Entrepreneurs and Burnout

If you’ve lost the energy, enthusiasm, or focus that you once felt in your role at work, you might be suffering from entrepreneurial burnout.

Whether you are an employee or the founder of a new company, working at a startup is often a chaotic and life-consuming experience that eventually leads to burnout. Startup environments operate at a relentless pace and lack the conventional structures of more established business settings. With few breaks, shifting roles, and work following you home you’ve probably noticed the legitimate tension between achieving the startup’s goals and taking good care of yourself.

It can be confusing to suddenly lose the passion and commitment for your work that you once had. You’re probably hoping to regain your driven attitude and get back to a state of high performance but aren’t sure how. This article outlines the warning signs of burnout to watch out for in startups and outlines specific strategies for managing it.

What is Entrepreneurial Burnout?

Burnout is typically described as a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion that results from ongoing exposure to high-stress environments. While stress is a normal and manageable component of any job, burnout is an ongoing episode of persistent stress that leaves you feeling hopeless, empty, or apathetic about your role at work. In a state of burnout, you might find yourself missing deadlines, avoiding phone calls, ignoring emails, or experiencing more conflict in your personal relationships while feeling numb to it all.

“Always on” Culture of Startups

Many startups operate on adrenaline and a “can-do” attitude.

You’ve likely felt a legitimate push to sacrifice your own personal boundaries and downtime in order to meet the pressing demands of the startup. While the workload required to get a new business off the ground is understandably intense, the all-or-nothing focus on success can make it difficult to slow down and separate work time from personal time. Eventually you may begin to feel apathetic and exhausted.

In defiance of the exhaustion, startup culture sends you persistent messages that read, “Burnout is just part of the hustle.” Some coworkers may even go so far as to gloat about their burnout, viewing it as a trophy of success and dedication. This environment complicates your ability to find health and balance in your life. You may feel motivated to be a team player and push through the exhaustion so that the startup succeeds.

On the other hand, the demands necessary to fulfill the vision of the organization could be at odds with what you need in order to feel healthy and happy. When you’re in the middle of such a dilemma and feeling rundown, it’s hard to find a clear perspective.

Ever-shifting roles

The adaptive nature of most startup businesses requires a high level of agility and multitasking. Before you know it, you’ve been pulled in so many conflicting directions that you’re no longer fully present to any single task. Distractions are high and productivity is low. Or perhaps you felt engaged in your initial role with the organization, but the constantly changing dynamic has since brought you to a new position that feels deeply unfulfilling.

If you no longer feel connected to and engaged with what you’re working on, cynicism creeps in and your passion for the job may dwindle.

Warning Signs of Entrepreneurial Burnout

Changes in mood. The excitement for your role at the startup has faded. You might find yourself forwarding calls to voicemail because you’re not sure you can feign enthusiasm for the person on the line. In your homelife, perhaps you’re becoming more irritable and less patient with your partner and friends. You’re just not feeling like your usual self anymore.

Feeling tired and low energy. Constant stimulation, screen time, and task management takes a toll on your stamina.

Loss of appetite. Consistent daily stress puts the body in the fight-or-flight response, which triggers adrenaline and suppresses appetite. A lack of proper nutrition will cause you to feel rundown and depleted.

Loss of concentration. If it’s become harder to focus and your productivity has slowed to the point where you’re now missing deadlines, burnout is likely to blame.

Forgetfulness. Through a combination of fatigue and apathy you’re misplacing things around the office and can’t seem to find your car keys.

Feeling anxious and depressed. Worry and doubt cause you to obsess over every word as you compose your next email. Or maybe you’re ignoring responding to your inbox all together. The accumulation of stress in your body and mind is really taking a toll on your mental health.

Becoming sick more frequently than usual. Having ignored so many other warning signs, your body finally falls ill. Stress, poor diet, and lack of sleep weakens the immune system and increases your chance of catching something contagious.

In order to regain the energy and enthusiasm you once felt at work, you’ll first need to recover from entrepreneurial burnout. Next, you can work to increase your awareness of when you’re getting close to burnout. Monitoring your mood and physiology according to these warning signals is a great place to start.

With an early detection system in place you can work on making the adjustments to your life that will make you more resilient against burnout. Here are several strategies to help you strengthen your personal boundaries and self-care habits in order to manage your mood and energy more effectively.

Steps to Overcome Entrepreneurial Burnout:

Let’s discuss some practical ways you can overcome entrepreneurial burnout…

Prioritize an Opportunity for Recovery

If you’re currently experiencing burnout, give yourself a legitimate chance to decompress and recover.

This could take longer than you think, so take it seriously and truly get some distance from everything related to work. Talk with your team and make it clear that you need some time off with zero distractions. Create an “out of office” message for your email account and temporarily delete work related apps from your devices. Setting firm boundaries around your time off will allow you to more fully relax and keep you from falling back into the habit of working.

Ask yourself, “What do I love to do for fun that I haven’t done in a really long time? What puts me at ease and makes me feel refreshed?” Choose an activity or a setting that speaks to you at a deep level, make it a priority, and minimize distractions. Your mind and body will have a chance to recuperate and you’ll likely gain a boost in productivity when you are back on the job.

Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the art of paying attention to the present moment.

Joseph Goldstein, a renowned meditation teacher, defines mindfulness as “the quality and power of mind that is deeply aware of what’s happening – without commentary and without interference.” By learning to focus on what’s occurring in the here-and-now you can work on becoming more curious and less judgmental about your thoughts and behaviors, which allows you to make better decisions, improve interpersonal communication, and perform at a higher level.

In fact, MIT developed a self-awareness program for a group of its entrepreneurial students who found the practice of mindfulness to be a valuable asset in creating more successful startups. To begin your mindfulness practice, dedicate five minutes of your day to sitting quietly and just focusing on either your breath or your surroundings.

When a thought, feeling, or sensation arises, simply label it as such and return to the original focus.

Pay attention to what your body is telling you

Keep an eye out for the warning signs of entrepreneurial burnout by learning to subtly notice physical sensations like abrupt shifts in heartrate, shallow breathing, headaches, and dizziness. Once you notice the sensation, see if you can pause what you’re doing and take a moment to attend to it.

Perhaps you decide to drink some water or have a snack to take care of that headache and get some energy flowing.

Or maybe you need to get up from hunching over at the desk to do some light stretching. If you notice that you’re in a heightened state of anxiety, mindfulness can slow the heartrate and steady your nervous system. These may seem like small and trivial activities, but as they become more habitual your stress levels will improve and you’ll be working to keep burnout at bay.

Schedule short breaks throughout the day

Taking breaks throughout the workday gives your brain a chance to process and work through problems. By skipping out on these small reprieves, your mental clarity suffers. Make sure to step away from your work from time to time, eat some food, and drink plenty of water. Try using an timer app on your desktop or smartphone to program a 5-minute break reminder on the hour.

Challenge your idea of what success is supposed to look like

Startup culture tends to promote a standard of performance where team members are expected to give 100% of themselves to the company at all times. In such an environment, burnout becomes a symbol of pride for those who persevere and achieve, despite feeling completely rundown and exhausted.

You may be asking, “How am I to strike a balance between taking care of myself and keeping my job when I’m surrounded by colleagues who never take a day off?”

First and foremost, it’s imperative to realize that you are a human being with certain physical, emotional, and mental limits. If you consistently push past those limits, your physiological makeup is at an increased risk of breaking down over time due to the effects of chronic stress. The mind and body require leisure and rest for optimal functioning. When you include and prioritize self-care in your vision for success, you will be better equipped to perform on the job.

Next, spend some time reflecting on and defining what success means to you. What exactly are you working so hard for? What is it that you’re striving to achieve? The process of reflecting on these questions can help to illuminate your personal values. When you are confident in your goals and know where you’re headed, motivation flows more readily. On the other hand, you might discover that your values don’t align with the payoff of devoting so much energy to your current task or to the startup itself.

It’s possible that you’ll discover it is time to move on from your current project and find something that more properly aligns with what you want for yourself.

Click here to learn more about dealing with failure in entrepreneurship.

Speak up for your preferences

It’s okay to say no. When you’re able to reject certain demands on your time, you’ll have more of an ability to say yes to the things that fill you up and excite you about work. Figure out what you like best about your roles in the startup and start advocating for those job responsibilities.

Maybe you feel energized by speaking directly with customers, but lately you’ve been tasked with a more socially distant role of analyzing the social media accounts. Learning to constructively voice your preferences for certain job responsibilities can help you feel more engaged in your role at the startup. Enjoying what you do boosts your self-esteem and can help keep you from landing in a state of burnout.

Connect with others

Find time to connect with other coworkers or peers who can relate to what you’re going through. It’s so common to feel overwhelmed and exhausted by the demands of a chaotic and fast-paced work environment. Surrounding yourself with people who “get it” can help reduce some of the anxiety you feel when you mistakenly imagine that you’re the only one who is going through burnout.

Seek Out Support for Entrepreneurial Burnout

In an ideal world, you wouldn’t wait until you’re completely exhausted to decide to seek help with burnout. However, the pressures of startup culture often override the personal boundaries that would otherwise allow you to prioritize your own well-being. If you feel like you’re stuck in a burnout rut and just spinning your wheels, it might be a good time to enlist the help of an expert.

Counseling for entrepreneurs can be an extraordinary tool for dealing with burnout as a treatment for depression and anxiety, a vehicle to clarify authentic and meaningful goals for your life, and support through career transitions.

To get a solid leg up on burnout in the startup world, it’s important to have self-care practices and a support system in place to manage it. Contact me today to learn more about counseling for entrepreneurs.

About Michael Hilgers, M.MFT

I’m a Licensed Professional Counselor working remotely with clients around the world. I believe that everyone has the potential to change; to create new paths, to go in new directions. Life is hard. Counseling can help.

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