Entrepreneurs are well known for the long hours and hard work they put in to establishing their businesses, but a growing body of research shows that there is a price to pay – and it can be severe.
A 2015 study carried out by the Australian Institute of Business specifically into stress-related issues experienced by solo entrepreneurs found that 87.5% are being prevented from thinking clearly and completing work quickly, due to stress and fatigue.
The challenges of starting your own business are different to the stresses experienced by employees. Long hours, a demanding working environment and the pressure of running your own business can leave you feeling drained. Even high-achieving, intelligent people can reach a point where they realise that they have taken on too much.
Burnout is a term used to describe this feeling; a tiredness that isn’t resolved by getting a good night’s sleep, an exhaustion that sinks into your bones. We’ve worked with many successful startup businesses run by fantastic people, but without looking out for the warning signs of burnout and knowing how to deal with them, they would not have got far with their ventures.
Burnout is a term used to describe this feeling; a tiredness that isn’t resolved by getting a good night’s sleep, an exhaustion that sinks into your bones.
Burnout is not good for business
Burnout is a term that is often used in a casual and offhand manner, but it’s a genuine health problem with a complex set of variables contributing to its build-up. Burnout can be broken down into three distinct areas that combine to create the affliction: emotional exhaustion, loss of empathy, and reduction in work accomplishments.
Studies show a very strong link between emotional exhaustion, depression and job satisfaction, but what behaviours and personality traits leave you vulnerable to developing these attributes as an entrepreneur? A study by the Australian Institute of Business came up with three ‘profiles’ of entrepreneurial burnout:
- Physical breakdown – where the respondent’s body was not able to cope with the pressure and their physical health suffered, leading to illness.
- Mental fatigue – characterised by a ‘fuzzy’ feeling that left the respondent unable to concentrate and think clearly enough to perform their job to the best of their ability. Other symptoms included becoming forgetful, constant exhaustion, and inability to maintain concentration.
- Disinterest – losing all sense of challenge once the business was financially stable.
It was noted that entrepreneurs across these profiles experienced different levels of burnout at different frequencies, with some having one big burnout crash and others having smaller recurring episodes. Some who responded to the survey said they were never able to get back to feeling 100% after their experience.
It may seem easy for a fresh, energetic business starter to think that they have far too much enthusiasm and energy to let issues like this affect them, but the study found that it can be this boundless work ethic that sets the wheels in motion. One of the primary issues reported in the survey was not being able to sleep due to feeling the need to be ‘always on’ in order to cope with the demands of their businesses.
If you recognise yourself in any of the above profiles, don’t panic. Awareness and identification of negative behaviours will help you tackle them and build a stronger working pattern.
So let’s look at how to identify the symptoms and steer clear of them.
Why entrepreneurs suffer burnout
There are certain personality traits associated with being the kind of person who will start their own business and make a success of it. Using these stereotypes, we can identify some factors that are likely to contribute to the phenomenon of burnout in business starters.
Arguably the most central aspect of being an entrepreneur is passion. Without real enthusiasm, a true burning desire to make a business work, you’re very unlikely to succeed in business. Passion provides the energy and drive required to establish a business, as well as the self-belief. But passion can drive you to lengths that are not healthy. Finding the line where your passion pushes you into harmful behaviours is a key element to preventing burnout.
Finding the line where your passion pushes you into harmful behaviours is a key element to preventing burnout.
With passion comes pressure and with pressure comes stress. When a business owner is experiencing high-stress burnout, they’re likely to see a negative impact on their commitment to the business and a fall in the company’s performance as a result – a factor that can have serious consequences for a startup in the early stages of establishment. It’s the ability to recognise and overcome stress, rather than absorb it, that enables entrepreneurs to continue driving forward.
The impact of burnout
There is a misleading impression that burnout is nothing more than a running out of steam, an exhaustion of your reserves of energy, which implies that a bit of rest and relaxation will quickly see you back to fighting fit. This is not the case.
While research into the effects of burnout on entrepreneurs specifically is sparse, there have been plenty of studies into the outcomes of burnout on people who work in stressful situations in general, such as nurses and teachers. One survey of school teachers who had been identified as ‘burned out’ found that 90% of them met the diagnosis criteria for depression, of whom 63% were suffering from major depression. Among those diagnosed as depressed, 92% needed pharmacotherapy in combination with psychotherapy to treat their mental health.
The increased focus on mental health around the globe is leading to better and more comprehensive research that shows us the extent of the problems that depression can cause – and they’re not just in the mind. Anxiety and depression can affect your heart rate, causing long-term cardiovascular problems that doctors are still unsure how best to treat.
Suffering from depression has also been found to cause brain matter to suffer a decrease in density, which restricts your ability to think, exacerbating the inability to concentrate, and initiating feelings of guilt and low self-worth. This decreased brain activity can contribute to other depression symptoms like disturbed sleep, a decrease in appetite and an increase in apathy.
It’s estimated that around 90% of people who attempt suicide have suffered from mental health conditions such as depression. Reassuringly, a 2015 study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders found no link between manic tendencies and the traits that make one become an entrepreneur, nor your likelihood to succeed in business; however, it does appear that the rigours of starting your own business can lead to mental health issues if allowed to go unchecked.
Avoiding the pitfalls of burnout
The way to avoid burnout is far more deep-rooted than merely allowing yourself a bit of time off, going on holiday and indulging in general relaxation. In fact, this stereotype of recuperation can often prove harmful to someone suffering with apathy, who may become even more despondent on realising that a getaway doesn’t provide the relief and happiness they need.
Most successful entrepreneurs agree that the secret to avoiding burnout is to strike a healthy work-life balance; however, that balance differs from one person to the next. For some, routine is the best way to prevent work becoming all-consuming; for others flexibility is the key. Given the unpredictability of running your own business, an ability to roll with the punches and not be thrown by the unexpected is essential. If you don’t have that ability, you need to develop it or else find a less challenging way to make a living.
Enjoyment of what you do is also vital. That might sound trite but it’s another principle that the world’s most successful people all seem to agree upon. After all, isn’t that the whole point of being your own boss – to do things the way you think they should be done?
As your own boss, it’s very easy to become a tyrant with your own time. Any time spent away from the business or on non-business activities becomes a source of guilt. Take a more benevolent approach: as the most important human resource in your business, you need to protect yourself as you would any other valuable business asset. Schedule regular ‘me time’, when you switch off from business and indulge in other pleasures, such as family or exercise, and treat this time as a strategic necessity, not a source of guilt.
Schedule regular ‘me time’, when you switch off from business and indulge in other pleasures, such as family or exercise, and treat this time as a strategic necessity, not a source of guilt.
An acceptance that a few emails can wait until tomorrow, that a document doesn’t need reviewing deep into your evening, that you can switch your work phone off at the weekends – these things will help you reduce the self-imposed pressure that leads to a burnout. It’s easier said than done, but you need to be just as rigorous about preserving your own wellbeing as you are about the wellbeing of the business.
After all, the two are intrinsically linked.