Burnout is not specially reserved for professionals working in the corporate world. In fact, many business owners experience burnout regularly, perhaps for slightly different reasons.
Whether you are just starting out as an entrepreneur or are years into your business, you need to know what puts you at risk for burnout, how to avoid the pitfalls other entrepreneurs face, and if you’re already in the pit, how to pull yourself out.
Why Do Entrepreneurs Burn Out
It was the summer of 2015 and I was interviewing for a new job. I realized my time at the nonprofit organization I’d been working at for the previous four years was coming to an end – not because I couldn’t stay, but because I didn’t want to stay.
I had risen in the ranks from an unlicensed psychologist straight out of school to a licensed psychologist who filled in as interim manager when needed and who supervised other unlicensed clinicians. The only place to go from there was into management.
The way I thought about it was that I didn’t spend 10 years of my life studying psychology to sit in meetings all day. I wanted to continue working with clients. It’s the work I’m most passionate about.
So I started looking for alternatives. I snuck off to interview at a number of different sites including clinics, hospitals, as well as working for the City.
What I discovered was that none of the options I found fit with my vision for my life. I was dead set on having work-life balance. I didn’t want a long commute. I didn’t want to work nights and weekends. I didn’t want to work with the homeless. The only thing left to do was to create the opportunity I was seeking. This meant becoming an entrepreneur.
I was resistant to the idea, not because I have a fear of failure, but because I had heard so many times about therapists that burned out in private practice seeing patient after patient.
But I was determined to make this work. I rented an office that was walking distance from my gym so I could exercise in the middle of the day. I set up my schedule so that I wouldn’t have to work outside of the 9-5 time frame. No nights. No weekends. And I created space in my calendar to get caught up throughout the day on paperwork so that I wouldn’t have to take work home.
And while this thankfully worked for me, I found myself on the other side of the equation. Instead of burning out, I was talking to high level executives and entrepreneurs who were experiencing burnout.
Why were they burning out? Their lives were unbalanced. They were spending too much time and energy on work and not enough on themselves. The entrepreneurs had additional stressors that put them at risk. They were also carrying the responsibility of their business success without a guaranteed paycheck at the end of each month.
Are you at Risk for Burning Out?
“I didn’t really know I was burning out until the whole thing was done and I was just wiped.” That’s how Rebecca Moore, serial entrepreneur and mom, described her experience of burnout. After interviewing hundreds of people about their burnout story, I have found that this, perhaps more than anything else, puts you at risk. When you don’t have a name for the problem you are facing, you cannot target the right solution. Similarly, if you lack self-awareness about what you are experiencing, you might know something is wrong, but not know what.
This is why many entrepreneurs grasp at straws when they find they’re in trouble. If they’re having trouble sleeping, they buy a new mattress. When they gain weight, they go on a diet. If they’re struggling in their marriage because they are never available, they might find it easier to just get a divorce so they can have more time for their work and less of the guilt.
Rebecca was traveling the world, developing new processes, signing on new clients. In her words, she was “running on adrenaline.” In some ways it was a dream come true. She never imagined she’d have this level of success and raise the millions of dollars she was able to raise. But it wasn’t without a cost.
Like you, Rebecca was at risk not only because of the toll she was carrying, but because of the dangerous belief she held that “hard work equals success.”
If you’re trying to operate on no sleep, you’re going to make yourself physically sick. Same thing goes for other areas of your physical health like nutrition and exercise. And, if you’re neglecting your mental health or don’t have ways to recover the energy and release the stress, you are at risk for burnout.
You might also be at risk if your business is not financially sound. When a customer declines to pay for work you’ve done or you invest in areas that don’t have the return on investment that you expected, this financial dip can jeopardize your business’s ability to thrive or even survive.
How do you manage your emotions when these stressful events take place? Are you bombarded with anxiety about the future? Do you wake up in the middle of the night filled with panic? Do you ruminate endlessly about everything that’s gone wrong?
Building a sound business requires that the founder have a sound mindset and an ability to manage the emotional rollercoaster that is your business. If you’re not focusing on your mental health, you are at greater risk for burnout.
How to Avoid Founder Burnout
If burnout is about a depletion or draining of your resources, then managing those resources might just be the answer to preventing burnout from happening.
In particular, it’s important to stop the leakage. Here are three steps you can take to avoid burning out while you’re focusing on growing your business.
Step 1: Identify the source of the leak
Where in your business are you leaking energy? What’s stressing you out? What’s draining you? Is it other people, tasks you engage in, or negative thoughts and fears?
Once you know what’s draining you, you can systematically eliminate those energy drains.
Step 2: Determine how you’d like to be instead
It might be obvious to you when you’re stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed, but have you considered how you’d like to feel and what you would rather be doing? Approaching burnout prevention from a place of intentionality can be helpful. Consider how you might show up differently if you’re set on being calm, confident, and grounded.
Step 3: Identify the aspects of your business that “glow your hair back”
As a business owner, you likely wear a lot, if not all, of the hats. The book, The Big Leap, talks about what to let go of so you are left only with energizes you.
- What aren’t you good at in your business and life? Delegate the heck out of that.
- What areas are you good at but could have someone with fewer credentials do to free up your time? Delegate that too.
- Where are you really good but feel bogged down? Delegate out your comfort zone.
What’s left? The areas that you’re really excited about. This is your zone of genius.
The more you engage with tasks that excite you, the more you can minimize energy drains, the less at risk for burnout you are…unless you overdue that as well, of course.
Even when you have all that in place, Rebecca reminds us:
“It takes a village, but really you cannot do everything yourself. Especially if you have a family, you’re going to have to lean on a lot of other people. It’s not all you.
Founder well-being is all about blocking out time for exercise and nutrition. You’re not going to be at the top of your game if you’re working 24/7 or working 100-hour days, you just can’t.”
How to Overcome Founder Burnout
By the time you read this, it might be late in the game. Perhaps you’re already noticing signs of irritability. You’re bone tired and you just can’t get out of bed in the morning. You’re racked with anxiety and fear about the future of your company and you resent other business owners who have made it.
If you find yourself in the land of burnout, consider it a wake up call. It’s not about shame or blame. It’s about recognizing that you’ve been working in a way that’s unsustainable. If you want to build a sustainable business, you have to work at it in a sustainable way.
Three Ways to Create A Sustainable Work Practice
#1: Set Boundaries
Believe it or not, most of what’s involved in burnout recovery and prevention is having boundaries in place. Boundaries allow you to be intentional about how you spend your time and energy, what you’re taking responsibility for and making sure you take care of your needs.
When you create boundaries around your time at work, you schedule your self-care in advance. You buy more time by delegating more out and eliminating the busy work. When others ask for your time or attention, you learn how to say ‘no’ as needed.
People pleasers struggle with boundary setting specifically because they feel guilty for putting down boundaries. They worry others will be disappointed or upset. They want to take care of them, but because they are taking responsibility for others’ happiness, when those other folks aren’t happy, the people pleasers jump into action to “fix” it.
While their empathy is admirable, pleasing others from a place of guilt or fear will only breed resentment, especially if others aren’t happy after you jumped in to save the day. You end up feeling unappreciated for all your sacrifices. Alternatively, if you believe you’re not enough, it will feel like, yet again, nothing you do is enough.
What makes boundary setting difficult is our limiting beliefs. Coaching is an opportunity to examine your beliefs from the past and see which ones are no longer serving you. When you’ve cleared out the mind clutter, you’ll be able to set boundaries, engage in self-care, and detach your worth from the success of your business and other people’s happiness.
A mental boundary might be not thinking about work after the work day ends, not thinking about how your business is doing compared to other people’s businesses, and not beating yourself up when something doesn’t go as planned.
#2: Focus on Recovery
Just when things aren’t going your way, you might feel the urge to push through. This is natural and common, but it’s a mistake. What you need most is to step away from work. Give yourself a real chance to recover from the stress.
Over time, you’ll come across different tools that can help you cope in times of stress. Keep a running list of these tools so you can be reminded to utilize them as needed.
If you’re not sure where to start with recovery, the best idea is to first decode your burnout. When you understand why you’ve burned out in the first place, you can implement solutions that are customized to your needs.
Here are some recovery examples based on your burnout profile or personality type:
Thinkers, who tend to be highly responsible, would especially benefit from breaking away from routine and finding new things to enjoy to give them a renewed sense of energy.
Feelers like to take care of everyone around them, but being more strategic about how much of your resources you give away at work will allow you to have more left over for yourself and your loved ones.
Doers need to slow down. You’re going so fast, but do you have a sense of where this is taking you? Because you’re moving at such a high speed, there are things that you’re missing along the way. Pay attention to what’s happening to you as you are exerting energy and to the consequences of your actions. Perhaps by spending so much time on your business, you’re neglecting your family or your health. Tuning in to your regrets is a great way to consider what to change moving forward.
#3: Reset your limiting beliefs
You might have noticed a ton of negative thoughts swimming around in your head. This may be your version of normal or it might be because you’re skating on thin ice and are burned out. In addition, there may be beliefs that keep you engaging with your business in a way that’s led you to burnout. Without challenging your thoughts or beliefs, even if you recover from burnout, you’ll continue to engage in a way that’s unsustainable and will burn you out over and over again.
One way to work on your thinking is to practice gratitude. It trains your brain to focus on the positives and can be a gateway to optimism. When you’re in a positive space, you can manifest more of what you want and prevent the situation from draining your energy. It’s a practice that can turn your mood around even in the midst of a difficult state.
If it’s just too difficult to access any form of positivity from this place of burnout, start by listing out everything you feel resentful about. By acknowledging your thoughts and emotions, you create space for healing. Consider working with a coach or therapist to help you process through your list and get to the other side.
As an entrepreneur, you carry a lot of responsibility on your shoulders, especially if you have your hands in every part of the business. There’s a lot to think about and if you’re not managing your stress well, over time, the weight of your business can burn you out.
While there are aspects of the business that are in your control, you can’t control everything. When things don’t go as planned, when you’re not as successful as you’d like to be, or when there are unexpected turns, if your strategy is always to push yourself and work harder, you’re at serious risk of burning out.
To minimize that risk, you need to develop a sustainable work practice that incorporates self-care, eliminates energy drains, and allows you to focus on aspects of the business that ‘glow your hair back.’ Everything else can be delegated out so you can show up with intention.
If you’re already feeling the effects of burnout, start by setting appropriate boundaries. This ensures you stop the bleeding and prevent it from getting worse. Then focus your efforts on recovery and reset those beliefs that turn your mind against you.
If you’re burning out, download the Burnout Checklist to see which stage you are in and what you need to focus on to recover. Go to: https://drsharongrossman.com/burnoutchecklist/