It’s estimated that stress-related illnesses lose American businesses $200-300 billion a year;1 in the UK, one in five workers experience medium to high levels of work-related stress several times a week;2 and in 2015 alone, 189 people in Japan died from ‘karoshi’, or ‘death from over work.’3 Clearly stress in the workplace is a serious problem all over the world, both for workers and for the organisations they work for.
Research (which may not surprise anyone that’s ever worked in sales) has found that sales teams are the most stressed people in an office, with 79% having suffered with work-related stress. The same survey also found the most common causes of stress at work are long working hours, concerns about their own or their colleagues’ performance and customer satisfaction levels, all of which are key features of working in a sales team.4
We often talk about stress in general terms, like when we tell people “I have so much on and I’m feeling really stressed about it.” But what actually is it?
When we feel under pressure, threatened or anxious, our bodies trigger the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism, releasing the hormones cortisol and adrenaline into the brain and draining it of oxygen and glucose. This impairs the brain’s ability to think, remember things, be creative, solve problems or take in new information, which we can recognise as the feeling of being stressed.
Stress is often triggered by high-pressure situations where we feel a loss of control. For members of a sales team, this can include an unlucky couple of weeks, clients being away or unreachable KPIs set by your manager. You can greatly relieve your stress by finding a way to feel you’re back in control.
The World Health Organisation defines ‘Health’ as ‘not merely the absence of disease or infirmity but a positive state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing.’ This means that it’s not good enough for a workplace to simply make sure employees stay physically healthy, they should also actively look after their employees’ mental health and wellbeing.
Interestingly, stress is contagious. Studies have observed that people release cortisol even when they see someone else getting stressed.5 Now consider a sales team sitting together: if one person has a stressful few days, how is it going to affect their colleagues? You need to learn to remain mindful and in control of your own emotions and be ready to support others when you observe stress symptoms in them.
Therefore, as part of Happy Workplace: A Holistic Approach to Achieving Mental Wellbeing – our campaign to highlight and improve mental health and wellbeing within the workplace – we’re going to explore the stress of working in a high-pressure sales team, and our top 5 ways to cope.
1. Have a plan that works for you
The stress of a hectic few days at the end of a month can be minimised by having a plan and a routine you stick to. This will be different for everyone, so you need to find what works best for you. Ultimately, sales revolves around clients, from whether or not they answer the phone to finding times to meet them, they’re most often in the driving seat, which means unless you have some kind of routine and sense of your day, week and month, it’s easy to lose track of where you are and where you need to get to.
It also helps to look ahead to keep a sense of the bigger picture. When you’re struggling to get in touch with Client A, don’t forget your meetings with Clients B and C later in the month or year. This way you know that even if this month is a bit shaky, you don’t need to get too stressed because you already have more things lined up for the future.
2. Trust in your abilities
Some clients will cause you more stress than others. If you’ve mostly been talking to smaller clients and then suddenly you’re in talks with a huge international company, this can create more pressure to close the sale and therefore more stress. After all, the bigger the potential reward, the bigger the potential failure – and no one wants to fail.
In reality, it shouldn’t matter who they are. As a salesperson, you should be able to talk about your products or services in an articulate, persuasive and convincing way to anyone. The size of the client you’re talking to doesn’t change your abilities. The processes are still the same.
3. Don’t dwell on failures
Sometimes you make the sale and sometimes you don’t. After experiencing a failure, spend some time seeing what went wrong and what you can learn for next time, but you shouldn’t let it weigh you down.
Don’t forget to take joy from even the smallest victories: when you’ve finally managed to confirm a meeting with a client who's never free or when you gave a brilliant pitch, even if it was ultimately unsuccessful. Feel proud of all of your achievements and hard work. It also helps to recall previous successes, so even if you’re not doing so brilliantly right now, you know that you were successful before and you know you can be again.
Practicing mindfulness techniques can help with this. Be in the present rather than having a mind of non-stop thinking about things that have gone wrong or worrying about the future. Give yourself the freedom to understand and accept your feelings. Don’t feel ashamed or closed off from your negative emotions, but after recognising and labelling your feelings, you should let it go and move on to the next task.
Neuroscientists have found that the brain can rewire itself based on a person’s experiences. Much like how going to the gym and regularly lifting weights strengthens your muscles, repeated thoughts or emotions actually strengthens certain neural pathways. In simple terms, if you keep focusing on self-doubt, worries and stresses, your brain will strengthen the areas that think about these things, making it easier to return to these negative emotions. Alternatively, if you regularly and deliberately focus on feelings of gratitude, self-belief or relaxation, then the brain will strengthen the neural pathways that lead to these emotions.6
4. Learn when to switch off
Sales roles are very rarely confined to traditional 9-5 hours. There are many late calls, early meetings and business trips to go on. If you’re working with international clients, your working hours may be focused on their time zones more than your own. Make sure you give yourself time to switch off and relax. Our always-on and always-connected modern society is an amazing tool for productivity but isn’t conducive for resting and attending to your mental wellbeing.
Don’t neglect your family and friends, these are an important resource and can help stop you burning out. Try setting specific and regular times when you’re not going to work. This could be one particular evening each week or promising that you won’t answer your phone during dinner.
You might feel that it’s important to always work hard and reply immediately to emails, even in the middle of the night, but there’s a point when you aren’t going to achieve much more anyway. Studies have proven that productivity significantly slows down when people work more than 50 hours a week, and that working over 55 hours yields no additional results for the extra time.7 Work smarter not harder.
5. Have realistic expectations for cold calls
Cold calling might be the most stressful task a salesperson has to do. When I asked a group of salespeople how cold calling made them feel, they all immediately told me how they research the prospect or warm up the call. It’s clear they’ll do everything they can to avoid making a genuinely ‘cold’ call.
Sales is based on building relationships, consulting and offering solutions, which is difficult when you don’t know them and they don’t know you. However, results-based selling requires making these sorts of calls.
We’ve previously written a guide to cold calling to help you warm up the call, research the prospect and set realistic goals for each call. An additional step is ‘be ok when it goes wrong.’ Only 28% of people who receive cold calls engage in a conversation, and only 1% of cold calls ever convert into appointments,8 proving that it’s possible to be successful when cold calling, but it takes perseverance, experiencing a lot of ‘no’s in the process. By learning not to take these rejections personally, you can greatly reduce the stress of picking up the phone.
Sales is undoubtably a stressful job, but it can be rewarding as well. Organisations will always need people to sell their wares, and while we aren’t here to radically change the system, we do want to limit how stressed it makes you and, at the same time, help you sell more because you’re feeling more resourceful.
By remembering your identity isn’t based on your monthly sales figures, not taking rejections personally and not neglecting your life outside work, you can put your job into perspective and start reducing the stress involved in a sales job.
5 tips for ORGANISATIONS to help their salespeople be less stressed
1. Make sure the sales team know what’s coming up so they can plan ahead effectively
If there are any specific milestones, events or key dates that you want them to work towards, communicate this clearly as early as possible.
2. Give them good training
The best salespeople are constantly learning and improving their skills. Organisations that can support this through L&D opportunities will help their sales team to be at their best, and be less stressed about lacking particular abilities.
3. Managers should support their team through failures and mistakes
The fear of messing up can create a huge amount of stress. Knowing that your manager will back you up or help you if something goes wrong will create a more relaxed atmosphere, which is better for bringing out the best in people.
4. Respect their free time
Sales is a demanding job, both mentally and in time commitments. Some out of hours work might be expected, but consider whether that email is actually urgent enough to justify interrupting their time with their family. Most things can wait until tomorrow.
5. Set fair and realistic targets
Pushing your team too hard will cause them to burn out much faster. Expecting them to make an unreasonable amount of calls each week will create a huge amount of stress, rushed work and lower standards overall. Sometimes quality is more important than quantity.
For more information on this topic, have a look at our related courses:
Other useful resources:
1 Training Industry (2018) Managing end of year stress in the workplace
2 Perkbox (2018) The 2018 UK Workplace Survey
3 Business Insider (2019) Japan's toxic culture of overwork drove this 31-year-old woman to death - and it looks like there's no end in sight
4 Perkbox (2018) the 2018 UK Workplace Survey
5 Engert V., Plessow F., Miler R., Kirschbaum C., and Singer T. (2014) Cortisol increase in empathic stress is modulated by social closeness and observation modality.
6 Greater Good Magazine (2013) How to grow the good in your brain
7 Pencavel, J. (2014) The productivity of working hours
8 Hubspot (2019) 16 compelling statistics that prove cold calling is dead