Bottom line — when sellers are anxious, depressed, and overwhelmed, it becomes impossible for them to perform their best. Jeff Riseley knows this all too well. As founder of Sales Health Alliance, he’s dedicated to equipping salespeople with the research, strategies, and tools they need to navigate the unique stressors in sales and prevent anxiety, depression, and burnout.
Riseley spearheaded the 2022 State of Mental Health in Sales Report, which “shows a correlation (not necessarily causation) between one’s mental health and ability to achieve sales targets.”
Over the last decade, the sales industry has experienced seismic shifts in the way it does business. Radical technological advancements ushered in a new breed of salesperson expected to sell faster and work harder than ever before. Couple that with fallout and disruptions from the pandemic, it’s no surprise that research shows salespeople are among the most stressed and unsatisfied workers in the corporate world.
Join SAMA host Harvey Dunham as he speaks with Riseley about his research, his upcoming book, “Stress Less, Sell More”, and the “support structures that leaders and organizations can implement to foster a mental health-oriented culture.” Start thinking about your mental state in this transitioning time. Follow along and learn what sales leaders and professionals can do about the state of mental health in the sales industry.
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Mental Health In Sales With Jeff Riseley
HD: I’m honored to be joined by Jeff Riseley, the Founder of Sales Health Alliance and the Lead Researcher on the 2022 State of Mental Health in Sales Report which he helped author and contributed mightily. The topic is mental health and sales. I have been in and around B2B sales for many years. I have never had this conversation with anyone other than Jeff in our first introductory meeting. I’m delighted to be able to share this with you. This is going to be great information to help sensitize this all to an important issue, and I can’t wait to get into the details. Jeff, welcome to the show. Thank you for agreeing to join me to discuss this topic.
JR: I’m excited to be here. It is a perfect time to have a conversation like this. I’m looking forward to diving in and talking everything about mental health, mental performance, and stress. Thanks for the opportunity. Hopefully, this will be helpful to a few community members.
HD: Here at SAMA, we are all about learning and sharing with our community and sharing new insights and best practices. Let’s get right into the conversation so we can hear from you because you are the one who got the insights and best practices. I can’t wait to hear it. Let’s begin at the beginning. When we first met, you told me the story of how you got into this field in the first place and how this topic suddenly captured your attention, and you are throwing your whole amount of professional effort into it. Can you share that story with us?
JR: For the last several years, I have thrown my whole being toward it. I started in sales back in 2011. It was working in the classic boiler room type of sales environment, where are being measured on whether or not I could make $200 a day. I have achieved two and a half hours of talk time. If you weren’t hitting your metrics, you were let go quickly. It was this sink-or-swim type of sales environment. If you weren’t performing, there were all sorts of different levers that the organization would be pulling. On the surface, I managed to do well from the individual contributor level.
I went on to all sorts of cool incentives, being a top performer, going on trips, and all the things that we might think about when we think about someone that is performing well within sales, but behind the scenes, I was not okay. I had bad anxiety and insomnia. I also get these nasty panic attacks in the middle of the night. It was after the third panic attack that put me in the hospital when I realized something else was going on.
This was something I had never experienced before. The first thing I did was I went to see my doctor, and he prescribed me some anxiety medication, which I tried for 2 to 3 months. I hated how it made me feel. I lost touch with my intuition and emotions, and the things I was relying on to be a top performer. I stopped taking the medication because I wanted to get those feelings back.
Going to therapy over ten years ago, I was still highly stigmatized. It wasn’t even something that I considered. I was out at this moment in my life when I found this career enjoyable. There is so much to love about sales, the learning, the growth, the money you can make, and the camaraderie between teammates. If I want to maintain this career, I need to figure out a way to take better care of my mental health.There's a lot to love about sales but if you want to maintain that career, you need to take better care of your mental health. Click To Tweet
That is when I started to learn everything I possibly could about mental health. How does the brain react to stress? What are the stressors that we face on a daily basis while working in sales? What are the things we can do to take better care of ourselves to show up more mentally resilient and be top performers each day without sacrificing our long-term health?
I didn’t share anything that I learned over the next couple of years. Fast forward to July 2018, I launched my first sales consulting website. Three days after I launched the website, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. It’s life through this crazy curve ball that I wasn’t ready for. It was through that experience that I realized the same strategies I was using to take care of my mental health and sales. I naturally started to execute during this next stressful period of my life. The more I started to think about what was going on, the more I realized that anxiety in sales is not optional. It is part of everyday life.
When teams start to become anxious, depressed, and burnt out, their performance starts to suffer. How do we change the narrative on this topic? How do we start treating salespeople like these corporate athletes and equipping them with different strategies, mindset tools, and stress management tactics to help them navigate the pressure they face on an ongoing basis in a mentally healthy way? From there, Sales Health Alliance was born, and here we are now talking about this important topic. I’m excited to be here and grateful for the opportunity.
HD: Thank you for being personal and open about discussing it. It is a topic I don’t understand in a way, but why is someone like me that have been around this and lived it? I remember having a little tablet I used to keep next to my bedstead because I would wake up at 3:00 in the morning, and I have this thought of like, “I got to do this tomorrow morning first thing.” I would write it down so I didn’t forget it because sometimes, I would wake up the next morning and forget what I had thought of in the middle of the night. I had more stress. That is the job. How to manage it and balance it is what is hard.
JR: That is where we have this narrative that a lot of sales leaders and salespeople have. They say, “That is the job.” You have to be resilient. Stress is part of the job. I always say, “Getting hit in football is part of the job, but we are not sending football players out onto the field without pads and helmets because we understand that there is physical stress and physical conflict. Why are we not doing the same from a mental health standpoint for salespeople?”
HD: From there, you went on to do quite a lot of research. Could you share with us the scope of the research that you have done, findings, and lessons learned for account managers themselves to start?
JR: For the last couple of years, as part of this, there has been little awareness around the topic of mental health and sales. I have been teamed up with Richard Harris from The Harris Consulting Group as well as UNCrushed, which is another amazing mental health organization. We have been doing these annual surveys to take snapshots and get a picture of what the mental health picture looks like within sales specifically.
Back in 2021, we found that 58% of salespeople were struggling with their mental health. We did the survey again back in May of 2022, thinking that May of 2021 was probably going to be the worst it would ever be because of the global pandemic, being isolated, and all these different factors that were going on. What we found was the report that came out in May of 2022. Things have now jumped up. We have found that 63% of salespeople are struggling with their mental health. More than 3 in 5 salespeople are underperforming on an ongoing basis.
When we started to hold this data apart and look specifically at account managers, we found that 59% of account managers were struggling. When we looked at frontline sales managers, that was a little lower. It was 46%. When we looked specifically at sales executives, CROs, and VPs of Sales responsible for strategy, we found that 60% struggled with mental health.
There is this huge blind spot that is happening within the sales industry where it is not isolated to a specific type of sales role, to leaders, or individual contributors. It is such a widespread problem that is not being discussed and addressed that these types of data and finding is critical to helping us, as a community and as a sales industry, moves closer towards that thing that we all desire, which is optimal performance and taking care of our people and customers.
HD: When you went into the research, were you surprised at what you learned? Did you think that was what it was, or was it a jaw-dropping experience like, “It is even bigger than I thought it was?”
JR: I have been doing it for the last several years now, and it is consistently increasing every single year. I don’t think I was surprised when I first started. When I first started, 43% of salespeople were starting with their mental health, and now we are at 63%. I was surprised at how that jump has taken place to how widespread it is now.
When I started to think about it, I was like, “What is going on here?” It wasn’t as surprising because if you know anything about mental health or mental resilience, or if you think about the people who thrived or managed things during the global pandemic effectively, they were the ones that had a good toolkit or had already been doing the work before that happened.
That is what we forget. Mental health, resilience, and stress management are built during the good times. We can depend on it during the bad times. The vast majority of us inside and outside sales hadn’t put that work in to build that toolkit beforehand. We are now seeing the result of that as we move forward. These external stressors are only going to continue with the global layoffs, with all of these disruptive technologies, taking people’s jobs and environmental stressors. In this place of constant change and unpredictability, this has to be a focus for teams and individuals going forward if they hope to be truly adaptable and resilient to what we are encountering going forward.
HD: The huge change took place in 2020 when the sellers were stuck being able to see their clients in person and went to virtual, which still continues now. In the back of my mind, I thought, “If you don’t have to do the planes, trains, and automobiles thing every week or every day when you are out and about, especially outside sales, things might be getting better. I certainly enjoyed not having the pressure of the commute but the pressure of being on Zoom after Zoom, whether internal or external. At the end of the day, being on Zoom calls all day, I was wiped out. I had nothing. I felt like ash sometimes.
JR: Someone like myself or people that had already had that experience working from home, I did well. A lot of my friends that had been working from home had already learned how to work this way. We had many hundred years of learning how to work in the office. All of a sudden, overnight, we had to learn how to work from home, which is different. We are seeing organizations trying to move back to an office or hybrid, which is a massive external stressor and piece of change that a lot of us are struggling to go through.
HD: I want to get back to something you said. You found that people that were dealing with the larger accounts, it would be the strategic account managers and their bosses, dealing with your company’s largest and most important customers, had about the same stress level at that 60% level. Do you have thought about why that is?
JR: We data captured data on over 700 people. It is a solid sample size of data. What you see there is the impact around layoffs where you have the C-Suite executives that are experiencing the burden and stressor of having to lay off people, change their strategy, or having to report to investors and the board about what the hell is going on and why are things not working.
You have these individual contributors or strategic account executives that are more on the front lines client-facing, who are all of a sudden dealing with budgets getting cut from their clients and having to navigate that. Not having things like quota relief come into play to set realistic expectations that this is a different time period. You also have that fear of reading the news every single day and layoffs happening left, right, and center and thinking, “Is that going to happen to me if I don’t make my numbers?” You have stress applied, but you have it being applied with different external stressors to two different groups of people.
HD: I was thinking about the global supply chain. If that wasn’t bad enough where the global supply chain thing blew, “We can’t make our product and ship it to you like we promised because we can’t get the materials.” I had those conversations before. That is typically not a nice conversation to have with a customer.
JR: When you have committed to something, and they are excited about it, it is not a good one to have. Hybrid work started around May and June 2022, when the survey was starting to kick off. If you think about what happened pre-pandemic, we had this change to working from home, and we were dealing with all these difficult emotions of loneliness, feeling disconnected, anxious, or afraid. We were doing that in the comfort of our homes, surrounded by people that we trust, like our friends, family, significant others, or kids. We had an outlet to talk about this stuff with people we cared about.
We are going back to the office. We are meeting people whom we have only ever interacted with via Zoom virtually or remotely. We are having these same uncomfortable emotions of trying to get back into what this new normal looks like, but we are doing it surrounded by total strangers at an organization that is never invested in mental health, mental performance, or stress management training. You have these motions internally, being like, “I’m overwhelmed and anxious. I don’t feel comfortable speaking to my boss or my peer about this.” That is fueling the raise or rise in that 63% number that I talked about.
HD: Did you see a difference between females that are involved in the profession versus males?
JR: We looked at gender, and it was based on this data. It was roughly the same. I don’t have data on this, but if you were to look at what was contributing to the same numbers, that would probably be different.
HD: You are talking about 63% of the 700 people in the sample. If you separated it out by a company, it wasn’t like there was some company that was like, “It is not a problem.” The others were at 100%, and it somehow averaged out to 62%.
JR: It wasn’t based on companies. The distribution wasn’t happening that way. We focused more on looking at individual job types. That is why we have a nice breakdown between account executives, account managers, or SDRs and BDRs. That is where we focused.
HD: You are now working regularly with companies that want to address this issue and proactively address it. I can imagine the Great Resignation in 2022, and some of those things have probably brought this up to some executive’s point of view and say, “We got to do something about this. We are losing the people that are helping us sell our products.” Can you describe how you engage with a client when they surface a need? What advice and help can you give them?
JR: This is such a new topic for most organizations. I start with a kickoff session. It is a one-hour session focused around looking at some of this data, understanding why mental health and sales are important to mental performance, and how it is going to drive better revenue. I also use this opportunity to allow people to submit anonymous questions ahead of time.
We can get practical strategies and tools into the hands of individual sellers and leaders. These might be questions like, “How do I remain motivated throughout the day? What is the best way to navigate rejection? My quota was reset, and I’m feeling overwhelmed. How do I approach this situation?” That first session is about, 1) Awareness-building, 2) Aligning the organization from top to bottom on why this topic is important to performance, and 3) Getting some practical tools into the hands of sellers.
From there, the next step looks at bringing in more data and doing diagnostics. I have a data partner that I work with. We get a simple survey out, but it provides a lot of interesting data points to advise future ongoing programs and consulting with the team, which involves one-on-one manager coaching and more team-based sessions. We are using this data to guide future sessions to make sure that we are tackling the different trigger points, of which most organizations have no idea.
HD: Are your typical clients surprised at the result? How pervasive is the issue? Is that what you find?
JR: In the initial diagnostics that we do and when we start bringing in data, the word I keep hearing is cathartic. You see that you go through the data with an executive or manager. You see why performance is being impacted, not only at an individual but also at a company level. All of a sudden, they all say, “I know why that is happening. Here is more context. There is a lot of red tape. My team has a lot of admin tasks that are taking them away from revenue-generating opportunities. We had to lay off our team. I can tell a lot of my team is feeling stressed because we haven’t provided additional support to those people that are still here who have an increased workload.” It is interesting having data like this because it validates a lot of what people are feeling to see how big the issue is.
HD: As a poor researcher, I have only got one question that I ask salespeople, and I try to ask it whenever I get the opportunity. “Who is your toughest customer, your external customer, actual customer, or internal customer, the people that you work with to try and help the external customer with what they need?” 100%, they say, “The internal customers.” Does that come out, in some fashion, as an insight from the work that you do?
JR: It happens all the time. There is research even outside of sales that shows that bad is stronger than good. Having the presence of blockers or bad things is going to always outweigh the positive. A good example of this is if someone is in a challenging relationship, if both people in that relationship start to add good behaviors but maintain the bad things, the bad will always be stronger than the good. If someone is trying to get healthier by going to the gym every day but they are smoking a pack of cigarettes every day simultaneously, that is going to be stronger than that person going to the gym.Bad is always stronger than good. So having the presence of bad things is always going to outweigh the positive. Click To Tweet
The same thing applies to internal politics, red tape, and processes. If those blockers are still in place, you can do things that can invest in mental health training for your team. Until you resolve the things that are impacting the psychological safety of the individuals and the team on an ongoing basis, it is going to have limited results.
HD: As a manager, there were certainly times when I had to orchestrate a reduction in force. It is not a pleasant thing to have to do. I used to worry about the people that left because they were people that I knew and that I had worked with for years. It is a tough thing to do. I was worried about the people. It took me some years to figure out that the people I should be working with are the people that are left behind because that work doesn’t go away. It has to be done by someone. The smaller team has to take on more. It took me some time to get that straight in my head and say, “I need to worry about who is left, including me, to get this done.”
JR: When you lay off people and you don’t account for that added workload and stress, you have a more fragile team and workforce because that is stress in those daily things that they had to do. The accountability didn’t go anywhere. They have more of it. I don’t know a single organization that is laid off 200 people. You are not hearing articles being written like, “We have laid off 200 people. Here are all the great benefits they are having, but here are all the investments that we are making into the people that are still here to ensure that they can thrive with this added workload.” That is not happening.
HD: That would be news to me. I never heard it. Let me give you an example. A colleague was speaking to his former company where he worked as a strategic account manager and a SAM program leader. He learned that one of his colleagues that was still working for his company had left. This gentleman happened to be a top performer, if not the top performer, at this large global company and handled one of the biggest of customers. Somewhat out of the blue, in his mid-50s, he said, “I’m done.” He walked out.
I’m sure that was a bad day for the company and the leader because these are not easy people to replace at the tip of these huge accounts. It was like, “What happened?” You got to explain this to the customer and the team. You got to figure out why. That is what you want to avoid. Have the person get to the point where it has gotten worse and I got to leave. What advice would you give the SAM leader to try, head that off, and lance the boil before it bursts?
JR: There are lots of things that you can be doing in that case. It is called fight or flight for a reason. When stress is unmitigated for a long period of time, you initially want to fight, but stress is a quick response. It is a quick response that you can’t control. When it gets to a certain point, you fly, AKA you quit an organization. You leave, and you don’t care what happens. It is just, “I’m done. For my best interest, I have to leave.”Stress is a quick response that you can't control, especially when it gets to a certain point. Click To Tweet
There are lots of things that you can do to manage that. From an organizational level, it is teaching individuals how to add stress and offload stress in equal parts within a 24-hour cycle. That is important. Rather than saying, “Let’s grind for six months. Try and offload it all at once during a two-week vacation.” That is ineffective. Each day, when you are adding stress to your day, how are you offloading it at the end of every day?
The basic things that you can be doing are doing things like going back to the basics, getting proper sleep, eating right, exercising, and having fun. You can’t stress and have fun at the same time. Revisiting hobbies or things that you do or enjoy is an off-switch for that stress response, which is important that not a lot of adults spend time doing enough on a daily basis.
The other aspect that is important is looking at how you make work more meaningful. The reason behind this is when we are most connected to our work, we are working on each and every day, we see progress being made, and work is meaningful, it is more likely to have that internal dialogue with herself to say, “This is hard, but it is worth it because this is important to me.” Getting back into that servant mindset of genuinely wanting to improve the lives of others. That is an important thing to do that not enough organizations focus on a daily basis.
HD: It is powerful for us because we talk all the time with strategic account managers, “You are not the hero of this story. Your customer needs to be the hero of the story. You need to help your customer become a better business.” That is the buzz that you get from being a strategic account manager. You are working with these major companies and complex well-known household name type of companies. You are helping them become a better company in some fashion. Whether it is in a somewhat small niche way or a rather large way, it doesn’t matter. They are the heroes of the story, but you are the person that helped them get out of a bind and rise above so they could become even better than they were before.
JR: What I love about sales and what attracted me to the role is every single day, salespeople get an opportunity to make a truly meaningful difference in the lives of someone else. You don’t have to be a doctor, an environmentalist, or have these careers that are viewed as meaningful. With the right mindset and approach, salespeople can make a difference and help people every single day when they are focused on the right things.
The problem with that is when we don’t take care of ourselves and we aren’t focused on adding offloading stress in equal parts, the part of our brain that is responsible for empathy, serving, and giving is going offline. It only starts to focus on how we protect and serve ourselves. That is where that commission breath and envy between reps start to come out. It is when all of these nasty things start to take over, and there is nothing we can do about it until we get back to the basics, which is improving how we show up and think each and every day.
HD: It was like you were falling down, mixing metaphors a little bit, but you are falling down, plummeting down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It is getting down to survival. If you don’t address it at a higher level, at some point in time, you are trying to survive. You choose flight. I can see it.
JR: Every individual needs more support, whether sales are structured to create an environment that feels unsafe with the way targets are structured with individuals competing against each other. That is a hard environment to thrive in when you are worried about job security, how you are going to pay your bills, or you don’t necessarily know how to protect your self-esteem after a few bad meetings or a couple of setbacks.
It is tough to answer your initial question of what can sales leaders and individuals be doing. It is not like, “Here are the top three things you can be doing.” Each individual and organization are going to be a little different. It all starts with getting back to the basics, bringing data into the conversation, and starting to have the conversation. It is important. That is part of the reason why I wrote a book, Stress Less, Sell More, to focus on giving 220 different ways that leaders and reps can start bringing this conversation and having this conversation on a daily basis with themselves and the organization together as a team.
HD: I might want to read that book. How do I get my hands on it?
HD: I might want to read that book. How do I get my hands on it?
HD: Jeff, this has been fascinating. I have learned a lot from this conversation. I wish we had more time to talk about it, but all good things must come to an end. Thanks so much for bringing your findings to us, sharing this forbidden topic, getting it out in the open, taking it out of the darkness, and putting it into the light. You have done our community a great service, and please let us know if there is anything we can do to help you.
JR: I’m grateful for the opportunity. Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn or check out SalesHealthAlliance.com. If you are interested in picking up the book, that would be amazing because it is written for individuals but also for teams to go through together to help normalize this conversation a little bit more. Thanks, Harvey. I’m happy I was able to be a guest and share a little bit of information that I know about this stuff.
HD: Thanks so much.
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