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Stressed to impress: Five signs of entrepreneur burnout

7 min read
Doug Bonderud

It should come as no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic has created significant challenges for small businesses — from unexpected closures to reduced sales volumes and increased spending to meet evolving health regulations. No aspect of business operations has escaped unscathed. No wonder so many of us are showing the signs of burnout.

Data from CIBC backs up this common sense conclusion: 81% of business owners they asked said the pandemic has negatively impacted their business, while 32% are worried about the viability of their business over the next year.

Along with substantive business challenges, entrepreneurs now face burgeoning burnout in both their home and work lives.

As noted by Business Development Corporation (BDC), two-thirds of Canadian business owners say they’re tired or have low energy, while 39% say they’re depressed at least once a week.

The result? For entrepreneurs to succeed, both now and as pandemic pressures recede, they need to recognize burnout before it becomes critical and develop strategies to manage its impact.

Let’s take a look at five common signs of burnout — and what business owners can do to bounce back.

Related: Taking care of yourself — beyond physical health

The 5 telltale signs of burnout

Almost everyone has some level of stress, but burnout is another level of stress altogether. These are the signs that it’s time to make some changes.

1. Forgetting the fundamentals

T-shirt that reads “I can’t adult today”

You’ve been stressed for days, weeks, months as the pandemic has pushed on. You’ve struggled through closures and slowdowns and, while it seems like things are finally looking up, you’re still struggling to get out of bed every morning.

The potential problem? One of the most common signs of burnout: Forgetting the basics, such as:

  • Getting enough sleep
  • Taking time to eat
  • Putting on fresh clothes every morning

While this forgetfulness often stems from a short-term business need — such as sudden understaffing or supply shortages — the problem can quickly turn chronic as immediate benefits suggest more long-term gains.

Over time, forgetting the fundamentals takes its toll on both physical and mental health and in turn your business output.

Battling this type of burnout requires you to make deliberate slowdown efforts, which isn’t easy when it’s become your new normal.

Best bet? Take small steps. Instead of skipping breakfast entirely, sit and eat a piece of toast. Rather than going to bed at 1:30 a.m., make it 1 o’clock. Instead of working until 6:00 every day, make a point of stopping at 5:00 most days.

Even small changes can have an impact and make it easier to manage burnout over time.

2. Ignoring business issues

Stress isn’t new to business owners — as noted by a 2018 study by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), almost half of owners experienced low moods at least once a week, and two-thirds reported feeling depressed.

Add in current conditions and our second sign of burnout quickly emerges: Ignoring small business issues that quickly become larger problems.

Woman lying on dry and cracked earth

While a missed email here or a put-off eCommerce platform problem there may not seem like a big deal, these issues quickly pile up to compromise both business speed and customer perception.

The biggest challenge with this type of burnout? Feeling overwhelmed as problems pile up.

Here, positive outcomes start with making plans. Identify your most pressing issues and then draft plans to tackle them step-by-step. Prioritize easy wins — such as answering that email or paying one invoice — to get the ball rolling.

Related: Working from home on a more permanent basis

3. Experiencing irregular emotions

As noted by the CIBC study, 85% of Canadian business owners agree that the biggest challenge they face is not knowing how long current health restrictions will remain in force. This creates a situation where current stressors have no predictable endpoint, leaving owners trying to stay positive but unsure of how to proceed.

You may suddenly find yourself facing random bouts of anger or sadness, or lashing out at staff members when they’re just trying to help.

It makes sense: our minds and bodies simply aren’t designed to handle stress without relief, and eventually something has to give.

While it’s impossible to eliminate the emotional stress of running a business during a pandemic, it’s worth looking for resources such as those offered by the CFIB to help offset business pressures. It’s also a good idea to find personal activities that act as a pressure valve. Examples here include:

  • Physical fitness
  • Reading a book
  • Rediscovering an artistic activity
  • Even just getting outside once a day
Woman doing down dog on a yoga mat

Aim for half an hour to start, then build up where possible to give yourself a manageable amount of downtime.

4. Sidestepping social contact

Social interactions have been strange for more than a year, and with large gatherings such as conventions still on the relatively distant horizon, it’s easy to fall into the burnout trap of ignoring social contact to focus on work.

While staff members do offer some social outlet, the employee/employer dynamic means you can never truly relax.

Help beat this type of burnout by finding other small businesses owners in your area or industry and scheduling regular Zoom or other digital meetups once a week. Invite attendees to talk about what it’s really like to own an SMB and swap strategies on how to make it all work.

Related: Self-care for stressed-out business owners

5. Prioritizing extreme effort

Hard work is part of the package when you’re an entrepreneur. As noted by Forbes, some self-made millionaires still work 95 hours a week on their companies, while others suggest putting in at least 18 hours a day for the first year.

And this additional work effort is even easier to justify under current conditions — why not put in as much work as possible to ensure your business will survive?

While the aim is admirable, the common result is a type of effort burnout: You find yourself increasingly unable to “switch off,” even when you’re at home — even as the work you’re putting in just isn’t as creative and passionate as you’d like.

Often, the biggest hurdle here is overcoming the sense of worry that comes with turning off your business brain after another long shift. And while SMB owners know they’re never completely away from work — even at home — it’s possible to break down this burnout pattern by creating inviolate boundaries at specific times of day. This means scheduling time for an activity other than work, and sticking to this schedule no matter what.

Putting burnout on ice

As noted by the World Health Organization (WHO), burnout is considered a syndrome, one that results “from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

While knowing the signs of burnout listed above make it possible for business owners to better handle current stress and reduce its overall impact, it’s worth noting that isn’t a fire-and-forget frustration.

Owning and managing a business in Canada will always bring a measure of stress.

For business owners, their best bet is to watch for the signs of burnout by regularly assessing their current mental states to identify root causes, then take steps to minimize stressors and reestablish balance.

Bottom line? Running a business always comes with stress. But burnout isn’t inevitable — take care of your mental and physical health to make the most of your small business potential.