I heard someone say recently that just because something is common doesn’t mean that it’s “normal.” We often use the two words interchangeably when they mean two totally different things. It made me think of burnout especially in the world of entrepreneurship because I don’t know a single business owner or entrepreneur who hasn’t faced burnout at least once in their careers. It’s a terribly common experience among entrepreneurs, but I don’t believe we should accept it as “normal.”
The truth is, we shouldn’t have to reach burnout just to allow ourselves some margin for rest. We shouldn’t work ourselves to exhaustion before realizing there’s got to be a better way. So if you’ve been feeling some type of way lately, know that you’re NOT alone and that although it’s common to feel tired to the point of burnout, we do not have to accept it as the norm.
In this episode, I’ll share some of the most notable signs of burnout in entrepreneurs, and then what we can do to combat it and get back to feeling like our best, most vibrant selves both at work and in our personal lives, too. I’m going to try to speed through these signs because while they’re important to take note of and recognize, I don’t want to harp on the negative for too long and then. Let’s walk through tangible techniques for entrepreneurs to combat these signs of fatigue and burnout.
Entrepreneurs inevitably carry a heavy load of responsibilities and pressure, and it doesn’t just affect our mindset or mental health… burnout can affect everything from our physical health to our mood to our relationships, so much so that the World Health Organization called it a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” in its International Classification of Diseases diagnostic manual.
It listed three main symptoms for burnout which are:
1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion,
2. Increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings negative towards one’s career and
3. Reduced professional productivity.
The Harvard Business Review reported that burnout can lead to job dissatisfaction, absenteeism, inefficient decision making, depression, and heart disease.
I don’t know about you, but as the leader of a business, we can’t really afford to be inefficient with decision making or absent for large periods of time, and we certainly can’t afford risking our physical and mental health. The same article states that entrepreneurs are more at risk of burnout because they “tend to be extremely passionate about work and more socially isolated, they generally have limited safety nets, and operate in high uncertainty.” Because of these factors, a study found that 28% of founders feel moderately to strongly burned out. That’s almost one out of 3 of us!
If you’re raising your hand like, “Ummm, Jenna, I’m there, I’m burnt out” well, keep listening and if you’re like, “I’m not there yet but I’d like to avoid that destination, thank you very much” then listen to these 6 signs that will help you either qualify yourself as officially burnt out or notice the signs that you’re on your way towards it.
Sign #1: Your passion or creativity is zapped.
If you start feeling fatigued about working or like your focus and creativity just isn’t there, it’s probably an indication that you might be heading towards burnout. When you sit down to work and you’re trying to get your wheels spinning but feel nothing, or worse, if you feel anxious, sad, stressed or annoyed by your work… know that you don’t have to “power through” just to get it done.
These are some telltale signs that you’re either nearing or you’ve reached burnout, but you shouldn’t have to just do what you can to survive or stay afloat. You deserve to feel like a passionate leader the majority of the time.
Sign #2: You’re working crazy hard but you can’t identify the results.
When you find yourself working like crazy but you’re not actually able to take an inventory or report what you got done or the results your work drove, I call this multitasking-brain. It’s not that you’re NOT working, it’s almost the opposite, it’s that most of your efforts are getting thrown off by less important tasks like cleaning out your inbox or reorganizing your content calendar.
While you feel BUSY, you’re not really moving much of anything forward and so it’s easy to always feel behind and frazzled. You attempt to multitask to get more done and only end up side-tracked, frustrated, and even more tired than before. It’s an approach that keeps your time occupied but isn’t exactly productive or sustainable.
Sign #3: Your body is signaling that it’s tired.
According to Psychology Today, one of the main signs of burnout is chronic fatigue. You feel physically and emotionally exhausted no matter how much sleep you get, how many breaks you try to take, or how much caffeine you consume… you just can’t seem to feel like your regular self or get a boost of energy no matter what you do. It’s hard to get out of bed in the morning because you feel so drained and depleted, and work just doesn’t ignite you like it once did.
When you’re working, you might experience easy distraction or feel like you can’t get into the groove of work, even with tasks that you usually enjoy or love to do. You constantly feel the physical signs of stress because it seems like there’s a never-ending list of responsibilities and the weight of it can become overwhelming. This kind of continual stress actually can actually lead to heightened cortisol levels and adrenal fatigue, which only furthers the cycle of making you feel tired and spread thin.
Sign #4: You want to throw in the towel.
As entrepreneurs, we can carry so much responsibility and pressure which at times can get to be too much. Burnout tempts you to throw in the towel and pursue something else, really anything else that appears less stressful, and maybe you find yourself browsing job sites to see if you can find something that would provide you more security and consistency rather than being the one running the show all the time.
Or you might just start dreaming up other, seemingly lower pressure opportunities like becoming a painter or selling homemade jewelry or pottery. By the way, I’m not saying THOSE jobs don’t have their own set of pressures and stressors, but when you’re burnt out, I know for me that so many other opportunities become tempting and appear shinier than what’s currently on my plate.
And let me preface this point by saying that entrepreneurship is not for everyone and I totally understand the appeal of security and being able to punch out — so don’t ignore these urges if they truly are leading you away from entrepreneurship and you feel like that’s the right move for you personally, but I always remember when Nastia Luikin came on the podcast and sharing that on the days she wanted to quit gymnastics, her parents would tell her that she had to quit on a good day, she could never quit on a bad day because bad days come and go and they knew how passionate she was even if she was feeling burnt out!
Sign #5: You feel like your business has taken over your life.
For me, flexibility and freedom to spend my days as I wish is the absolute best part of running my own business, but in seasons where I’ve been burnt out, I don’t feel like I’m free or flexible at all, and maybe you can relate. It can feel like your business is running you rather than the other way around.
Most of us didn’t leave our regular 9-5 jobs to then work 60 or 70-hour weeks on a regular basis… so if you’re feeling like you are chained to your laptop or can’t get away from your email, to-do list, or responsibilities for more than an hour or two at a time, it’s likely that something’s got to change so that you don’t run yourself into the ground and reach a state of complete exhaustion and unhappiness.
Sign #6: You have zero boundaries.
You work at all hours of the day, you never rest, sign off, or log out. Notifications add stress and anxiety, not delight and you respond regardless of when they come in. You feel like you need to answer everyone right away or else the business will fall apart.
There’s actually such a thing as being TOO passionate about your business, the Harvard Business Review said in the same study I mentioned earlier. They call it being “obsessively passionate” and these entrepreneurs are identified by being driven more by pressures and outcomes like social acceptance, status, and financial gain than things like contentedness or serving others well.
Even though they don’t lack passion by any means, that ironically means that they perform less effectively because they’re too concerned with being on all the time, all hours of the day in order to gain more status or money or accolades in the long run. This is something that I’ve had to work consciously at over the years to break and re-learn and thankfully I’ve been able to do it, but I do catch myself sometimes getting so excited and obsessed with something that it can feel all consuming.
Now not every entrepreneur who lacks boundaries is obsessed with financial gain and status, but it could be that you’re attached to others’ opinions or the fear of failure, which makes you unable to unplug or let go of control, adding to long-term exhaustion and burnout. The Harvard Business Review says that despite their qualifications, those who are obsessively passionate reported a lack of focus and difficulty in balancing other roles and responsibilities outside of work.
First, burn out is common but it shouldn’t be a destination you aim to hit or become a normal occurrence for you. I look at entrepreneurship as seasons and there have absolutely been busy seasons and seasons of rest but if you’re currently feeling like you’ve jumped on a treadmill and the speed keeps going up and there’s no emergency strap for you to pull and you’re dying to jump off, then it’s important that we take those cues, that knowing, and we start to create an action plan around moving away from that.
If you’ve identified that you’re on your way to Burn Out City, the very first step is to evaluate your options. Can you take time off? Delegate? Scale back or eliminate some of your offerings? Have some difficult but necessary conversations with clients who you’re not able to serve right now?
Let’s talk about those last two — Scaling back, eliminating offers or services, and letting go of clients. If you are headed for burnout or already feeling it. Something’s got to give. That’s the hard truth.
If you are a side-hustler, what might that look like? Put a date on the calendar for an entire day, weekend, or week off from your side hustler. Then, arrange your work and schedule to complete all projects or fulfill orders up until that date. Say no, or ‘not right now’ to any new inquiries or requests that come in before that date. Keep a running list or database of all those new inquiries — even tell those potential clients or customers that you have a wait list and you can’t wait to connect with them on or after X date.
Once you’ve reached that magical date on your calendar — which will be motivating in and of itself to see it written in bright, bold letters as the days tick by — be firm in the boundary you set for yourself. This business you’ve created will not disappear overnight. Your success is not fleeting.
Rest. For Real.
Studies show that rest can increase your productivity and efficiency so if you need to lean on that fact to grant yourself the time and space, do it! If you can, take some intentional time AWAY from work or at the very least create boundaries and get some accountability around holding strong to them. Maybe you can take a week, maybe you can only afford a day or an afternoon off, maybe it’s as simple as logging out of email, shutting off phone notifications, or leaving your phone in the other room. The time itself doesn’t matter as much as how you spend it.
Let me also tell you that REST takes work, especially if your tendency is to be working all the time. I used to tell myself I wasn’t capable of rest but the truth was, I had to relearn HOW to rest and figure out who I am outside of my work, my output. Think of a vacation (and if you’re struggling to remember the last time you took one — this might be a sign you desperately need time off) and how on vacation it feels like you finally find your groove, collect your bearings right as you’re about to head home. For me, resting takes conscious effort but it’s worth it, I have to remind myself to slow down, to not be productive, to do things for the sake of play, to sign out and not feel pressure to post or update.
The Big Picture
If you’re in the thick of it right now or feel like you’re steamrolling down a path headed straight for burnout, know that you’re not alone and you do have options. It’s so important to recognize that taking on less, allowing yourself to rest and unplug, and setting up systems that enable you to step away from work is NOT lazy or unproductive. It’s the healthiest, most efficient thing you can do for yourself AND the longevity of your business. And it’s the biggest way to avoid burnout in the future, because you deserve to love what you do and have a break from it, too.