Feel the Burn

Small business owners often deal with being overworked, underpaid, and exhausted. Handling it early on can prevent a serious case of burnout.

Stress, frustration, annoyance ... and it’s not even 10 a.m. yet! You work and give and work and give, one problem after another, one task after another and that damn vendor won’t return your call and you have customers stacking up and the payroll’s not done yet and that new kid is nowhere to be seen and where is that big invoice, it’s got to go to collections if you don’t get a check today, and the government is about to tax you into the ground and your wife is complaining that you are always at the office and no you are not going to make little Timmy’s class play—again—and what the hell are you doing all this for anyway?

Burnout: A Quick Introduction

Small business is not for the faint of heart and the pressure that comes with wearing all of the hats that a small business owner must wear can easily lead to a crippling burnout. We hear that phrase all the time, but when you burn out, what really happens? We imagine that it is akin to exhaustion, but that is normally just the first step. You can rest and recover from exhaustion. Burnout is marked by extreme disillusionment. On top of that, there are other physical, emotional and behavioral symptoms.

Physical symptoms include:

  • Fatigue

  • Frequent illness

  • Sleep problems

Emotional symptoms include:

  • Loss of a sense of meaning

  • Cynicism towards the organization or clients

  • Feelings of helplessness

  • Frustration

  • Strong feelings of anger against those we hold responsible for the situation

  • Feelings of isolation

  • Depression

Behavioral symptoms include:

  • Increased detachment from co-workers

  • Increased absenteeism

  • Increased harshness in dealing with teams

  • Marked reduction in commitment to work

  • Increased alcohol consumption

Avoiding Burnout

It is important to catch burnout as soon as you can. That means analyzing what is going on in your life, changing the way you do things, breaking old habits and adopting new ones. Remember: While you may be burning out at work, non-work stresses can add to your troubles and should be taken into account. Your burnout at work won’t get any better if you don’t address your tumultuous home life as well.

Sources of Stress

You cannot fix a problem if you don’t recognize the source of that problem, so your first step is to identify the various sources of your stress and to see how they combine to burn you out. Keep a stress diary, where you note the date, time, source and kind of stress you encounter. This can be a quick notation or a detailed account of what is happening, but you have to provide enough information for you to be able to develop a model of where your stress is coming from, who is involved, what areas of your life are involved, how often it happens and so on. You will see that your stresses will cluster around certain things, three of the most common being time, people and politics, and your health.

Time Pressure. There is always so much to do and you never have enough time for it all. You are overwhelmed and things are falling through the cracks, which only adds to the pressure. You have one question to ask yourself: Why? Is it that you have over-committed and your workload is simply too great for one person to handle? If so, get help! Delegate responsibilities or bring on more people. If neither of these is possible, you may need to accept less business. Regardless, if you don’t adjust your workload to something you can handle, burnout is in your future.

People and Politics. You need to find the “sweet spot” of personal interaction and availability, that place where things can run smoothly but you are not over-burdened, which can happen when too many people rely upon you too much. You need to find a way to meet the needs of others while, at the same time, saving time for yourself. Once you find this balance—and it may not satisfy everyone—you need to defend and maintain it. After all, once you are burned out, you won’t be able to meet anyone’s needs, will you?

Take Care of Your Health. The healthier you are, the better able you are to handle stress and the better you do that, the less susceptible you will be to burnout. That means eating right, exercise, and lots of hand washing to avoid infections. It also means distancing yourself as far as you can from stress that you can avoid and getting proper rest. Sleep and recreation separate and apart from your work are both very important. Take a vacation where you go somewhere without the stress you face in your normal life, a different situation where you can leave your stress and the symbols of it—cell phones, laptop—behind. After some time away, you can return to your business with fresh eyes and a new outlook.

Finally, if you are disillusioned, it is important to rediscover the things—the passion—that led you to start your business in the first place. Those things are still there, you might have lost them for a while, but you can find them again. You owe it to yourself to try. —Charles Cooper

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