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Small business burnout: what it looks like, and 6 things you can do about it!

Small business burnout is increasingly common. We look at the common signs and symptoms, and how to address it before it gets you under.
small business burnout

There’s no doubt about it, the last year has been next-level crazy – from politics, to economics, to a record-breaking public health crisis. But when is it not, even without a raging global pandemic? Small business burnout is more common than you may think, but thankfully there are things you can do to tackle it head-on. At a time when the best of us are feeling frazzled and uninspired, here’s how to reboot your entrepreneurial spirit.

What is small business burnout?

Small business burnout is usually described as extreme exhaustion, a feeling of hopelessness, isolation, and the inability to concentrate well, or think clearly. It’s often accompanied by a drastic drop in motivation and job satisfaction, that can leave you feeling anxious, cynical, and depressed. Experts say that burnout comes in two forms: circumstantial and existential. Circumstantial burnout stems from workplace challenges and frustrations, like not taking enough time to rest properly, particular conflict between individuals (staff or clients), and financial pressures. Existential burnout, however, is when you lose the sense of meaning found in your work, motivation, professional identity, and connection with others. In general, small business burnout is usually caused by extended periods of severe stress, mounting performance pressure, and working in unsustainable ways. Sound familiar?

Why does it happen?

Entrepreneurs are especially at risk of small business burnout because of how energetic, passionate, and often obsessive they are about their work. They face significantly higher levels of stress than the average employee, tend to have fewer emotional safety nets in the workplace, are constantly aware of being financially responsible for others’ livelihoods, and have to grapple with extreme uncertainty in their daily decision-making. Entrepreneurs also tend to identify strongly with their business, often absorbing it into their sense of identity – so much so, that when its success dwindles for whatever reason (like an imposed national lockdown), they take it on as a huge personal failure, deeply impacting their self esteem. 

The best thing to do when you realise you’re running on empty, is to stop and address it straight away – not just for your own sake, but for the survival of your precious business too. It’s time to abandon the tunnel-vision and focus on self-care.

1. Get some urgent rest

Even if you would normally have taken a trip somewhere exciting, a lot of people are too afraid or unable to travel at the moment. What with working from home, many have basically not left the office since March 2020. Even if you can’t go very far, challenge yourself to enforce as much proper down-time as you can afford to take, as a matter of grave urgency. Smaller bursts of intense rest can make all the difference, like a weekend away, a strict no-work policy on a chosen day, switching your notifications off at a certain time, and getting regular outdoor exercise somewhere in nature. Sleeping well is also a total game-changer for brain function, mood, and overall health – check out these sleep hygiene tips.

2. Pivot thoughtfully

Businesses across the country have been pivoting in inspiring new ways, and it’s only the beginning. Now is a great time to dust off the old business plan and completely reframe your operation from start to finish. Where you find customers, what and how you sell, and how best to communicate, will all have changed radically since you last put your thoughts down on paper. This past year has to have had a profound impact on what your long term strategy for survival (and growth) looks like – spend some time formalising your updated plan for the new year

3. Revive your passion

This one is probably the toughest to achieve when you’re completely depleted, and feel like what used to be your passion is now your personal prison! (That’s why you should first step away and take a break). When you’ve cleared your mind and rested your body, you may already be feeling like a different person. But, if that’s not the case, take your updated business plan and brainstorm new ways to market your product, new industries to work with, or even a new product or service to add to your catalogue. You do love what you do – enough so that you did one of the hardest things on the planet, which is to bravely forge ahead on your own steam! 

4. Learn to delegate

Once you’ve had a chance to clear your head, think long and hard about how you can avoid this mental pitfall in future. Look critically at the work you don’t have to be doing (or hate), and outsource or hire someone where you can. Accountability is a powerful leadership tool, so stay on top of to-do lists and deadlines with whoever you choose. Combine this with working on getting organised and sticking to a schedule, which will stop you from being pulled in a million different directions, and spinning out of control. 

5. Take better care of yourself

The holistic benefits of exercise, eating well, and getting enough sleep can’t be overstated. It’s also important to seek professional help for ongoing mental or physical pain. Try some different modalities like therapy, massage, acupuncture, yoga, or even throwing a frisbee for your dog in the park – whatever helps you and makes you feel good. Health looks different for everyone, but we all know when we’re not feeling okay. Self-care also means taking care of your state of mind on a daily basis, whether that means cultivating a mindfulness practice, trying out some meditation techniques, or just learning to set better boundaries and say “no” more often. 

6. Stop to celebrate your successes

Take it one step further than just ticking off the goals you’ve achieved, and stop to acknowledge the profound sacrifices you (and your team) have made in making things happen. Honour that difficult part of the road to your achievements, and allow yourself to really appreciate the full picture of all you’ve overcome. We tend to spend so much time in panic mode, brainstorming furiously how to damage-control when things have gone wrong.  In the end, we’re focusing most of our energy on negativity, robbing us of experiencing our hard-earned joy.

Our society practically worships those who are prepared to put in the longest hours, sacrifice everything to get to the top, and generally push themselves harder than anyone else. We revere their dedication and reward them with ‘rockstar’ status, wishing we could be as committed and ‘badass’. But what is the point of all this success, when we lose everything that gives life real meaning: like healthy relationships, personal well being, and sincere happiness? In order to sustain the life-giving passion that helped start your business in the first place, prioritise living a little too.

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