Why we need to talk more about stress in start-ups and consultancy

Why we need to talk more about stress in start-ups and consultancy

Movemeon: jobs, insight, events and career tips for (ex-)consultants and freelancers. Click here to create a free account and access all our opportunities.


Stress and performance go hand in hand. A little stress helps ensure we’re being productive. But, when stress levels are too high for too long, we struggle to prioritise, we lose the big picture and we start to underperform.

Why we need to talk more about stress in consulting and start-ups

It’s about time we talked more about stress.

Stress and performance go hand in hand. A little stress helps ensure we’re being productive. But, when stress levels are too high for too long, we struggle to prioritise, we lose the big picture and we start to underperform.

The cause of stress is normally pretty obvious. What’s harder to identify is what to do about it. We, therefore, need to get better at talking about stress – both what helps us, and being honest when we feel stuck – particularly those of us in high pressured roles like consulting and start-ups.

So, I wanted to share some coaching I’ve been doing with The People Project – they support people to feel and perform at their best.

Stress in consulting

When I was a consultant on a project, my time was being sold. I had little control over where I was working, I had to prove my worth on client site, strive to constantly improve, learn everything on the job, and work with some ‘big’ personalities. On top of that, I was making the most of living in London: its bars; its culture; its opportunities for fun.

I wasn’t alone. Many of the consultants I worked with, went through periods of high stress, where the weekends blurred with the weekdays and the need for a recovery holiday grew exponentially. We’ve highlighted some ways to help you wrestle your life back when in consulting.

Stress in start-ups

In start-ups, a lot is made of a nicer office environment (Friday afternoon beers and ‘strategizing’ over a ping pong table), working fewer hours, and ideally having less stress. Instead, I found a different type of stress.

When we launched Movemeon we were disrupting a market, going against the status quo. Like all founders, we were also under-resourced, under-qualified, and trying to earn enough money to pay our rent. Now we’re responsible for growing a business so our team can pay their rents, and we have to make big decisions.

So whilst I’m working fewer hours (and might have the odd ‘office beer’), the stress is as ever-present as in consulting.

Firstbeat Lifestyle Assessment – seeing the data

Like any ex-consultant, I love data (you can take the consultant out of consultancy…!).

When I started working with The People Project, they suggested that I try a Firstbeat lifestyle assessment. This involves wearing a medical grade heartbeat monitor for 72 hours, the results of which are then converted into a data-rich report.

Firstbeat originally devised their technology to support elite athletes unlock their optimum performance, and unlike most wearables, Firstbeat measures heart rate variability (HRV), rather than just heart rate. HRV data shows how effectively the body switches between stress and recovery. The basic premise is that stress is fine – indeed it’s desirable – as long as you have enough high-quality recovery to create balance.  

What I discovered

The People Project suggested that I tried to live ‘as normal’ during the 72 hours I was wearing the monitor. As I was intrigued to see what really relaxed me, during those three days I ensured I did all the things I think help me to recover from stress: exercise; reading; dinner with friends; going to the gym; going to the park.

I’ve talked about my biggest learnings and shown snapshots of my Firstbeat report below. The green shows recovery, red shows stress, and blue shows physical activity.

For me, sleep is my secret weapon

Unsurprisingly, my working day is stressful. When I’m at work, there aren’t many recovery periods. Which makes weekday sleep even more important.

I’ve noticed the effect of not getting a great night’s sleep the next day (especially since entering my 30s!), and the report shows why. Sleep is my best recovery period – I’m lucky that I’ve always been a good sleeper! – so if I do anything to compromise this, I really notice it.

Building in activities I enjoy – running and reading



I’ve started running every day at lunch. (We’ve written an article related to juggling work & exercise) Whilst it’s partly because my motivation for the gym decreases the longer the day goes on, it’s also because I enjoy it. It’s 45 uninterrupted minutes I can look forward to getting outside, and running along the Thames.

I’ve also started reading before I sleep each evening, which seems to help me get into better quality sleep more quickly.

Alcohol affects my sleep. A lot!

Whilst not overly surprising, I was amazed to see just how much a couple too many drinks on a Friday evening affected my sleep. As explained in the first section – sleep is key to my recovery. However, if you compare charts one and two, you’ll notice how I got absolutely no recovery time during my second night’s sleep. The difference? A few drinks, ironically, to relax on a Friday night…

Scrolling through my iPhone is a stressor

It was interesting to see that the 15 minutes of my highest stress reaction occurred as I half-watched TV, and half looked through Facebook on my phone. There have been numerous studies on the potential negative impact of social media and how our use of phones means we’re ‘always on’, so it was fascinating to see the evidence of how my own Facebook and phone use spiked my stress levels.

So, what’s changed?

In short – a lot. I’m far more conscious of balancing stressful times with periods of recovery (both within the working day and after it). I make sure that I have a bit of time out the office every day to recover, and I try to consciously model this for my team.

I’ve also tried to avoid more than a drink or two with dinner on a work night. And I’m glad to report that the changes to my routine around lunchtime running and reading before sleeping are still in place 6 months later.

Even better, I’m seeing the positive impact on my performance at work. I’m feeling calmer and more focused, and also more able to “switch off” outside of work. I still have plenty of stress, but it’s generally a short, rush of energy and adrenaline which I can then recover from later in the day.

Talking more about stress

If you’ve found any of the above interesting – or you want to try Firstbeat – I’d definitely recommend getting in touch with The People Project. Just click here to contact them directly.

If you liked this article, take a look at some of our other content related to stress and work-life balance


Follow us on Linkedin