Being in flow: embracing ‘good’ stress to enable our best work
December 11, 2023

Being in flow: embracing ‘good’ stress to enable our best work

Getting a business off the ground takes a lot of hard work. We expect long hours. We know it will be difficult to switch off. There's a long list of things that need to be done, and the ever-nagging feeling that if we don't do that one last thing, we are harming the business. Time and again, our clients share their startup stories: the excitement of new adventure mixed with the cold reality of uncertainty and hard graft.

But we also hear that as the business begins to grow and founders start to build a team around them, there is always that expectation that things will get a bit easier. Often, this is not the case. In fact, the risk of founder burnout during scaleup increases.

Over this series of three articles, we will explore why that is the case. And offer some hope for another way forward.


What is burnout?

Firstly, burnout is not a condition restricted to founders. It is an increasingly more common phenomenon of our modern world. Which is why, in 2019, the World Health Organisation included burnout in the International Classification of Diseases, defining it as:

“a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

Typically, this results in a feeling of being constantly tired, low energy levels, negativity about what we are doing day-to-day and reduced levels of effectiveness in our results.


How extensive is burnout?

Worldwide estimates vary, but here are some of the headlines around workplace stress and burnout:

·      In their 2020 Global Workforce Resilience Report, Qualtrics found that a staggering 79% of all respondents felt “at or beyond workload capacity.”

·      Indeed research found that over half (52%) of respondents felt burnt out, with two-thirds indicating that it had worsened due to recent global challenges.

·      Deloitte conducted an external research survey which found that 77% of those who responded said they had experienced employee burnout at their current job.

Undoubtedly, the global pandemic and subsequent economic challenges have compounded the seriousness of this issue. But we need to now reflect on how we deal with this issue as a reality. Feelings of stress and working long hours are two main factors that contribute significantly to burnout. Having used business psychology extensively in my work, it is no surprise that I would like tounpick these concepts from a psychological perspective.


Is all stress bad?

The simple answer to this question is no. The most common way we think of stress is as a negative experience that creates pressure. The word is rooted most commonly in the Latin word, strictus, which means “tight, compressed, drawn together.” But when we look to the Greek language, we see a differentiation between stress that is challenging but rewarding, eustress, and the negative experience of stress, distress.

Eustress gives us an opportunity to grow and learn. It may feel uncomfortable, but it is also manageable. We may feel some challenging emotions, such as frustration or worry during times of eustress, but this also leads to a sense of fulfilment, satisfaction or even happiness. When we feel this stress, it stimulates and stretches us to achieve greater results and improvements. Distress, by contrast, does not feel manageable. Often people report feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope with situations. The emotions felt here are greater anxiety, panic or even hopelessness. This is not a good place to be.

The Hungarian American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi drew on these concepts in his ground-breaking 1990 book, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.” Although he died in October 2021, his work on flow state continues to shape our learning on how to achieve greater levels of performance. He describes flow state as the state of mind when we are wholly absorbed in an activity. Have you ever had that experience of getting involved in doing a piece of work and completely losing track oftime altogether? I have. I’ve had days when I was designing a piece of work for a client or doing some writing when I suddenly realised I’d forgotten to eat lunch. This flow state is an enriching experience; it is intrinsically satisfying.

If you want to learn more, grab a coffee and check out Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Ted Talk here.


Achieving flow state

One of the critical factors he talks about is the balance between challenge and skill. The diagram below shows this essential balance and where the flow state sits. To be in this flow state, you must have good stress (eustress). The positive aspects of eustress stimulate us to strive to achieve something. The negative aspect of distress means the challenge, or our capability and skill, are not well balanced.

The diagram below helps to illustrate these differences.


We experience bad stress when the level of challenge we feel is greater than our skill level. This is a crucial element of building our skills in new areas. We need a degree of increased challenge to give us the stretch to learn new skills, but if that challenge is too great, instead of developing new skills, we can find that we are only feeling the distress of too much anxiety. Likewise, when we don’t feel stretched enough, we can feel bad stress from not having enough opportunity or stretch to keep us stimulated.


Being in flow and working long hours

It is true that when we are in flow, time can disappear. We can immerse ourselves in an activity and lose all sense of time. This is where real magic can happen. But is increasingly more difficult and challenging to achieve this in our ever-more fragmented and distracting world. Cal Newport discussed the need to manage these distractions and focus more in his book, Deep Work.

This state of flow is very different from working excessively long hours. The problematic aspect of long hours that leads to burnout is because it is causally related to our negative experience of stress. We aren’t working long hours because of our love for what we are doing. We are working long hours because of the increased pressure, panic and anxiety that things are not working as we need them to.


Feeling flow state or just plain stressed out?

So, what is your experience? What resonates with you from what we have talked about here? Do you believe that you manage to find your flow state within your work? Or are you working long hours, but feeling trapped and anxious?

Taking stock and getting a better understanding of your experience of growing your scaleup organisation can help you to identify things that you might need to change. With our clients, these areas often come up during our Founder Coaching Programmes and Founder Focus sessions. Within these discussions, we help founders begin to make the mindset shift from founder to leader and embrace a different way of being with their teams to help their scaleup growth.

Rarely do people want to embrace or accept they are feeling burnt out. But, are there early indications? Tuning into the early signs can help you turn things around before things get too serious. In our next article in this series, we will examine the early indicators of founder burnout so that you can take constructive steps to change.

Written by Barry McNeill | Founder and Managing Director of Work Extraordinary

Barry has over 25 years supporting leaders and teams to be more effective in driving business outcomes, such as growth, customer service and impact. He and his team have helped numerous founders, founding teams and growing organisations to develop new ways of working to achieve scaleup growth, enhanced culture, improved operational effectiveness and customer impact. You can connect with Barry through the social channels on this website.

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