Entrepreneurs: Beware The Burnout

8th October 2019

The World Health Organization has classified Burnout as an Occupational Phenomenon.  It can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime.

I often mention that I’ve worked for a number of entrepreneurs over the years. It’s been fun, scary, and challenging.  I have no idea why I’ve worked for so many small business owners  but I’ve been fortunate enough to be hired during the building stages of many small businesses, and be able to contribute to their development and growth, including the fun ups, and scary downs.

Between these various companies, and the numerous members of my family that have run their own businesses, I’ve seen the excitement, the heartbreak, the pain, and the gain of trying to grow a small business.

What I haven’t always seen, is the stress and anxiety that lives behind the stoic faces of the entrepreneurs who are bold enough to try and make something of their own, on their own.

The Short Version

If you don’t have the time for the whole blogpost, here’s the short version.

Entrepreneurs work hard, face adversity day in and day out, and in the first few years it may not only be their business that fails, it may also be their health.

Burnout is a very real concern for enterepreneurs with a penchant for risk, willingness to work hard, and tolerance for discomfort.   The challenge is to ask the question; is that business owner on the path to burnout?

It’s often up to the entrepreneur to self-diagnose and address this before it’s an issue.  Easier said than done.  Two great articles for reference:

Entrepreneurs and Risk

I have a strong interest professionally and personally in the concept of risk, and risk management.  In some of my studies I’ve come across correlations between entrepreneurs, and adrenaline junkies.  Richard Branson is probably one of the most famous who is happy to take risks in both his business and personal life.

Taking That Risk

Starting a business is definitely a risk.  There are probably many that question the sanity of someone who’s decided to try and start their own business.  The thing about many entrepreneurial personality types is that they seem to have an ability to tolerate risk more so than others.

Interestingly, along with the ability to tolerate risk, is usually a pretty cast iron work ethic, and a tolerance for long hours of hard work, and a willingness to just push through.

Addictive Habits

The challenges and rigours of running a business can mimic the physiological effects of adrenaline associated sports such as biking, snowsports, and motorsport racing all of which release cortisol and adrenaline.

The release of these chemicals can leave you on a high, and feeling productive, and effective.  They can also mask other physiological effects, be addictive, and skew your ability to think and make decisions.

The downside to all of these traits, and habits and the highs of working for yourself is that sometimes it’s hard to switch off, or even impossible.  This can lead to a build up of stress, or anxiety, or just plain old burnout which might be tough to diagnose when these entrepreneurial traits have been part of your personality, for as long as you can remember.

Entrepreneurs And The Risk of Burnout

I read a fascinating article today in the CBC headlines which was timely as I was also going to a BC Construction Safety Alliance (BCSSA) breakfast event on Mental Health and the Construction Industry.  The long and the short of the article, is that many entrepreneurs are in tough trying to balance the business, family, social lives, and time for themselves.

The BCCSA breakfast had speakers who were providing insights into the challenges of managing mental health in the construction industry, and provided some case studies on the very real challenge many workers have, as well as a number of resources for supporting workers, and workplaces.

I would imagine more challenging than being a worker in the construction industry, is being a business owner in the construction industry.  We know construction work is deadline and timeline sensitive work, and that there is always pressure to finish the project, safely, and on time.

For construction business owners, and many other entrepreneurs, the reality is that finding balance between building a company, and then running a company is a labour of love, and also a love hate relationship.

The Business Needs Me

These entrepreneurs are tasked with running the company which means finding leads, and work to pay employees, quality control of the work to make sure it’s done well, managing the business itself, accounts, marketing, HR, and what about business strategy, business decisions?  What does the business need to grow, or even stay status quo?

These are the responsibilities of the many in larger organizations, yet as an entrepreneur, especially a new one, or a small one, they are your job.  If you neglect one, there will be consequences.  So often, the responsibility is taken upon the shoulders of the owner, or if they’re fortunate shared with a trusted partner, or employee.   The long and the short of it is that you know the business, and probably provide a good amount of cheap, high value labour, the business needs you, and you need the business.

In any case the results can be long days, few breaks, limited sleep, poor quality sleep, skipping meals, poor meals, missing out on family events, social events, financial stress and worry, and all of these can have a critical impact on health and wellness.

Eroding these, can lead to erosion in wellness overall, a risk with serious consequences, and a risk that many entrepreneurs may be unknowingly taking, the risk they burn themselves out of the business.  The business that needs them.

Diagnosing Help

How do you know if you’re burning out, or just a hard working business owner?  How do you know if you need more employees, more golf or running, or time with a counselor?

The challenge for many entrepreneurs might be one of two things. The ability to self diagnose burnout symptoms, and to self-treat the healthy way.  It’s much easier to get yourself help, if you know you need it.

Self Diagnosing

Often there is almost no chance an entrepreneur, especially in the early stages, will willingly identify that they may be burning out, or that they are taking on more than is healthy.

This might be for many reasons. “The business needs me to do this”, “This is how I am”, “I like to keep busy”, “I just need to get past this point”,  “Next quarter will be different” “Nobody can do it the way I do”, “I can’t afford the time off”.

Whatever the reason may be, many will not self diagnose the symptoms of burnout, even when partners, family, and friends are doing it for them.  It gets shrugged off.

In retrospect, the signs are obvious, but rearview mirrors are only helpful once you’ve gone past a point.

The trick for many entrepreneurs is to build in some time to reflect, and set some goals that can help balance the above, and be aware of the signs of burnout.  Most importantly, be aware, and conscious of the signs, and ask the honest question, “Am I burning out”.

The World Health Organization defines burnout as:

“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.

Burnout Symptoms

So do any of these seem familiar?  Psychology today has a great piece that touches on things to consider if your contemplating whether you, or someone you know might be burning out.  Here’s some key points:

One of the simplest, and most effective means to identify and assess burnout symptoms, is to ask the people around you.  Ask someone you trust how what they think.  Partners, and close friends and families often are a fantastic resource in that regard.

Addressing Burnout

So whether you’ve identified burnout symptoms or not, often entrepreneurs will know intuitively that they need some degree of balance.  As a result, they may choose methods to counteract the challenges of running a business.

Self-Treating

Then, there’s the coping mechanisms.  These may be applied knowingly as a means to cope with the stresses of running a business, or these may be applied unknowingly, and instinctively.

Healthier Responses

Sometimes they’re healthy coping mechanisms, which can release anxiety, stress, and physiological trauma.  Making choices to plan activities into a day, week or month can be incredibly effective and refreshing.  Things like:

  • Regular exercise (even a 20 minute walk every day)
  • Meditiation, or mindfullness (find a few moments each day to just enjoy the moment, relax, breathe!)
  • Healthy eating (bringing and choosing healthy food  over easy food like take-out)
  • Good nights sleep (choose and keep a regular, and sacred, bedtime, and stick too it)
  • Taking good and regular breaks from work (whether it’s an hour lunch, or a 20 minute walk and talk)
  • Taking holidays (1 week holiday can do wonders to reset your mind, and refresh energy levels)
  • Volunteering  (get yourself out of the usual grind, spend an hour or two helping an organization that also needs you!)

All these can all be beneficial to managing the challenges of running a business, and make you feel better, and they don’t have to take a lot of time or effort.

Less Healthy Responses

Then there’s the self treatment options which are less healthy.   Whether entrepreneurs realize it or not, often these aspects of stress relief work their way into our lives:

  • Working harder and/or longer hours to “catch up”
  • Late social nights
  • Choosing satisfying food, over healthy food (burger and fries at the pub)
  • Overuse of caffeine and stimulants (coffee, energy drinks, ephedrine tablets)
  • Regular use of alcohol or drugs,
  • Excessive use of alcohol or drugs
  • Violent or aggressive behaviour
  • High risk activities

While these might provide short term gratification, energy, and initially release anxiety and stress, they are less helpful long term, and can be destructive responses that can impact the relationships around you, and in turn add to the anxiety you feel.

Symptom vs. Cause

Regardless of how you choose to treat the stress and anxiety of running a small business, there’s little that’s going to change if you’re only addressing the symptoms that plague you.

Getting more sleep might make you feel better, but it’s not going to help when you then resort to 16 hour work days to get the work done, with 8 hours of sleep.  Wellness is a balancing act.

There needs to be a fundamental shift in how the business is run, and how the owner of the business prioritizes their resources, including themselves as a key resource.  Finding ways to effectively delegate work is one way to balance responsibilities and wellness, providing there are others that can share the responsibility.

When you’re a solopreneur, you just need to make better choices when it comes to priorities, and that usually means tough choices, but not always.  Choosing some smaller, simpler changes, that add value to your health, and improve wellness a little can be a small positive step in the right direction. Even just choosing to make a small change that has a positive impact once a week can be effective, and can be built on from there.

By focusing on making the cultural adjustments to your work ethic, and habits, you can start to prioritize what really needs to be done to keep both the business, and your sanity from going under. Just like you need a business plan, you need a health and wellness plan too.  You just might not realize it yet.

The business depends on you, and if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of the business.  You need to come first.  Hard truth sometimes.

External Treatment

So what if you know yourself, and can’t trust yourself to make that self-diagnosis?  There are a number of options:

  • As mentioned go to someone you trust, and who knows you well.  A partner, a close friend, or a sibling as examples
  • Online resources, there are hundreds of articles, organizations, papers, and websites available to help people balance mental health, and wellness in general
  • Employees and family assistance plans are there to be used, you may provide them for your employees, doesn’t mean you can’t use them.  They are designed to help put resources at your fingertips
  • Counselling, whether you choose to call a support line, speak to your GP, or hire a private counselor they can all help you assess your symptoms, and identify ways to address them
  • Small business groups, there are a number of small business groups that exist to provide a network of support to entrepreneurs, nobody knows the rigours of running a business like people who run a business
  • Wellness events and seminars, there are a number of events focused on helping employers, and employees manage wellness in the workplace (insert plug for ours!!)

Ask The Question

So if you’re the entrepreneur, or you know the entrepreneur, don’t be fooled by the stoic, pragmatic, enigmatic, energetic face of the business owner, ask the question.  Are you burning out.  If the answer is no, ask another question, could you be burning out?

Give it some thought, and ask the last question.  What harm can there be in slowing down, just a little from time time to incorporate some healthy habits that might not only influence the business owner, but the people closest to them, and the business itself?


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