Jeff Riseley tried to ignore the anxiety and stress at first. Then came insomnia and panic attacks. It was 10 years ago, and Riseley had just started working in his first sales job as an SDR. By all accounts it was a standard sales role with a $200 weekly quota and two-hour talk time KPI, and Riseley excelled at it. He consistently ranked as a top performer during his first several months with the company.
Behind the scenes, however, the grind had started to take its toll. No one ever said it outright, but he knew that if he ever stopped hitting his numbers, he might be fired. Soon, every failed deal began to manifest itself at night in the form of “What ifs.” What if he didn’t hit his target because that deal fell through? What if he were fired? What if he couldn’t pay rent?
And on he spiraled.
“It became clear that anxiety in sales is not optional.”
In the office, he kept the stress to himself, even as his sleep suffered and the panic attacks became more frequent. He had numbers to hit, after all. It wasn’t until his third panic attack sent him to the hospital that he realized he needed to do something about his mental health.
“There’s so much that I love about sales,” Riseley said. “I love the rush when you close a big deal and all the learning and growth that goes into it. But my mind and my body just wasn’t able to sustain the stress and the pressure that I was under every day.”
Today, he runs Sales Health Alliance, a consulting group that helps sales teams address mental-health concerns in the workplace. It’s a problem Riseley believes more sales leaders should be talking about.
In a Sales Health Alliance survey of 300 sales professionals, Riseley found that two in five reported that they struggled with mental health, which is double the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s reported rate for the general workforce.
Depression and anxiety affects productivity, reducing cognitive performance 35 percent of the time. Using data from Deloitte and a BBC report, Riseley calculated that mental health can cost a sales team of 10 $24,690 a year.
“It became clear that anxiety in sales is not optional,” Riseley said. “When sales teams and salespeople start to come anxious, depressed, burnt out or affected by any other mental-health struggles that they might face, their sales performance suffers.”
Riseley aims to give sales teams the tools needed to talk about — and manage — stress.
Understanding Mental Health in Sales
Riseley learned early in his sales career that success can be a double-edged sword.
During his first week on the job, he reached out to a customer who happened to be ready to purchase the product without much convincing. He closed the deal and soon earned a reputation on the team as a hotshot sales rep.
Then closing deals got harder, and his self-esteem suffered.
“It really hits your identity pretty deeply,” Riseley said. “When you’re like: ‘I’m a failure, I’m no good at this. I just got lucky.’ It really takes a toll.”
“When you’re like: ‘I’m a failure, I’m no good at this. I just got lucky.’ It really takes a toll.”
Few work experiences can compare to the dopamine rush of closing your first deal. But when the “Nos” become more frequent and the deals stop coming through, the absence of that rush can make things feel even more difficult.
This all gets compounded by the high-stress environment reps work in. In the average sales organization, there’s little room for failure. For a sales rep, hitting your numbers is key for keeping your job. Meanwhile, perseverance and competitiveness are held up as the gold standard in sales behavior. Thus, even talking about mental health in the office can be seen as a sign of weakness, Riseley said.
“Talking about mental health, especially back then in sales, was super taboo,” Riseley said. “You wouldn’t want to give the organization a reason to let you go or show weakness because your career is so closely tied to that individual performance.”
Sales is a profession of extreme emotional swings. One moment, a rep can be striking a gong and celebrating a deal with their teammates, but when a deal falls through, the response is often shame, embarrassment or anxiety, Riseley said.
Sales teams commonly drink together to celebrate and cope with stress, but, over time, those can turn into unhealthy coping mechanisms. Thankfully, there are steps sales leaders can take to create a healthier environment.
How Managers Can Help
Lead With Vulnerability to Create a Safe Environment
Sales consultant Richard Harris started writing about his own struggles with depression and anxiety two years ago.
For most of his career in sales, admitting that you were struggling with those issues was considered a sign of weakness. While he had learned to manage it through therapy and medication, he didn’t write about it. However, after seeing a post from a friend of his in sales who also discussed her issues with anxiety and depression for the sales mental-health blog UNCrushed, he became inspired to share his own story.
“As a sales leader, you have to be vulnerable.”
Since then, Harris has continued to write about mental health in sales as a way to let reps know that they aren’t alone in their struggles. But if sales is ever going to make a change for the better, it’s going to have to start with sales leaders changing the stigma around mental health, said Harris, who works closely with sales leaders across the tech industry at The Harris Consulting Group.
In order to create a healthier environment, Harris suggests sales leaders start by being vulnerable themselves. That means taking the time to recognize when an employee is struggling and opening up about your own story of failure or struggle. Some signals that a rep is having a difficult time could include: fake dials, less enthusiasm, frequent mistakes and lower productivity, according to Riseley.
“As a sales leader, you have to be vulnerable,” Harris said. “You might kick off a Monday meeting and say: ‘I’m going to tell you about something that happened to me that really bummed me out. It sucked ... and I just want you to know that I get that life happens.’ Leave it on the table. You can’t lead on vulnerable topics if you aren’t vulnerable first.”
Harris recognizes that this may not be natural for some managers, who were promoted for their work as individual contributors. Reading and researching articles on mental health and mental wellness strategies can help to bridge that gap, he said. It can also serve as useful content to share with the team and spark conversations.
Use 1:1s as a Personal Check-In
It’s also important to create a safe space to talk about personal issues during 1:1s. It should be treated less like a pipeline review and more like a personal check-in, Harris said.
If the rep has kids, take the time to ask about them. Ask about what they’re trying to achieve outside of the office and offer to assist them in that goal. Sometimes it can be as simple as giving them a Friday afternoon off so they can run an errand or spend time with their family.
Life and career development are intertwined — especially now, as people work from home. Stress at home can bleed into work and vice versa, so taking the time to discuss these issues can go a long way toward helping a person find balance in their life, Harris said.
Build Balance Into the Workday
Managers can also help employees find balance in their workdays. They need to signal to reps that it’s OK to take time for themselves. They can do this through a meditation session or encouraging reps to put dead time on their calendar.
“It’s like we’re always trying to sprint a marathon in sales, which is a recipe for disaster.”
Harris has encouraged reps to get weighted blankets, buy adult coloring books or even to play Tetris to relax the brain. He also schedules blocks of time out for himself on his calendar to lead by example.
“I encourage leaders to teach their team to build in dead time,” Harris said. “There’s no reason you can’t have from 12 to 12:45 p.m. off on your calendar. It’s up to you to take that time, but now you’re in control of your calendar instead of someone else.”
Finally, sales leaders should treat reps more like corporate athletes instead of numbers on a dashboard, Riseley said. Salespeople experience a lot of mental stress. They need training to manage that stress in the form of healthy exercises, and they also need time to rest, the same way an athlete does.
If a rep isn’t hitting their numbers after a stressful period, it can be helpful to give them half the day off to rest.
“It’s like we’re always trying to sprint a marathon in sales, which is a recipe for disaster,” Riseley said. “There’s no rest or recovery built into the environment, which is absolutely critical to allowing the body and the mind to rest and reset.”
Salespeople Can Help Themselves Too
After Riseley’s third panic attack, he spent the following years studying everything he could about how the brain responds to stress.
He learned that his coping mechanisms — video games, drinking and staying up late — only served as temporary escapes. He identified his triggers and identified his physical responses to stress — like feeling a pang in his upper stomach.
Understanding how emotions work allowed him to figure out how to navigate sales’ stressful environment in a healthy way. The key is to treat mental-health practices like a multivitamin rather than a medicine, he said.
“I’m optimistic that it has to change, or else we’re gonna have a much bigger problem than we ever thought we would.”
In order to mentally prepare for the day, Riseley has a startup routine that includes time for reading, a workout, a cold shower and wim hof breathing. At the end of the day, he’ll reflect on his progress, journal, make a plan and meditate.
Each person’s method may be different. It comes down to taking the time to develop more emotional awareness and then doing activities that help to manage that stress every day, Riseley said.
Ultimately, Riseley believes sales is approaching a tipping point. As technological advancements lead to higher targets and more expectations, mental health in the workforce will only become a bigger issue. His hope is that sales teams are finally ready to do something about it.
“I’m optimistic that it has to change, or else we’re gonna have a much bigger problem than we ever thought we would,” Riseley said.