Jane Marx, the founder of Melbourne-based events company Merchant Road, accepted long ago that stress is an unavoidable part of her working life.
When she was in her mid-twenties, she and her husband started Long Street, a social enterprise cafe in North Richmond that offered traineeships to young people seeking asylum. It was there she first felt the pressure of running your own business. “The business decisions you make have a huge impact not only on your own finances and wellbeing but that of others – your family and your employees,” she says. “That’s a responsibility I’ve always taken seriously.”
In 2017, Marx launched Merchant Road, an events business that does everything from weddings to corporate product launches. “Events are inherently stressful,” she says. “You’re creating something beautiful that is fleeting, often in an environment where there is no foundation for what you’re doing. You quite literally have to create it from the ground up. A lot of the work we do is ambitious and creative, and if you’re pushing boundaries and trying to create something memorable for guests – something genuinely different – it’s going to be stressful.”
But stress isn’t always a bad thing, she says. Managed well, it can be a motivating force that helps us achieve goals. “Our best work has been forged under periods of stress. Setting up a dinner for 60 people in a field in country Victoria where there is no furniture or electricity – definitely no kitchen, nothing but grass and trees – is not going to be a stress-free experience, no matter how well prepared you are.”
Good stress vs bad stress
There are two types of stress, Marx says: the stress that stretches you creatively and pushes you out of your comfort zone, and stress that has a negative impact on your life. “It might inhibit you from making the right decisions and doing your best work,” she says of the latter.
The trick is learning to differentiate between the two. “When it’s the former, I embrace it and remind myself that I love what I do, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to love it every moment I’m working. If it’s the latter – and if it’s the result of taking on too much work or not having the right team in place or not being well prepared – I assure myself it won’t happen again. That I’ll learn from what happened and make better decisions next time.”
The importance of rituals
Marx relies on daily rituals to help her manage stress. “I focus on things I know are going to keep me calm,” she says. Breakfast with her four-year-old daughter Yolandi is one such ritual. “I like that I know no matter what time I’ve gone to sleep – and sometimes it’s really late – when I wake up in the morning, she’s going to be there waiting for me, and we’re going to have porridge together and chat.”
Marx recently adopted a new ritual: to make time to read a book first thing. “As soon as I open my eyes in the morning, I start thinking. That isn’t always the best way to start the day,” she says. Now, she sets the alarm to get up before her daughter, makes a coffee and reads for 20 minutes. “It has been so helpful in moving my mind to a positive place,” says Marx. “It’s completely changed how I process information and approach just about everything in the first half of the day.”
Her one rule is that it has to be fiction. “It has to be far removed from my everyday reality to take me to a different place before I immerse myself in work,” she says. “If you start your day with fiction, everything takes on a surreal quality for the first two hours.”
Stress in the time of Covid-19
Marx’s proactive approach to stress management has helped her cope with the temporary shutdown of her business due to the Covid-19 restrictions. “We were coming into a season where we were booked every weekend,” she says. “We’d also just taken on a new large venue in Fitzroy. Within one week it was pretty much all gone – most of our clients cancelled. And then when the restrictions came in, we had to contact those who hadn’t to let them know we couldn’t go ahead.”
Marx quickly realised that pivoting wasn’t an option. “The core of the business is dependent on large groups of people gathering,” she says. Instead, she focused on what she could control: the post-pandemic recovery, maintaining staff morale and her own wellbeing. Despite the setbacks, she describes this strange period as “a productive time”.
Marx, who describes herself as a “hard-wired optimist” and who is expecting her second baby in July, is predisposed to look on the bright side of life even in the face of calamity. “There have definitely been times when things have not gone to plan, and I’ve probably had every reason to be stressed,” she says. “I try to maintain perspective and strip it back to the bare minimum: my family’s healthy, everyone’s safe, I’m fortunate.”
Her work with young women from refugee backgrounds has been invaluable to this process. “[These women] experience significant challenges to entering the workforce and doing things a lot of people in Australia take for granted,” she says. “Working with them and being inspired by their resilience…helps me stay positive with my own challenges.”
To learn how mindfulness can help you manage stress when it comes to running your business, try the Small Business Program in the Smiling Mind app here.
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with MYOB and Smiling Mind, together bringing you the Small Business Program. With mindfulness meditations for navigating stress, building resilience and finding balance, the program is designed to help business owners thrive. So let’s make mental health everyone’s business. Try the free Small Business Program under the “At Work” section in the Smiling Mind app today.