Don’t suffer in silence

Focus Group Joint MD and Comms Dealer’s Entrepreneur of the Year Chris Goodman, in his own words, shares insights into his battles with anxiety, the scars they leave, and how such life experiences can be a ‘blessing’ in disguise.

Owning and running a business is a privilege that few get the opportunity to experience, but for those who brave the choppy waters of entrepreneurship there are a host of unforeseen challenges, some of which lurk deep inside the recesses of their psyche. Most challenges are familiar – cashflow, HR, recruitment, regulation, competition, sales targets, customer service and many more. But it’s ok – when you get home you can switch off, right? For a business owner, particularly in our sector, these issues are ever present. Customers need service 24/7 and you are ultimately the last stop on the escalation path. The competition, industry and technology, don’t stand still, so neither can you.

All too often people find themselves isolated, unable to share the burden and staring at what seems like an insurmountable set of challenges. This can be an incredibly lonely place. Doubt creeps in and often people can become overwhelmed by the sense of responsibility, both to their staff and family, and a terrifying fear of failure.

Turning to my story: In 2005, a year after leaving a well paid job to set up Focus Group, I began suffering from panic attacks. They were innocuous at first, but quickly began to impact my daily routine. Traffic jams, flights, presentations, sitting in the middle of a row in the theatre – all saw me experience full-blown panic attacks which were terrifying.

I now see my experiences as something of a blessing

Within weeks I was in pieces, stuck at home, too nervous to leave the house. I sought help and was prescribed medication (SSRIs) to combat what was termed General Anxiety Disorder. Slowly I rejoined the rat race, but my confidence was impacted and there was always a nagging doubt about whether it would come back.

In 2012 it did – with a vengeance! By this point Focus had circa 80 staff and annual revenues of over £15 million. My wife was expecting our second child and life was good. But I should have seen the signs – occasional breathlessness, unusual sleeping patterns, tension headaches. Then out of nowhere I crashed into dreadful anxiety. What on earth did I have to worry about? I had a wonderful wife, a beautiful four-year-old daughter, friends and family nearby, a lovely house and a thriving business. It totally knocked me sideways.

I briefly engaged in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), had a few sessions with a counsellor and was once again given medication by my doctor. While I didn’t take much time off work, it took about six months before I felt back to my old self. Now the business has over 300 staff, revenues over £80 million and we have concluded a PE deal with Bowmark Capital. Life is good, so I must be in the clear. Unfortunately not. When you suffer from any sort of poor mental health, whether an isolated short-term event or on an ongoing basis, it leaves behind a scar tissue that people cannot see.

You live with it to some degree for the rest of your life. You learn your own triggers, things that will make you feel unwell, nervous, fearful, and you learn to manage them. However, over the years I have learnt how to combat a build-up of stress through mindfulness, breathing techniques, exercise or just snuggling up with my wife and kids on the sofa.

At the time in both 2005 and 2012 I would not have said this, but I now see my experiences as something of a blessing. I now really appreciate good mental health and understand all too well that we all sit somewhere on its continuum. I tell my story for good reason. It was hearing other people’s stories during my worst moments that enabled me to see that there was a path back to feeling ‘normal’ again. I am now lucky enough to be able to support others who are suffering, both my staff, my family and others within the industry who have reached out to me.

At work we have introduced Wellbeing Champions. A team of 12 who have had mental health first aid training and who, where needed, can support staff by listening and signposting. We are also providing all managers and team leaders with training so that they can better support members of their teams who might be suffering in silence. Especially now that the world has been thrown into crisis, caused by Covid-19, which has sent us into forced isolation.

These are challenging times and I hope that friends and colleagues across the sector are safe and well, and that the pressures of running your businesses in this climate are not bearing down on you too much. Poor mental health is not suffered exclusively by the less well off or the weak, it can strike down the most successful and wealthy, without warning. Don’t suffer in silence – you are not alone.

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