Sales is now synonymous with crushing goals, hitting quotas, and conquering KPIs.
The notoriously stress-ridden “hustle” culture often defines the industry. This view has weighed on salespeople for decades. Record-breaking turnover rates and the fact that 3 out of 5 salespeople struggle with their mental health all point to a looming crisis.
Salespeople are stressed
Sammie Bennette, a senior SDR at Open Systems Technology, Inc., recalls “astronomical” quotas and hiring and firing as part of her first stint in sales. In software sales, talks can take up to a year to bear fruit, but companies that don’t see immediate results usually take to firing.
The stress of meeting insanely large quotas is all too common in sales. Ryan Zadrazil, the founder of Pause, says he suffered a manic episode early in his sales career and attributes one of the reasons to the nature of the job.
“Sales is a results-driven industry. But if you’re not in a mentally healthy state of mind, it’s going to be really hard to achieve those results,” he states on the high-pressure nature of the job.
Some people see sales as “the grind,” “the hustle,” and “overworking” as cool to reach your goals, Bennett adds. But this culture wreaks havoc on sales reps’ mental health.
At least 60% of salespeople surveyed by The Uncrushed, a mental health awareness organization, said that their performance was poor because of mental health issues. Everyday stress shouldn’t be taken lightly because, if left unchecked, it can snowball into a range of mental illnesses, from anxiety to imposter syndrome and depression.
To increase your sales reps’ productivity, stop selling the ‘grind’ and start prioritizing their happiness.
Long periods of stress can change your brain
Long periods of stress can lead to changes in your brain. Long-term stress affects the brain and can have a lasting impact on your behavior.
“Our nervous system isn’t designed for prolonged periods of stress,” says leadership coach and Tedx spokesperson Aman Zaidi.
How are people in sales stressed?
Before we find out how stress can affect your everyday life, let’s look at the stress that salespeople deal with. From daily rejections, unrealistic quotas, and rude reactions to fear of approaching strangers, sales reps face many stressors on a daily basis.
Daily rejections and rude responses are painful
Sales reps handle objections, negotiate, are ignored, and face rude replies from prospects daily while remaining empathetic. And when they cold call, it’s another deal.
They get hurt every day compared to, say, the person in marketing who tracks the blog CTR. Meanwhile, social media and the web are flooded with stories of salespeople who keep crushing it, killing it, and converting leads.
Unrealistic quotas are a heavy burden. Almost every role in sales comes with quotas – some unrealistic, some achievable. These quotas can overwhelm many sales reps as being directly responsible for a company’s revenues isn’t quite easy.
Salespeople’s output is easily measurable
Some sales reps get burned out, resulting in underperformance and frustration. Stress can accumulate and lead to prolonged periods of anxiety and stress or worsen existing mental health problems.
Being stressed for a long time without regular relaxation or rest means burnout is around the corner. This can even leave long-lasting changes in how your brain works.
How does stress affect you?
Prolonged periods of stress or chronic stress are bad for your brain. Chronic stress, as defined by Yale Medicine, is the persistent feeling of being pressured and overwhelmed for a long period.
Some indicators of chronic stress are lack of sleep, headaches, alcohol or drug abuse, and emotional withdrawal. Stress is associated with macroscopic changes in certain areas of the brain. These changes can affect your memory and cognitive abilities such as decision-making, learning, attention, and judgment.
Simply put, stress and its indicators severely affect your productivity.
“There is a direct correlation between the way you feel and how you perform. Imagine you’re going through a cold. While you’re going through a cold and fever, your productivity is zero.
As you’re recovering from it, the productivity will creep back to 50-60% before it goes back to what it was. So when you’re feeling under the weather, be it physically or mentally, it affects your performance.
So there’s a direct effect on your performance, your productivity, your customer service metrics, your collaboration.”
Why should you care about your salespeople’s mental health?
You should care about your salespeople’s mental health if you care about growing your business. It’s simple. Even the best employees require a day off or need someone to talk to.
As we’ve seen earlier, people who are battling mental health issues on their own cannot be productive, just as people battling a fever won’t be. Here’s why you need to care about your salespeople’s welfare.
Grow your business in the long term
Sales has a bad reputation for high turnover rates, largely because of the burnout culture. Leaders should take care of their salespeople’s mental health to build a sales team that grows, a culture where employees don’t churn, and a company that expands.
You need to create a culture that supports sales reps in every way – when they don’t meet quotas, when they do, and on the days they face disgruntled prospects. SDRs or AEs can take up to three-four months to ramp up, which, combined with the average sales cycle of three-four months, takes nearly a year for your new hire to be successful.
So the fire-and-hire culture won’t pan out in today’s customer-centric environment if your goal is to grow your business over the long term.
Support your sales managers
In high-stress sales cultures, managers wear the hat of “unqualified therapists” to help their sales reps or account managers.
Salespeople endure a battle every day, and if managers wait until they reach their burnout point to help, the conversation will eat up managers’ days, draining them mentally and physically. So if you want to stop putting even more stress on your managers, you should put the mental well-being of their sales reps first.
Matt Fitch, the founder of iHaulJunk, Inc., through his 33 years of sales experience, found that to sell, you need personality, character, and malleability and to change your sales approach based on different customer triggers and objections.
The ability to close a deal could decrease dramatically “if the salesperson is depressed or anxious,” Fitch adds.
“Customers feed off your energy, and you need to guide them effectively through your sales process, checking off all the appropriate boxes as you go. This requires a level head and a non-threatening, likable personality. You can’t do or be any of those things if you’re depressed or anxious about something else.”
So, to ensure your sales reps are productive, do whatever you can to relieve stress.
How to improve your salespeople’s mental health
To improve salespeople’s productivity, organizations should first start seeing their employees as “people”.
Companies always expect their salespeople to learn and contribute on their own. Instead, they should provide a systematic approach to support salespeople. Change needs to come from within the organization, its leadership style, and policies, all of which should prioritize mental health.
You need to create a holistic mental health plan that includes both preventive and curative measures that are strong enough to provide systemic support.
Take preventive action
Being vulnerable with managers or even colleagues in the sales industry is rare owing to its bad rap for being “alpha”.
To remove the stigma around mental health conversations within the industry, change has to come from the ground up in every organization, and it starts with something as simple as spreading awareness about mental health and its importance.
1. Conduct mental health awareness workshops in organizations
Step one in preventive care is increasing mental health awareness in organizations. Today, a growing number of organizations are putting their employees’ mental health first. But many organizations are simply jumping on the trend bandwagon by having, say, one workshop per year.
We need to remove the stigma attached to ‘mental health’ in sales. Both the people at the top and those on the ground need to know that a broken bone and a broken mind can have similar consequences.
And everyone who wants to learn how to manage people should know that mental illness is a spectrum. One day it could be just stress, and in a month, it could have grown horns to become a breakdown. Knowing when to identify the indicators of mental illness is crucial to intervene and provide help.
2. Culture training
A huge part of preventive care is ensuring that you’re building a healthy environment for your team. In sales, that means moving away from the Glengarry Glen Ross sales culture.
As a manager or a leader, whatever you do at work are examples that people working with you could emulate. So, if you’re pulling late nights or putting pressure on others to hit quotas, others could do the same.
As part of the organizational culture, managers should draw boundaries around work timings, in conversations with prospects, and encourage people to pursue activities outside of work.
A good organizational culture facilitates a safe space for your employees to communicate openly. Healthy conversations in the workplace are also a great source of motivation for people.
To foster open communication and strengthen employee-manager relationships, the VP of commercial sales at Lob, Josh Roth, says that he started doing team brunches once a month with his team. Another initiative his organization is going to launch is ‘summer Fridays,’ where all the team members are offline by noon every Friday.
3. Work-life balance
In the case of sales, there are a lot of things that could blur the lines between work and your personal life. Working for different time zones, responding to prospects if they call out of work hours, and sending follow-up emails on Sundays, could be a myriad of reasons.
And those who enter the industry may not know where to draw the line and have a higher chance of falling into a toxic productivity cycle, as is commonly seen in the sales culture.
For newbies in the industry, the first thing to practice or teach is professional detachment. The output of people working in sales can be easily measured. Hence, it’s vital to train people to detach themselves from these quotas, the constant rejections they keep getting daily, and their work after office hours.
4. Set data-backed, achievable quotas
Set achievable sales goals and a clear path on how to achieve them. When a rep is unable to hit their targets, the right thing to do is often revisit the strategy to check if it needs a course correction or retrospect to find out what went wrong. Most salespeople would perform well if they’re given the right support, tools, and resources needed to hit their quotas.
Bennett, in her first sales job, tried her best to hit the “astronomical numbers” that were given to her, but despite closing deals, she struggled to hit the quota. Many factors were out of her control.
Shortly after, she realized she had been set up for failure, and after failing to meet the quota, she was put on a performance improvement plan by her former boss. To her disappointment, instead of guiding her through the rough patch, her sales manager asked her to draw up her performance improvement plan.
One of the biggest causes of stress in sales is unrealistic quotas and no strategic plan on how to achieve them.
Take curative action
Although much of the weightage should be given to preventive care, curative care is the final chance to lend your support to those who might be struggling. Human Resources can weave mental health support into employee benefits and workplace policies.
Many organizations today offer insurance coverage for mental health and in-house counselors and conduct monthly workshops. Here’s what you can do to make your workspace friendlier for the well-being of your salespeople.
Keep communication channels open
Sales leaders usually stress having open lines of communication between the reps and their colleagues and managers. There should be enough sensitivity and open-mindedness in organizations to enable salespeople to approach their managers as often as they want and comfortably.
Bennett recalls when she had talked to her sales manager about her anxiety from work. Her woes fell on deaf ears, and that was the final blow that let her put down her papers.
In a lot of cases, managers who’ve come forward with their struggles with mental health have helped inspire SDRs or AEs to come forward with their stories. This kind of employee engagement fosters a work environment that accepts and sees mental health as seriously as physical health.
Here are some conversation starters Deborah Grayson Riegel wrote for Harvard Business Review that can help your colleagues keep a check on each other.
- What can I take off your plate?
- How can I support you without overstepping?
- Let’s discuss the resources we have available here and what else you might need.
- I’ve been through something similar. And while I don’t want to make this about me, I’m open to sharing my experience with you if and when it would be helpful.
Access to in-house counselors
As discussed earlier, the onus of solving mental health issues should be shared between the organization and the person. So, if one of your people isn’t feeling it, they should have the option of opening up to an in-house or external counselor, if not a manager or a colleague.
You could also offer employees the opportunity to see third-party therapists to maintain anonymity and protect employee privacy.
Offer time off when needed
Talking to strangers every day takes up a lot of mental energy, and it can sometimes get overwhelming, especially with the quotas hanging over their heads. Paid time off (PTO) is one way to nip stress in the bud.
You should know that taking a break or a sabbatical leave is crucial in recuperating from work stress. It helps people come back feeling less stressed.
But in a ‘hustle’ work culture, people may feel guilty about taking time off, so the onus lies on the organization to establish a culture that normalizes people taking PTOs or sabbatical leave.
What can salespeople do?
Rejection, anxiety, or stress are part and parcel of sales jobs. Organizations can help to some extent, but SDRs and AEs should also regularly invest in the upkeep of their mental health or better prepare themselves to be on the frontline.
By participating in mental health conversations, and opening up to their leaders or managers, they’re in a much better place than when they don’t have such conversations. Salespeople have to ask questions, be on their feet to learn, unlearn and relearn sales techniques, and be vulnerable enough to open up to their colleagues if they’re going through bouts of stress or anxiety.
1. Rest and rejuvenate
Taking time off work to rest and rejuvenate is crucial to reset your mind. Rest doesn’t just mean getting the usual seven hours of sleep. It also means practicing yoga or meditation, or mindfulness.
If you look at the daily routines of successful founders and CEOs, you will notice that every single one of them is investing their time in an activity outside of their work.
Warren Buffet reads for 80% of his workday and plays the ukulele to exercise his mind. Rejuvenation comes in different forms to different people. You could read, go on hikes, meditate, jog, or learn a new sport or an instrument.
For Ryan Zadrazil, it’s self-care Sundays. For *Arun, a sales manager at Airtel, a telecommunications company based in India, it’s “Vipassana,” a form of meditation where the practitioner doesn’t talk to people for up to 10 days.
2. Rejections are not personal
Despite the stage in which they happen – be it in a cold call or at the fag end of the sales cycle – rejection shouldn’t be taken personally. SDRs can practice professional detachment. Those who do exercise it are the ones that can actually close more deals.
In football, you’ll often hear the phrase, “play the next play.” It means that once a game is over, there’s nothing to do but move on. You can’t undo the game or play it any differently. You can only learn from it and move on.
And that’s exactly what you should do in sales. Move on to the next task. And you can do this better when you’ve detached yourself from the game.
So, if the deal went off the table in its final moments, revisit internal steps to find out if there’s room for improvement or check if it could have been an external reason instead of feeling attached to the rejection.
In short, employees are “people” first
In the United States, the deaths caused due to mental health issues like anxiety and depression are equivalent to the leading causes of death in the country. Apart from your employees worrying about their quotas, your salespeople also face human problems like anxiety over their financial security, being concerned with the rising price of gas, their parent’s health, and where their career is growing.
There is a never-ending list of stressors all around us at all times. So, naturally, your workplace policies and training collateral shouldn’t be centered around improving metrics and numbers; rather, they should focus on supporting the people behind the numbers and their minds.
The contents on this page should not be substituted for professional or medical advice.
If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat at 988lifeline.org. You can also reach Crisis Text Line by texting MHA at 741741.
You can also call 1-800-985-5990 or text “TalkWithUs” to 66746 at the SAMHSA Disaster Distress Helpline. Trained crisis workers will listen to you and direct you to the resources you need.
If you’re not located in the United States, please get in touch with concerned mental health authorities in your city.
If you’d like to know how to provide mental health services for your sales team, contact Sales Health Alliance. If you’re a salesperson looking to share your stories with a community or need someone to talk to, visit UNCrushed.
*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the source.