Under Pressure: Managing Family Business Stress

Planning & Strategy Special Topics

In this series of posts, we offer a unique perspective from Atticus Frank, CFA who worked in his family’s business for nearly three years prior to returning to Mercer Capital and joining the team’s Family Business Advisory Group. We hope the stories illuminate special issues family business directors need to consider from someone who lived them day-in and day-out.

On my first day in the family business, a key manager called me at the end of the day with a fiery introduction, peppering questions on the new guy (rightfully so). I was caught off balance after a long day. I hung up disheveled. Day one… phew.

Pressure and stress are often a part of a new, exciting work environment. But I was feeling a different type of heat.

I was wading deep into family business waters and I was in it up to my neck. But as comes with running any business, the conversations and problems did not wait at the office for me. Business was the topic of dinner conversations, and it replaced a lot of Netflix binging.

There is nothing wrong with working hard on a new venture. Pressure and stress are often a part of a new, exciting work environment. But I was feeling a different type of heat.

What any family business director can appreciate is the complexity in cultivating the family enterprise. When I was struggling with expanding our concert business, I was not just stumbling in my job, but a part of me felt I was failing the family. A portion of our family’s wealth, its legacy, and reputation hinged directly on my performance.

My mindset, plus the job itself, contributed to my stress levels.  After a few months, I was beginning to lose sleep.  While we have written an entire book on the top 12 issues that keep family business directors awake at night, the issue here was not something to be analyzed on the balance sheet. It was something more fundamental to my approach to the family enterprise.

Three Ways to Promote a Healthy Relationship

After this realization, I knew I needed to change my mindset and behavior to return to a good place with my work. Below are three things I did to help foster a healthy relationship with the family business.

1) Disengage

I don’t mean quit. I mean take a break. Set up specific times to not talk about the business. My wife and I worked to set up ‘”no-work zones” (the master bedroom), and certain times we would not talk about the business, like Saturday mornings (family day) and after 9 pm. This is not just because I was stressed – we would catch ourselves wanting to talk about some big win too. We knew, however, that lowering these boundaries for positive business issues would make it easier to break the rule for bad news, too.

2) Communicate

In my situation, I felt stress mostly from a sense of failing my boss (my father-in-law). I was running an enterprise that affected his capital investment and the name he had built up over the previous 35 years. As we have written previously around tough family business conversations, a good tip is to tackle the conversation head on. I waited too long to take that advice and was stressed longer as a result. When I finally talked to my father-in-law on the issue, he presented our dynamic in a way that was clear, reassuring, and de-stressing. From then on, we kept in closer contact not just on how the business was progressing, but my mindset surrounding our family business dynamics. I felt considerably less stressed on a family level and performed better on a business level.

3) Remember the Advantages of Your Situation

Not to sound glib, but family business enterprises offer a special opportunity for family members and stakeholders. If you are going to work all day, why not work with people you like? People usually look at me with wide-eyed disbelief but working with my wife was a blast. This is not the case for everyone, but for us it was rewarding.

Additionally, the ability to create long-term family wealth and a business culture that reflects your family values are enticing benefits to any job-seeker. The long-term focus of family business presents a model that, despite the “shirtsleeves-to-shirtsleeves” adage, allows family businesses to be more sustainable and longer-lasting than their publicly traded counterparts. From 1955 to 2019, nine out of ten Fortune 500 companies merged, went bankrupt, or contracted to such a degree that they fell from the list. That is a 90% failure rate. Chasing next quarter’s numbers appears not to inculcate long-term sustainability.


While we don’t claim to be psychologists, we do have experience both in family business issues and analyzing them. We often can read between the lines, recognize sensitive areas in a family business structure, and offer advice and structure to avoid stressful pitfalls. Making sure you leave room to breathe, being transparent in your communication, and remembering why you wanted to be a part of your family business can all help to recenter your focus and maintain a healthy family–business dynamic.

Give us a call if you think our real-world family business experience can provide a different perspective in your next valuation engagement.