This piece was originally published as an interview in the COS Book-keeping newsletter.

I set up Clear Day in October 2018 to provide freelance admin support to business owners and small organisations. Clear Day has since grown into a business support agency, providing PA/VA services, and marketing and social media assistance. I have a team of seven associates who assist me in clearing the days of our lovely clients. A new addition to the business last year was my coaching practice, as I obtained my coaching certification from the MOE Foundation. I provide coaching to business owners who are ambitious and focused, yet struggle with anxiety and overwhelm, perhaps finding that imposter syndrome hampers their progress. I can help those who are unsure of the next steps for growing their firm, or who have recently expanded and need some help figuring out what kind of leader they want to be.

The key thing business owners tend to forget is that they are their own boss. Sure, we say it all the time – “I’m my own boss” – but we don’t take in what that actually means. It means that we are the only ones who can set expectations for ourselves, and we are the only ones who can stop ourselves from working crazy hours and getting burnt out. 

We have all had frustrating managers. We all know what good team leadership looks like, and when it sucks. Becoming self-employed, we think to ourselves “Hooray, now I’m free!”… and then we take on the worst traits of every bad boss we have ever had and treat ourselves like crap.

The most important way to prevent burnout is to sit down and actually think about what you expect from yourself. Literally write an employee handbook for your business, telling yourself what hours you are expected to work, how many holidays you are expected to take, whether you can take back time in lieu for working at weekends and so on. 

Our well-being as business owners is entirely our own responsibility. I talk about this further in my blog post “Being your own boss – and being the best boss“. The way to prevent burnout if you are self-employed is to recognise that it is down to you to prevent it in yourself, because nobody else has the power over your working practices.

If you have employees, a similar approach can work to ensure that they don’t experience burnout either. Again, it all comes down to clear expectations. Sure, some team members will try to get away with doing as little work as possible, but the majority of people want to do their best. If you as a leader don’t tell them what you expect, they will just keep working and working, in fear that doing less or taking time off means they could disappoint you.

Be clear in your employee communications and handbooks how you expect your team to look after their physical and mental health. Encourage them to take their allocation of holidays, encourage self-care, and encourage work-life balance. Crucially though, you have to demonstrate this yourself. If you tell them they can take time to look after themselves when necessary, but they see you working every hour available and burning yourself out, they are going to believe your actions, not your words. Demonstrate self-care and sensible working practices, and you will encourage that in others.

We hear a lot about healthy work-life balance. The important thing is to work out what balance means to you. Not everybody needs a balance of activities every day, we all have different rhythms. Personally I tend to work flat out on my business, the housework, and parenting, and then collapse and do nothing for a full weekend when the children are with their Dad. Other people will prefer to carve out a little time for themselves every day.

It is also important to consider what you are actually trying to balance. Is watching TV genuinely downtime for you or does it leave you feeling flat? What activities actually fill your cup and make you feel replenished? How often are you scheduling these in? 

Finally, be realistic. List out everything that requires your focus: work, children, partner, other family responsibilities, household management, hobbies, self-care, your personal circumstances. Then build a routine that is honest about your capacity. It is no good having a beautifully crafted work routine if it takes no account of the realities of the rest of your life. Far better to be realistic and build in time for everything that is important to you.

My best tip for overcoming the overwhelm at work? Excessive kindness. That is really what it boils down to. The difference it makes when we stop being unpleasant to ourselves and start being excessively kind to ourselves is immense. What does this mean in practical terms? Attending to our basic needs – not allowing ourselves to go hungry or thirsty or miss a toilet break. Wearing clothes that make us feel comfortable and safe. Taking breaks to get fresh air and stretch our bodies. Positive, kind self-talk, always. No more constantly berating ourselves inside our own heads. Planning time off. Taking time off. Giving ourselves what we need, when we need it, instead of imagining we have to work ourselves into exhaustion. Asking for help. Taking care of ourselves when we have to push out of our comfort zone and do something scary and new. 

I could go on and on. Essentially though just be kind to yourself. You are the only person you will spend every single second of your life with, so it will be a long ol’ life if you are mean to yourself all the time!
For more in-depth discussion of my tips for overcoming the overwhelm, check out my videos available to buy on my website here.

If you want to better improve your headspace the answer is to Stop. Which is much harder to do than it sounds. When we have loads to do or are worrying about things, the adrenaline starts flowing and we get this feeling that it is dangerous to slow down. We have to catch that feeling, and literally take a breath. Physically calm down to stop the adrenaline from flowing, and then press the reset button by taking ourselves for a walk, having a nap or doing something else. 

Those times when we feel we can’t possibly get it all done and we’re totally overwhelmed – those are the times we actually need to stop and move away. Spending an hour clearing our heads with a walk, some exercise or something else that works for us will lead to the next two hours being so much clearer and more productive. Instead of spending the full three hours being “busy” and achieving very little.

Sometimes though we cannot untangle our thoughts for ourselves. Those are the times we need to talk to somebody else to get clear on what is happening for us, and where the blockages are. For anyone who would like an hour to clear their head, I offer one-off Headspace coaching sessions for £75.

If you would like to work with me 1-2-1 to find ways to be a kinder, more compassionate boss to yourself then book in a call and we can chat through my coaching package options.

Helen Calvert
Coach and Director of Clear Day
May 2021