By Robyn Goldenberg
Question: “We’ve been working harder than we ever have before with fewer resources and for less money at the end. I’m starting to feel like there’s no end in sight, and I am losing interest in pushing forward. I’ve been falling behind with projects. I haven’t felt like working for the past week or so. I have work to do, I just don’t want to do it. Every task on my plate is making me feel more and more anxious. I just feel tired all the time, and I start a lot of things but then I don’t want to finish them. Maybe I’m just being lazy. Any advice on how to get past this?”
Answer: Sounds like burnout. And it’s no wonder that business owners are feeling this way. This past year has placed unimaginable amounts of stress and pressure on everyone, especially business owners. The uncertainty of what the future holds is scary enough for a normal person, but include the additional responsibilities of keeping your business running and making money, managing without enough resources, balancing the company’s needs with family needs, etc., and it’s a lot to handle. And for most business owners, their operation is their number one asset, which they rely on to live—and their families are relying on it too.
“Burnout can come with a lot of symptoms: Often people who are in burnout have trouble concentrating on other things besides the negative.”What is burnout exactly?
Burnout is common for business owners. Typically, burnout is described as an extended period of time where a person feels exhaustion and a lack of interest in doing things—things that they might normally be interested in, which ultimately results in a decline in job performance and productivity. From Dr. David Ballard, the head of the American Psychological Association’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program: “A lot of burnout really has to do with experiencing chronic stress. In those situations, the demands being placed on you exceed the resources you have available to deal with the stressors.” Unfortunately, without intervention burnout will wreak havoc on a person’s happiness, health, home life, relationships, performance, etc. Burnout takes over your life, and it can easily become crippling, so it’s important to recognize the signs so you can take action before it engulfs you.
How do I know if I am experiencing burnout? What are the signs?
Burnout can come with a lot of symptoms: Typically it presents itself through exhaustion, lack of motivation, constant frustration, and general pessimism. Often people who are in burnout have trouble concentrating on other things besides the negative. When we are stressed, our brains narrow focus on that one problem to get it solved. This is a normal reaction, and a good way for our brains to work through short bursts of stress. However, when stress becomes chronic, and when we move into burnout, the brain stays focused on that narrow path, which means that we have trouble working on and paying attention to other things. I’ve been seeing this with a lot of business owners, particularly as they are trying to plan 2021 after dealing with the chronic stress that was brought by 2020. They know that other planning needs to happen, and that the focus needs to shift, but their brains just won’t let them move past the problems of the here and now. You might also notice that your work performance and productivity are down, personal relationships are negatively affected, and that you’re not taking care of yourself as well as you used to.
How does one get to the point of burnout? You don’t just go from “everything’s fine” to light stress to burnout overnight; it’s important to look at these symptoms as early warning signs. Burnout starts with everyday stress. You may notice that some days are more stressful than others, but not worry about it. Typical symptoms of baseline stress include reduced optimism for certain tasks, anxiety, avoiding making decisions, neglecting personal needs, poor sleep, headaches, and irritability. These are all things that we may encounter and dismiss as “normal” but should be monitored.
“Especially in times of extreme stress and burnout, it’s critical that you cultivate a life outside of your company that makes you happy.”When “normal” stress starts to move into what is typically called chronic stress, you’ll probably start to feel irritated more frequently. Some of the symptoms of chronic stress include aggression, apathy, waking up feeling tired, withdrawal from friends and family, physical symptoms like stomachaches, feeling like things are out of control, and increased consumption of caffeine. Take these issues as serious warnings that burnout might be around the corner. At this point, trying to continue like everything is fine becomes almost impossible. You might find that you’ll have chronic headaches and stomach issues, a pessimistic outlook on life/work, self-doubt, escapist behaviors and mentality, or a lack of desire to do anything, including work and family obligations. Many of these symptoms mirror those of depression, so don’t wait for things to spiral this far, and combat burnout as soon as you recognize the signs.
How to work through burnout
The first step is to realize that you are indeed burned out, or on the verge of it. There’s nothing wrong with you, and you’re not just “being lazy.” It’s OK to admit that things aren’t OK. Business owners tend to put themselves into silos, where everything sits on your shoulders, like a tent pole holding up the entire operation. This may be especially true as you’ve had to lay off key staff who normally helped with many of these duties. The burden of that responsibility, plus responsibilities and stress outside of the office, becomes a lot to handle. You don’t have to sit in your silo and pretend everything is fine. More importantly, it’s OK to ask for help—there’s no shame in it.
There are resources out there if you need someone to help talk you through it. Virtual therapy, done through your phone or computer, has seen a huge growth through 2020. A lot of insurances cover this now, but it’s a cost-effective way to talk to a licensed therapist for those who don’t have insurance coverage.
Looking for something a little less “head-shrink”? Find a coach. My recommendation would be to find a business coach with a great reputation, or a life coach who has experience working with business owners. We have been working with our clients throughout COVID to recognize that their feelings are completely valid while building a plan with action steps to move forward. Find someone who will help you work through these feelings, so you don’t sit and dwell in your burnout. Ask for references when looking to engage a coach, and actually do your reference calls.
More of a do-it-yourself person? That’s OK too. Think about what helps you relax. Some people meditate, do yoga, hike, jam out to their favorite music, read books, knit, create pottery—the options are endless. What really matters is that you choose something that is enjoyable to you, and helps you relax. Once you’ve figured out what that is, delegate time in your calendar for that. Quite literally, block out time in your schedule to relax. I know it sounds silly, but creating time to focus on relaxing is the only way to build the habit, especially for the time being when you’re lacking motivation to do even the things you once enjoyed.
Business owners get stuck in work mode where everything they do revolves around the operation. This can be a business owner’s biggest helper, but also their biggest downfall. Especially in times of extreme stress and burnout, it’s critical that you cultivate a life outside of your company that makes you happy. That could be working on your hobby, going to the gym, spending dedicated time with friends and family, etc. Find something that allows you to participate in non-business activities and find happiness.
How much are you sleeping? Chronic stress can negatively impact your sleep, whether that’s waking up frequently during the night, or full-blown insomnia. Research shows that poor sleep has negative effects on productivity, motivation, mental function, and memory. Not to mention that your body actually heals itself during sleep, which is why a sleep schedule is so crucial to athletes. You need proper rest to keep your body and brain healthy. Prioritizing sleep by unplugging from electronics early at night, reducing stimulation (like caffeine) before bed, and setting a regular bedtime schedule can help you get back on track for a restorative night’s sleep.
And finally, disorganization can lead to increased stress and anxiety. If you’re constantly worried about forgetting things, and the seemingly insurmountable number of tasks on your plate, that could be a sign of burnout. Build a task list (either handwritten or electronic), prioritize those tasks, and set due dates for goals to make it happen. We call this a Next Steps List at Strategy Leaders: It’s a tool we use not just for our clients, but for our own internal tasks and projects as well. Be realistic about those due dates, and don’t overwhelm yourself with trying to get everything done today, tomorrow, this week. Putting a system in place to keep track of tasks helps to make sure nothing slips through the cracks and will help ease your stress over dropping the ball. Last year was exceptionally challenging for the far too many, and its lingering effects have heaped an enormous amount of pressure on business owners. Burnout is real, and it can feel like the end of the world. But the good news is that it is treatable and manageable once you recognize the signs and take steps to work through it, so you can move your business and your personal life forward even in the most difficult times. [CD0321]
Robyn Goldenberg is Director of Operations and Marketing for Strategy Leaders. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com.