Last week I talked about the recent Xero research which found that overall, small business owner wellbeing is currently below that of the general population. This was seen as a global problem, rather than a local one.
Some of the factors contributing to this included business-related stress spilling over into personal lives; the ability to take time to rest and recover; undertaking fulfilling work (or a lack of it); and access to affordable counselling or peer support. I briefly touched on the topic of burnout but what do we mean by burnout and how do we know if it’s happening to us or not.
It’s a question I get asked a lot and I think it’s an important area to discuss – both based on the concern that people have that it may be happening to them or because it actually is. It was based on my own burnout experience around six years ago that I became interested in the topic and with the World Health Organisation now classing burnout as an occupational phenomenon, burnout seems to have become a normalised part of everyday life.
But what do we mean by burnout? It’s generally understood to stem from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” and is characterised by feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; feelings of negativity or cynicism related to one’s job; and a lack of belief in one’s own ability to deliver what’s needed.
It’s not feeling a bit tired, it’s not feeling a bit stressed and it’s not a feeling of being overwhelmed. Although it may be all or any of those things when you are on the path to burnout, and that is why it’s important to recognise whether you may be showing signs. I didn’t realise I was burning out until it was too late. Then it took me a long time to recover. So, understanding the signs, so you can take action early enough is essential.
The signs of burnout
You may start to lose focus, find it difficult to concentrate or be less productive when completing tasks.
Fatigue can start to set in, making it more difficult to sleep or enjoy activities outside of work.
You may feel more cynical or critical at work.
Irritability or impatience with co-workers, customers or clients is another indicator.
You may find it hard to concentrate.
You may lack the energy to be consistently productive.
You may have muscular tension, headaches, heart palpitations / chest pain or tummy troubles.
You may be feeling isolated — disinterested in the company of family and friends, or could be withdrawing from usual daily activities.
Overwhelm is another sign, where this is persistent and you don’t feel like you can get on top of things.
You may feel more emotional than usual and for some people they may have more emotional outbursts or feel more angry, fearful or moody.
Depression or low mood may become more prevalent, and you may find it harder to shift to a more positive mood.
You feel that every day at work is a bad day and you may feel hopeless about your life or work.
You are more regularly engaging in escapist behaviours, such as excessive drinking.
You don’t seem to feel better no matter what you do to improve the way you feel.
You are feeling more anxious than usual and that sensation is not going away.
Prevention is more effective than cure
Although preventing burnout in the first place by taking care of yourself is the best strategy, if you are experiencing signs of burnout you need to act as it tends not to go away on its own. It is likely to get worse unless you address the underlying issues causing it. So, how do you recover from burnout or prevent it from happening if you are concerned that you are burning out?
Recognise that self-care isn’t’ selfish – many of us make very little time to take care of ourselves yet when we’re running a business, it is essential that we get the balance right.
Ask for help – this can be a big jump for a founder or CEO who feels the need to be strong, robust and resilient. Yet we all need help sometimes and asking is not a sign of weakness.
Maintain your social life – quality relationships contribute significantly to our wellbeing, yet we often withdraw from our friends and family when we’re in delivery mode. Making time to connect with others is important.
Set boundaries – easier said than done for some of us but being able to say no, being clear about when you are switched on and switched off and creating space for yourself will enable you to manage your time and energy.
Think about your why. As founders and CEOs, we can often get so caught up in delivery that we forget why we are doing what we are doing. Yet purpose can be the lifeblood of our work and remembering this can provide a useful frame.
Take time off. Seems like a simple one but it can be hard to disconnect from work – and stay away from it, even when we’re on holiday. Sometimes your nervous system just needs a break.
Be honest with yourself. We can often pretend that we’re feeling fine when we’re not. Yet a lack of honesty with ourselves is a slippery slope that can lead us straight into burnout. Notice how you’re feeling, and if it’s not as good as it should be, take action.
Build rest into your day. It doesn’t have to be a 2-hour lunch break but having regular 5–10-minute breaks to stop can make a big difference to the way you feel overall.
Breathe – most of us need to do more of it. Taking a few deep breaths when we start to feel stressed, can be exactly what we need to reset our system.
Lower your standards. Many business founders and CEOs set themselves incredibly high standards. It creates huge amounts of pressure for them, and their team. If that’s you, consider applying the ‘good enough’ rule for a while and see if that makes a difference.
Treat yourself. Build in time for the things you enjoy, whether that’s doing something on your own or with others. It’s amazing how much we sacrifice when we’re working hard.