Quell the entrepreneur burnout

The push to succeed, even the effort to survive in business, can sometimes be too much to cope with, reports WENDY TUOHY. But there is help, and steps to take when burnout singes your entrepreneurial wings.

By Wendy Tuohy

Entrepreneurial burnout

Entrepreneurs have taken a huge burden upon themselves, and the risk of personal burnout is very real – and potentially devastating, both individually and for their businesses.


Burnout among entrepreneurs and owners of medium-sized businesses is a huge problem in Australia, and many proprietors are unaware or unable to acknowledge they are at risk, industry observers say.

If business owners fail to act on symptoms stemming from work-based anxieties and demands that are running them down, they are more likely to slip into clinical depression, say business coaches such as Samantha McDonald and industry psychologist Eve Ash.

“I see so many people with this, and often they don’t understand they are not getting enough balance; they just think how they’re feeling is normal,” says McDonald, MD of Dare Coaching & Seminars.

“It’s a huge problem; and people need to understand you can’t sustain the whole working-too-hard thing. You can get sick.”

Symptoms of work-based burnout include listlessness, lack of energy, lack of interest in the business and home life, arguments at home, “stopping enjoying anything they normally do enjoy doing, such as exercising”, says McDonald.

“They’re very tired – you can be quite close to depression. Burning out you can end up quite depressed, some are just tearful all the time,” she says. Other signs include feeling overwhelmed or overloaded by the business, problems spilling into home life, and just that “their business no longer seems fun”.

Psychologist Eve Ash also lists signs such as persistent tiredness, headaches, moodiness, loss of perspective on happiness and not having time for one’s self or family.

“So many things are spoken of (by burned-out people) as ‘not enough’, ‘too much work’, ‘too hard’, ‘not enough time’, ‘I wish I could…’, too many of what I call negative scripts,” says Ash.

Successful proprietors such as Katherine Sampson, founder of the Healthy Habits chain of sandwich bars, say creating and sustaining a growing business can take a big personal toll.

“I know I am burned-out, but it’s really hard (to maintain balance),” says Sampson. “I know that I should be going to the gym, but you never find time, you always find an excuse.

“This week I had three personal training sessions booked and I cancelled two; last week I did the same.”

When her business was smaller, she made a rule of taking holidays to refresh, but now finds she can’t. She plans to take more short breaks and has made fitness bookings well into 2008 to address being overwhelmed by work.

“You know you’re burned-out when you’re dreading your days,” she says. “It’s when you’re in a business you love, and you love what you do, but you have days when you get up and think ‘I just can’t do this any more, I can’t face the world’.”

Sampson advises aspiring business people that when burnout strikes they should take every day minute by minute, see family or friends, and get decent sleep.

“There’s no such thing as work-life balance at the level I’m at; when you’re running a business at this level you don’t have a choice about going home at 6pm to see family,” she says.

“When you take a big business risk you have to live that life until it reaches a critical mass and you can afford to employ a $150,000-a-year marketing manager, plus a financial controller, general manager and lawyer to make decisions for you.”

Alarmingly for would-be entrepreneurs, John Newton, founder of Australia’s largest jumping castle chain Jumping J-Jays, says that a myriad of personal sacrifices, potentially even including your marriage, are necessary to succeed.

“If you’re not willing to not see your family, or not see your Mum, and maybe be divorced and not see your kids every weekend or every month, then you probably won’t be a successful entrepreneur,” says Newton, who is divorced and has moved to Texas to expand the business.

“I have to have my blinkers on a certain way in order to stay a successful entrepreneur. If you’re willing to give up what most people see as regular life or normality, you’re going to succeed,” he says.

Newton, 34, believes his passion for his business will stave off burnout. His main health concession is regular running.

But Ash says such isolation, long hours and stress as Newton lives with sends many entrepreneurs into burnout. “Staying focused on their own business and working long hours to ‘deliver’ keeps them out of circulation with others,” says Ash. Also she says “it can be very stressful being responsible for staff and their livelihoods”.

“Self time” is vital, and this includes time to exercise, relax and see family and friends.

Working to the exclusion of these things for extended periods can lead to “depression, becoming unwell and not recovering quickly; sadness, stress symptoms and big impact on relationships and family”.

Due to the electronic, “24/7 business world”, burnout is on the increase.

But entrepreneurs who have survived a period of burnout, such as John Randel, the founder and chief executive of recycled rubber manufacturer A1Rubber, whose first factory burned down causing him a period of depression, say there are many strategies to avoid it.

Randel says it is vital to hire good people to support you, and to manage their workloads carefully. Having good systems and processes also reduces stress on owners.

Business coach McDonald adds that learning to delegate is extremely important. “People need to work hard in small business to get it off the ground, but they also need to be clever about it and give responsibility to other people.

Using a diary system to keep systems running and prevent work build-up, having a “closed door” policy periodically to allow yourself time to work without interruption, taking time off, leaving work at 5pm at least once a week, were also useful strategies.

“Also, I get people to check when they really get most of their work done, and what’s in the schedule that really doesn’t need to be there,” says McDonald. “Often they find half the things they are doing don’t really need to be there.”

She and Ash both strongly urge business owners feeling overwhelmed to seek support from the people around them, and to see a doctor quickly.




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