A Business Family Stress Test - Part One

Stressed by stress

By Tom Hubler

Key Takeaways:

  • Workplace stress in family businesses can be even worse than what occurs in the corporate world.
  • What many might consider “normal” day-to-day business family issues can produce stress that goes unmanaged if unacknowledged.
  • How many of the stress triggers and burnout signs are you and your best clients feeling (see our checklists below)?

If you’re worried about stress, STOP. That only makes it worse. Stress causes deterioration in everything from your heart to your arteries to your gums to your immune system. Good stress is as draining as bad stress. Stress kills brain cells. Failing to manage stress can kill you.

Take a look at this list of common stress triggers. How many would you check off about yourself or your best clients?

  • I’m impatient with details.
  • I make things happen.
  • I think most people seem to work too slowly.
  • I work long hours.
  • I often have tight deadlines.
  • I need to talk in front of colleagues.
  • I have a lot of responsibility.
  • I work based on efficiency and vision.
  • I’m hard on myself when I make a mistake.
  • I’ve been told I “have a lot of energy.”
  • I’ve overcome many hardships.

If you mentally checked several, you could have high workplace stress. You may also be unconsciously offsetting it by pushing yourself harder to succeed. You may even be a “stress junkie” who needs stress to feel alive.

According to WebMD, work-related stress tops the list of anxiety triggers even more so than life stresses such as death of a loved one, divorce, marriage, moving or other traumatic events. The American Institute of Stress (yes, there’s an entire organization devoted to stress) agrees. It reports that job pressure is the greatest stressor. More than three in four Americans (77%) regularly experience physical symptoms, and 73 percent regularly experience psychological symptoms that are caused by stress.

When you have a family business, work and life stresses can have a profound impact on each other. In my practice, I help business families learn to balance business and family obligations by keeping certain things separate, by learning to communicate authentically and by setting goals together. Even in difficult situations, business families have drawn new boundaries and have overcome rough circumstances not just to survive hard times, but also to thrive as both a business and as a family. Surveys and research estimate workplace stress costs American businesses between $50 billion and $150 billion annually in worker health issues and lost productivity. Thus, stress carries high financial, physical and psychological costs that can be doubly punishing in a business family.

What many might consider “normal” day-to-day business family issues can produce stress that goes unmanaged if unacknowledged. Two examples illustrate this. I’ve changed client names and details to protect their privacy.

Case No. 1: Miscommunication and “letting go”

Larry is the patriarch of the Mattison family business, Sento. He doesn’t realize he’s the cause of a problem. He recruited his son-in-law, Tim, into the family business, telling him, “I would like you to take over my job.” Tim left his successful position with a Fortune 500 company thinking he would be the next president of Sento. Years went by, but Tim still wasn’t promoted to the top spot. Larry defended the decision by saying, “All I meant was that I wanted Tim to take responsibility for my sales accounts.” In the meantime, Jen (Larry’s daughter and Tim’s wife) is upset with her father about the confusion he created and how he mistreated Tim.

In addition, Larry is struggling to let go of power, to create a management succession plan, and to develop a financial exit strategy for him and his wife. This has raised Larry’s stress level, adding to the negative impact he’s had on family relations. Some would call these situations simply misunderstandings or issues that should be readily resolved. Maybe so. But in the meantime, everyone in the Mattison family is suffering under the stress.

Case No. 2: Stocks don’t “bond”

To save taxes, John, the owner of the Stevens family business, was told by his financial advisor to transfer 2,000 shares of stock into a family limited partnership with his three adult children: Ron, the oldest; Jerry, in the middle; and Philip, the youngest. The idea was that the three sons would eventually receive the value of the company in stock. John is general partner and holds voting control of the company, while the sons are limited partners in the venture. John found the stock transfer experience enormously stressful. Then things got worse.

Jerry and Philip work in the business; Ron has his own career. Jerry is the company’s general manager. He recently fired Philip (his younger brother). Jerry had different expectations of Philip’s role in the company. Philip thought he and his oldest brother, Ron, were equals as limited partners and also as brothers. Philip had helped the company succeed until he was fired, and he resented his older brothers and father. He felt they ignored him and treated him unfairly.

Philip also questioned Jerry’s lifestyle and the compensation he received from the business. Philip also felt that Ron was abusing his position as a family member to run personal items through the accounting department. All these actions contributed to a breakdown in communication and piled massive stress on the family.

Stress produces deep divides. Stress can come from inside as well as outside. Our attitudes or perceptions may produce a stressful view of the world. You may have unrealistic expectations or live with fear, uncertainty, perfectionism, low self-esteem. We each react differently to different stresses. But few people can lower their stress unless and until they recognize their own triggers.

Look at this brief list developed by Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic. Are you experiencing any or many of these?

  • Are you cynical, critical or sarcastic?
  • Do you find it hard to feel joy?
  • Have you become irritable or less patient?
  • Do you feel you’re facing insurmountable barriers?
  • Are you feeling unsatisfied by what you achieve?
  • Is it hard to laugh at yourself?

These are all symptoms of stress and burnout. And by now, this article itself might be stressing you out.


You may be ready to define stressors and fix them. That’s the purpose of Part 2 of this article, coming next week. I will share a practical approach to managing stress in a family business, to enhancing communication and to bringing family members closer together. No small tasks.

About the Author

Tom Hubler (tomh@thehublergroup.com) is president of Hubler for Business Families (hublerfamilybusiness.com) and an adjunct professor at the University of St. Thomas. He can be contacted at (612) 375-0640.