stress

Stress is normal when you’re running a business. But when stress gets out of control, it can affect your performance and impact your business. That can cause more stress, in turn.

Breaking this kind of stress loop can help you stay positive. Start by identifying that you’re stressed. You may have a shorter temper, change in appetite, or difficulty sleeping.


Action tip: Write a list of the behaviors you exhibit when stressed or angry. If you can recognize the signs early, you may be able to combat stress and improve your mood before your business is affected.


If you notice one of those signs, try to pinpoint the root cause, getting as specific as possible. Uncovering the true cause of stress can help you manage it more productively.

You may also want to make a list of activities that help you manage stress. (You can even separate it to things you can do in 10 minutes and long-term approaches.) Having a go-to list at the ready can help you tackle stress when you may not be thinking as clearly.


Action tip: Ask your employees to make lists about their stress signals and ways to manage that stress. See if you can make tackling stress a group effort — you may be able to share ideas for managing symptoms or help one another recognize the warning signs.


Stay on top of social distancing and its side effects

Entrepreneurs often experience higher levels of stress or depression even in “normal” times, and business owners have a notoriously hard time balancing running a business with their personal lives.

This means the past year, with remote work, learning, and overall social distancing measures, may have had a unique impact on business owners. Not only has social distancing limited everyone’s ability to balance work stressors by spending time with friends and family, being in a leadership position means you’re not only working to combat isolation in your own life, but you may be dealing with the side effects of isolation among your employees and customers.

For instance, more than three times as many adults say they’ve experienced depression since the COVID-19 crisis began. Look for signs that your customers or employees are dealing with unexpected stressors, like helping kids with distance learning, while also working from home. For instance, if your customers are feeling anxious, they may be more aggressive with your employees, which could have a domino effect.

It’s important to combat this with a great customer experience, and that may require a positive outlook. If your employees are dealing with stressed customers and struggling with the isolation of social distancing themselves, it may be hard for them to provide that service.

In order to encourage positivity among your employees and, in turn, your customers, consider policies that encourage employees to take time off and focus on their mental health. For example, one Chicago-area small business owner gave his employees a day off for a mental health break.

Once you notice the effects social distancing may be having on you, your business, and your connections, you can begin to create small mental health breaks that encourage positivity.

You may not be able to take a full day, like in our example, but setting aside small windows for you and your employees can make it easier to keep a positive outlook. And this can help you share positivity with customers in turn.


Action tip: Set boundaries, share them, and be diligent about enforcing them. For instance, consider adding language like, “I won’t be responding to emails from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.,” to your email signature. Doing so might encourage your employees or vendors to take a few hours off, too, since they won’t be able to reach you.


Keep things in perspective

There’s a difference between feeling positive in the moment and feeling optimistic about the future. If you’re having a hard time feeling positive right now, see if you can find things to look forward to as you rebuild your business.

For instance, as shutdowns extended into the third quarter of 2020, fewer business owners were positive about their current situations. However (and it’s an important however), 41 percent of business owners said they were optimistic about the future. That’s a 400% increase from the second quarter. And that optimism for the future happened despite feeling less positive about the present.

Bar chart comparing levels of optimism from small business owners in the second quarter of 2020 to the third quarter of 2020. Overall optimism went up from 48% in Q2 to 60% in Q3. Optimism about the present declined from 39% in Q2 to 19% in Q3; optimism for the future jumped from 9% in Q2 to 41% in Q3.

The takeaway here may be that you don’t have to force positivity on your present situation in order to be optimistic about where your business is headed.

However, making small changes could help with positive thinking right now. For example, many business owners focus on potential problems, which makes sense: Your job is to look out for roadblocks so you can steer your company past them. The downside of that can be that business owners don’t focus enough on the wins they have along the way. By celebrating small victories, you may be able to foster more positive energy right now.


Action tip: Keep a running list of all the positives in your business. Pay extra attention to wins on your team and dole out praise to employees, many of whom may need extra recognition to stay positive.


With all of the challenges facing business owners, staying positive may not be high on your to-do list. But doing so can make a big difference in how you navigate through challenges today and rebuild your business for the future.

Sources: SBDC National Information Clearinghouse, JAMA Network Open, Society for Human Resource Management, Chicago Tribune, Gallup, The Balance Small Business