Burnout is a state of exhaustion that is typically caused by chronic stress.

While not a diagnosable medical condition, it is now classified by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as an occupational phenomenon.

The WHO outlines the characteristics of burnout as:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job, and
  • reduced professional efficacy.

Burnout in business owners

While burnout can affect employees working in all kinds of occupations (and is thought to cost the economy millions each year through lost productivity) small business owners are also susceptible to the phenomenon.

When you are ‘always on’ for your business, combined with being exposed to prolonged stress from factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to be aware of the signs of burnout and know how to deal with it. If left unaddressed, burnout may not only have serious impacts on your mental wellbeing, but may also affect the ability of your business to operate at its best.

Are you suffering from burnout?

  • you feel tired most days and may even feel completely drained and overwhelmed by what you need to deal with that day
  • your sleep could be disrupted, and you either have trouble falling asleep or wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall sleep again
  • you have trouble concentrating and forget things easily, or can’t focus enough to get things done, leading to a lack of productivity
  • you may experience physical symptoms of stress like shortness of breath, heart palpitations or headaches
  • you may feel depressed and anxious (depression and anxiety are also recognised as mental illnesses in their own right, and you should seek assistance if you are suffering from these)
  • feeling irritable and cynical, which can lead to relationship problems
  • social isolation and detachment – including no longer finding enjoyment in things you usually like doing

What can you do about it?

Addressing the ongoing stress in your life is the main way to help minimise the effects of burnout. While it is common for business owners to feel like they can’t ‘take their foot off the pedal’, ignoring the signs of burnout and soldiering on is only likely to make you feel worse. While anyone in mental distress is encouraged to seek medical advice and support (starting with your GP), here are some ideas to reduce stressors which may have led to feelings of burnout and fatigue.

Burnout often stems from overwork and 2022 is a good time to reset your boundaries. The disruption of the pandemic had one silver lining, in that society as a whole has some changed expectations about where people work and when.

Take a break

Firstly, it is likely that you need a complete break to help you recover. Try to take a holiday from your business — ideally one on which you are not contactable by phone or email, except for emergencies.

Identify and tackle stress triggers

While you have some distance, list the things that are causing the most stress to you and figure out ways of meeting your goals differently. For example, if being available to clients on phone, social media and email at all hours makes it impossible to switch off, set some boundaries (and communicate these to your clients if necessary). Solutions could include using out of office and voice messages and auto responders to let people know when you will respond, outsourcing your phone answering to a virtual assistant, and other methods. Outsource or delegate tasks that are stressful for you, such as marketing or bookkeeping, to create more space. It is essential to modify your workload in the long term if you are to recover and keep relapses at bay. This includes ensuring you have a healthy balance of working hours, leisure time and sleep.

Switch off the socials

Switch off social media where you can. Entrepreneurial ‘influencers’ can help normalise burnout by encouraging a ‘go hard or go home’ mentality. Unfollow! You may want to apply the same rule to your leisure time social media as research suggests a link between the heavy use of social media and an increased risk of depression and anxiety.

Clear your environment

If clutter in your workspace is making your anxious, dedicate some time to clearing and filing so you are not constantly exposed to distraction.

Healthy mind and body

Make a plan to take time every day doing things that are healthy for your body and mind. Whether it is an early morning swim, a lunch time meditation session, or some time spent on a hobby, it’s important to disconnect from work every day to keep burnout at bay. Fuel your body with healthier food and reduce caffeine and alcohol intake to help stabilise your blood sugar and improve your sleep.

Learn to say no

Learning to politely decline requests or say no to things that cross your boundaries can be the hardest lesson for many small business owners who have become accustomed to pursuing every opportunity. Listen to your gut when you receive a request – if it instantly makes you feel stressed or conflicted, or will undo any of the work you have done in setting boundaries, it is best to turn it down.

Celebrate your achievements

Part of burnout is losing sight of what you have achieved in your business. Try to look back over your business and mark the milestones you have met – whether that was paying yourself a regular wage, getting your first employee or receiving glowing reviews from customers. As you recover and feel better, it will become easier to recognise just how far you have come.

More resources

If you are feeling stressed by the responsibilities of running your own business, you may find these resources helpful:

If you are in distress and need crisis support, contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.

05 October 2022