Business owners are a special breed.
Whether you’re the owner of a body shop, restaurant or a hair salon, the business is often an extension of who you are. You are the business. Because of that, every aspect of the business can have a direct impact on your mood and your mental well-being, good and bad.
And over the last two years there has been plenty to worry about. COVID, parts and staff shortages ongoing headaches caused by insurers. That doesn’t even account for the daily struggles body shops and business owners worry about in “normal times.”
“This is definitely one of, if not the most, stressful times to be a shop owner,” says Aaron Kisiah, second-generation owner of Goodrich Auto Works in Bath, N.Y.
Coupled with the death of his father in 2018, who started the business in 1977 and was his “best friend,” Kisiah has felt his fair share of stress. But the love for the industry has kept him coming back.
“I can’t imagine doing anything different than what I do,” he says.
While Kisiah’s specific situation compounded on an already stressful time, plenty of shop owners have struggled over the last several years, but have continued to persist because of a deep passion for the industry.
So, how can you handle stress when it arrives? And what can you do proactively to nip it in the bud so the job remains a passion and not a burden? As you read tips from mental health professionals and hear the experiences of shop owners, reflect on your own relationship with the industry. Where is your stress level? And how can you improve on yourself, which will in turn help improve the business?
Identifying the Current Stressors
To help de-stress, you must first identify the causes of stress, says Waltraud Unger, who runs her own business as a health coach specifically for entrepreneurs, which she started after experiencing burnout of her own as a physicist.
In the collision repair industry, there are several main points of stress. Some have existed for many years and some have popped up, or grown substantially over the last several years, says Ross Smith, who has owned Kelly Paint and Body in Aiken, S.C., for 15 years.
Below are just a handful of stressors that Smith and Kisiah mentioned.
COVID-19. Businesses have had to grapple with changing protocols, standards and public perception over the past three years. From dealing with quarantining periods to deciding what protocols to follow in the shop, especially in the last year, have been a major point of stress.
Employee shortage, including an exasperated technician shortage. The technician shortage predates COVID but several years, but the Great Resignation has only put a bigger strain on staffing issues
Insurance carriers’ influence on the repair process. An issue for a long time, this has become more prominent as fewer adjusters are visiting in person and new technology, like artificial intelligence, is entering the industry
A general rising cost of doing business.
Parts shortage. Body shops are reporting parts delays of several months for certain items, pushing back repair times and creating angst between shop and customer
Advancing technology and vehicle designs.
Everyday, personal life stress.
When experiencing stress, Unger recommends laying out exactly what your biggest triggers are, just like this. Writing them down can be a powerful tool to seeing your situation in a clearer light and helps you systematically address each issue.
To Unger, there are two ways to approach stress, and she likens it to a war: You can either be prepared and trained for it, so when the first attack happens you are ready. Or, you can underestimate it (ignore it) and when the attack happens you end up on the defensive, which causes you to lose ground.
“It’s hard for business owners. Business is an extension of who we are. Admitting that we can’t handle it is synonymous with failure,” Unger says, adding that while recognition of mental health has improved, many business owners are still stuck in an old mindset of believing they aren’t allowed to be susceptible to it.
According to the 2021 FenderBender Industry Survey, 50 percent of shop owners work more than 50 hours per week, with 16 percent working more than 60.
How many hours per week do you work? (percentage of shop owners)
Less than 40 - 8%
40-49 - 42%
50-59 - 34%
60 or more - 16%
The survey also found shop owners take a smaller amount of vacation time than an average American employee. According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics study, the average worker with five years of experience at a company has 15 days of paid vacation per year.
The FenderBender Industry Survey shows a different reality.
How many vacation days do you take per year?
None - 10%
1-5 - 30%
6-10 - 22%
11-15 - 17%
16 or more - 21%
There are also several signs that shop owners should monitor in themselves and the rest of their teams to understand if the stress is overwhelming, Unger says. The first is neglecting physical and emotional health. If they stop exercising, start over-exercising or begin to isolate themselves from friends or family, that should raise a red flag. There is also one other telltale sign of stress, Unger says, such as when someone says,”you don’t understand,” and they begin to separate themselves.
“We’ve conditioned ourselves to work longer, harder and faster,” says Mike Monaghan, former shop owner and current owner of Auto-Motivate, a leadership and business coach for the automotive aftermarket. “That’s the thing that can really create stress, burnout and mental health damage. We’ve spent years confronting our problems and telling ourselves to ‘get over it.’”
Dealing with Stress Early
There are plenty of strategies Monaghan recommends to help deal with stress. The most important and impactful, he says, is to address it before it becomes an issue. Like Unger’s analogy to war, Monaghan sees preparation as the best way to handle any potential stress.
First and foremost that means starting your day right. Monaghan sees too many people, inside and out of the industry, not giving themselves enough time for the day ahead. Give yourself time to get your head right, especially if the day before was filled with stress, he says.
“If you had a bad day yesterday, there is every chance that you are still carrying those thoughts with you as you enter the next work day. Therefore you’re always on the back foot,” he says.
Even if it seems corny, Monaghan recommends telling yourself “today is going to be a great day.” It will help rev you up and create a necessary positive image in your mind. And it’s more than just self-talk. When thinking negative thoughts, the body naturally produces cortisol, a harmful chemical that leads to anxiety and depression, along with other health problems like heart disease and weight gain, Monaghan explains.
But if you use affirmations, and genuinely believe them, it will create chemicals like dopamine and serotonin, which will help boost mood and mental health.
Past that, there are several main ideas to help curb stress before it arrives.
Setting Yourself Up to Fail
Give yourself a daily plan. Set goals and targets that are both aggressive but attainable. It will force you to be ruthless with your time management and avoid distractions, a costly and common occurrence for business owners, Monaghan says.
On average, a worker gets interrupted every 11 minutes, and depending on the task it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to the same level of focus as before.
One or two distractions are manageable. But think of all the times you get interrupted during a day and how much time you could be losing.
Limiting these distractions can be difficult for shop owners, Monaghan says, as you want to be approachable and available to your team. But the more you can work undistracted, the more productive you’ll be. Don’t be afraid to plan out uninterrupted time, and don’t try to be everything for everybody.
Aaron Kisiah, owner of Goodrich Auto Works, also says clear procedures are a must. Having them in place will avoid unnecessary confusion and when the shop owner or any other employee is off, the employees know exactly what to do.
Kisiah adds that owners need to recognize their limits. His shop is located in a rural area, so does he want to take on a Tesla or BMW that comes in? His techs don’t know the vehicles well and it’s likely to cause more of a headache than it’s worth, so he’ll turn that vehicle away.
“Know your capabilities,” he says.
Clear Boundaries—a Must
Ross Smith grew up working in a 24/7 gas station before transitioning to a technician role at a dealership body shop. During both of those jobs, he never had much semblance of work/life balance. He was working early, late and often. So, he promised himself that if he ever owned his own business like he does now (Kelly Paint and Body in Aiken, S.C.) he’d only allow himself and his team to work five days per week.
That’s been a huge help in maintaining positive mental health, especially in the last three years. In July 2019, Smith was diagnosed with cancer. He underwent treatment for about six months, losing 40 pounds in the process. And at this point, he is cancer-free. During the treatment, Smith didn’t want to disappear from the shop, so he still went in when he was physically able, but he maintained the parameters of a five-day workweek.
Similarly, Kisiah has strict boundaries he keeps. He comes in early in the morning after taking his kids to school. He does this because he’s committed himself not to work late at night.
“I’m going to make every football game, every cheerleading practice. It defeats the purpose of doing all this if you miss all those things,” Kisiah says.
He also makes sure he takes 15-30 minutes every day to put work aside and eat lunch.
Family is Kisiah’s biggest stress reliever. For Smith, it’s F3, an organization that stands for fitness, fellowship and faith. He does workouts with his group three times a week, which he says helps keep him centered.
For both Smith and Kisiah, they found balance in working while going through their individual struggles with cancer. Since a majority of stress was coming from outside of the business, work then became a way to balance out their life. Throwing themselves into their businesses worked.
However, for those who are seeing their stress come mostly from the business, that’s the time to step back, the shop owners agree.
“I think any kind of business that you own consumes you. You really do have to balance,” Smith says. “You just can’t let the problems and the frustrations consume your life.”
Stepping back is extremely challenging for most shop owners, Monaghan says, and often gets a response of “that’s easy for you to say,” when it’s suggested. Again, this is where he recommends positive self-talk. It may not be possible overnight, but if you take the mindset of “slow, small and often,” with an attitude of reaching balance eventually, it will come.
Combat Stress Quickly
Solving stress before you feel it sounds great, but it’s not always possible. So, what can you do when you’re feeling it?
While the ideal scenario would be to put your work down and take a prolonged break of 30-60 minutes and go for a walk, that isn't possible for most. Sabrina Schottenhamel, who runs her own massage therapy business in Illinois along with being a professional speaker, recommends mini breaks of 1-5 minutes that you do every hour or so. It can be as simple as going to the bathroom, or going to check on the staff.
The act of getting up, moving your body and shifting focus helps to alleviate the tension. She recommends quick breathing exercises, which you can find anywhere on Google or YouTube. She also sees tremendous value in massages, but those would be a more scheduled practice.
If it’s possible to take a 15-minute break, Schottenhammel recommends stretching, guided meditation or a simple walk around the building.
Schottenhammel also says diet needs to be addressed. When stressed, make sure you’re giving your body nutrients, specifically macros, which are protein, carbohydrates and fats.
For Smith, exercise has been his biggest help, along with the camaraderie of his F3 group.
“For us who own these businesses, whether we like to admit it or not, we are high-strung. I don’t sit around well,” he says.
And if stress continues to mount, the next step is to visit your primary care doctor, Waltraud Unger, owner of her own business health coaching business, says. From there, you and your doctor can decide the next action, and it doesn’t need to be a therapist. Unger is a health coach, not a therapist. She helps clientele who know where they need to go, but they just “can’t seem to get the pieces together.”
By contrast, Monaghan is a business coach who works in all facets of the collision repair industry, not specific to mental health. But in certain instances he has helped owners with their mental health.
“Mental health can affect anyone at any time,” Monaghan says. “We’re getting better at talking about it. It’s a male-dominated industry, full of testosterone and egos and that’s the stuff that’s not allowed us to evolve as we should’ve done…it’s up to today’s business owners to think differently.”
It can even mean something as simple as discussing it with a peer or group of peers, like a 20 Group. Kisiah is part of Mike Anderson’s business council group. It’s always a place he has felt free to discuss issues and stressors. And pretty much everytime a shop owner brings up a struggle they are having, another owner has felt the same way.
If those options aren’t realistic, even talking with your staff can fill that role. Kisiah says he wouldn’t have been able to get through the loss of his father without his staff. They “carried the load” as Kisiah worked through owning the business without his father at his side.