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When your business is driving you to death

By | March 15th 2012

By John Kariuki

Ali Mwaura, aka Biggie, runs a wholesale shop in an estate in Nairobi. He redesigned his shop to ensure there was only one inlet to the premise, and one door to his back stores. He then installed a paying counter half way across the shop, which gave him a good view of customers getting into his shop. His lofty position allowed him to watch his staffers carry merchandise from the store, and out into waiting vans.

Believing that he had created the perfect business supervision system, Mwaura would sit at his desk from morning till closing time everyday for most of the year. He became sedentary, and rarely moved off from his high stool.

His tea and lunch would be brought to him, and his role was reduced to that of simply counting the bank notes as they rolled in. Mwaura found himself smoking more than before, from five sticks a day to a packet per day. If he had to be away, which was rare, he would give his staffers a holiday for the duration of his absence.

Two years on, health problems began setting in.

"I gained weight enormously from my physical inactivity. In fact, it is from this that people nicknamed me Biggie," he says. After ignoring a dull headache and momentary blurred vision for over a month, Mwaura finally sought medical help.

After a routine check on his blood pressure, the doctor was shocked that he had taken himself to hospital in the first place.

"My blood pressure was very high, and the doctor diagnosed this as the cause of my headache," says Mwaura.

Mwaura did not think much of his doctor’s insistence that he enroll at a local gym. He also did not see any urgency to check on his weight or delegate most of his business operations.

"I had started my business from scratch, and I could not possibly cede control of it to my staffers as none of them was trustworthy enough to handle the cash. And my wife did not understand the business ‘war’ environment I operated in," he says.

Serious reasons

Soon after, Mwaura would make a second visit to hospital, but this time for very serious reasons.

"The last thing I remember was losing balance and staggering towards a wall before waking up in a hospital ward," says Mwaura.

But three weeks later he was lucky to be discharged from hospital after suffering a mild stroke. Meanwhile his wife and employees had managed things well in his absence.

This time round, Mwaura enrolled at a gym without any prompting, and has never fallen back on his prior behaviour. He has also stuck to the recommended diet and lifestyle.

"My hospitalisation was a blessing in disguise that enabled me to see things in black and white," he says.

He also created time off every week from his business, and the pressure has never taken toll on his health again.

But Mwaura is one of the lucky ones. Many other business owners instead allow their enterprises to take over their lives, a move that literary kills them.

For such entrepreneurs, nothing else counts in life besides making profit. Incredulously, some business owners boast they are too busy to even watch the news, sleep, go to church, take their children to school, and even celebrate important anniversaries in their lives, and those of their loved ones.

But between the brokers at the stock exchange who occasionally drop dead when stocks move in unexpected ways, and business owners committing suicide, there is a host of intermediate and often silent health problems that plague business owners.

Ironically, these problems can all be averted by slowing-down, and not allowing business to drive them crazy.

Employee wellness

A leading medical insurance provider, Resolution Health East Africa Ltd, regularly hosts seminars to sensitise corporate organisations on the importance of their employees’ wellness.

Speaking at a function attended by female entrepreneurs recently, Resolution Health East Africa Chief Executive Officer, Peter Nduati, said healthy employees have a significant impact on productivity and contribute towards a reduction in the overall healthcare costs for companies.

"If you don’t find a way to unwind and find a suitable work-life balance, you run the risk of burning out and becoming seriously ill. That’s because when stress goes unmanaged, it suppresses our immune system, making us more vulnerable to illnesses that can even lead to serious conditions like heart disease," added Mr Nduati.

The firm insists that companies should encourage their employees to carry out annual check-ups, including mammograms, Pap smear tests, prostate cancer screening, and nutritional consultation.

Doctor Michael Munene, who practices in Kinangop, says that people often forget about themselves when they venture into business.

"But people get caught up in all the details of how their business is doing, and stop paying attention to what it is doing to them," he says.

As with formal employment, a business can turn one into a workaholic easily, says doctor Munene.

"And, incidentally, more men than women suffer from the stress of their businesses," he says.

"Typically, the problem starts with a ‘realisation’ that that there is never enough time to get everything in a business done," says doctor Munene.

This leads to one over-exerting themselves, which takes a mental and physical toll on the person.

"Over time, your body will start wearing down and signs of burnout will show," he says.

At this stage, a business owner may display antisocial behaviour, like shouting at his or her employees, and displaying discourtesy to clients and customers without any provocation.

"Other signs may include reduced sexual drive and excessive drinking and smoking. A person may also suffer depression, anxiety, discouragement, irritability, pessimism, feelings of being overwhelmed, and being unable to cope," adds doctor Munene.

There are also cognitive difficulties such as a reduced ability to concentrate or make decisions. It is at this stage that a business stands the greatest chance of making great losses.

"Some physical signs include heartburn and acid regurgitation," he says. Others are fatigue, muscular tension, headaches and heart palpitations. Often stressed business owners suffer sleeping difficulties such as insomnia, gastrointestinal upsets — such as diarrhoea and constipation — and skin disorders. Business worries also aggravate conditions like arthritis, diabetes, gout, high blood pressure, and could cause a potentially fatal heart attack.

He suggests that the way out is for business owners to realise that there is life outside their enterprises.

Greater roles

"People should understand that they cannot carry the entire world on their shoulders. You can take off entrepreneurial worries off your shoulders by deliberately seeking greater roles in social and community life like chairmanship to committees and boards," he says.

Sitting in a weekly meeting and talking about other things besides one’s line of enterprise can greatly alleviate symptoms of business stress, he adds.

Doctor Munene advises business owners to take occasional holidays and engage in activities that will rejuvenate them, and ensure they live longer.

"It’s also advisable to get regular medical checkups. This way, a developing problem can be caught in its early stages, and can help save one’s time and money in the long run," he says.

Stafford Riithi, an official with one medical care firm, says that the greatest health risks for many business owners arises from two sources; their mistrust of their employees and financial problems.

"Most modern entrepreneurs are suave enough to know that it pays to keep fit and to take an occasional holiday. But they have nobody to entrust their businesses in their absence," says Riithi.

"Money woes also often dog many business owners, but rather than own up and seek professional advice, these entrepreneurs go into denial until disease or death uncovers the truth," adds Riithi.

Such entrepreneurs micromanage all aspects of their businesses and become omnipresent. "But basically, they try to hide their mistrust and money problems till they get ill or drop dead," adds Riithi.

Operate independently

He advises all business owners to create systems that can run without them.

"One should train at least one dependable employee to take care of all aspects of a business in his or her absence," he says.

"Your mind needs to be free to think strategically by looking at the big picture and not by spending all time absorbed in petty activities that don’t actually bring in any money," says Riithi.

This manager also points out that local entrepreneurs assume that struggling is the norm for businesses, when the stress is just booking their way to later health problems.

"If a business doesn’t get off the ground, you should step back and re-evaluate your goals and beliefs," he says.

He adds that people’s egos will usually stop them from accepting their mistake and they will soldier on in businesses that are actually non-starters till the truth eventually emerges, and frequently to the detriment of their health.

It is a virtue to work hard at a business but is wrong when one’s life gets one-dimensional that he or she eats and drinks, thinks and breathes "the business."

Such behaviour end up losing friends because they are perpetually unavailable , and when they eventually turn up, bore everyone to death by prattling on and on about their businesses to the exclusion of any other social subject.

This makes it imperative for one to get a life, or at least revive the one that he or she had before starting their grand enterprises.

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