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Burnout prevention tips for entrepreneurs

If left unaddressed, burnout can erode the passion that inspired you to start your business in the first place

7-minute read

Burnout is a state of profound mental, emotional and physical exhaustion that often follows a period of prolonged work-related stress.

While everyone is at risk of experiencing it, research suggests entrepreneurs are especially susceptible to burnout, due in part to the enduring uncertainty that comes with running a business. Another element of risk for burnout is that they can be so passionate that they have a hard time setting aside their work.

“So many entrepreneurs have an obsessive passion for their work,” says Harriet Ekperigin, Vice President of Mental Health at GreenShield Health, the health services division of GreenShield, Canada’s only not-for-profit health and benefits company. "They often overwork and are always navigating uncertainty, and many become socially isolated. It’s enough to cause anyone to burn out quickly.”

As an entrepreneur, learning how to prevent or successfully manage burnout is crucial because its effects can harm your business and employees as well as your own health and life satisfaction. But before you can take action, you need to be able to recognize the warning signs and symptoms of burnout.

Entrepreneurs often overwork and are always navigating uncertainty, and many become socially isolated. It’s enough to cause anyone to burn out quickly.

What are the symptoms of burnout for an entrepreneur?

Common signs of burnout include finding that you are:

  • low on energy and have to drag yourself through each day
  • no longer getting enjoyment from things you used to, such as time spent on hobbies or with friends and family
  • frequently taking a negative view of things rather than a more positive outlook

These feelings can trigger behaviours and barriers that have negative impacts on your business and relationships. You might find yourself snapping at colleagues, friends or family—people you typically look to as sources of support. You may intend to get work done but can’t motivate yourself to start once you sit down. Your productivity might drop and your decisions start leading to poorer outcomes.

Outside work, you might start to notice changes in your appetite or how much sleep you’re getting. To escape these feelings temporarily, some entrepreneurs turn to substance use.

“Over time, the excitement you felt when you started your business begins to deplete,” says Ekperigin. “You can lose sight of why you wanted to launch a business because you don’t see the potential you did before.”

Effects like these can also impact your employees’ performance and job satisfaction, as many teams draw energy and enthusiasm from the business leader.

How to prevent and manage burnout

Preventing burnout altogether is ideal, but not always possible. By recognizing the signs of burnout early, you can take steps to minimize its effects on your business.

There are many models out there that can help you prevent burnout or manage it once you notice it. One that has gained traction in recent years is the “Three Rs” framework:

  • Respite: Take regular breaks from work, even if it’s only for five minutes. Spend more time in nature and socializing outside work settings. Listen to relaxing music, practice mindfulness and reflect daily on what went right at work.
  • Reappraisal: Seek cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) to reformulate habitual thinking and behaviours around work, and reduce long-term stress and depressive symptoms. Learn stress regulation techniques to change your relationship with stress, seeking to optimize it rather than reduce it. Write down your thoughts and feelings on the topics that matter to you most.
  • Regimen: Change your bedtime behaviours to ensure you’re getting enough sleep. Start and maintain a regular exercise routine, which can improve sleep quality, performance and mental health. Practice disengaging from work in a structured way.

The Three Rs framework offers a good overview of the kinds of activities and daily practices that can help prevent and manage burnout in entrepreneurs, says Ekperigin. But due to the wide range of activities the framework suggests, entrepreneurs might find it hard to know where to start—or try to take on every activity all at once. Instead, Ekperigin suggests starting small with just the activities that are easy to incorporate into your day. For example, you might begin with deep breathing exercises and a short, five-minute walk each day, or playing relaxing music while you work. She also recommends keeping a daily routine.

“When you plan tomorrow today, you can wake up and start your activities without having to think about it,” says Ekperigin. She adds that it’s often best to do the hardest task first, since people usually have more energy earlier in the day.

Along with these daily habits, Ekperigin recommends seeking professional help if your symptoms prove difficult to manage. A mentor can also help by acting as a sounding board and source of support. An ideal mentor is someone who can speak frankly and won’t hesitate to tell you to step away from work if you seem to be struggling.

When you plan tomorrow today, you can wake up and start your activities without having to think about it.

Get more support for your mental health

You can always speak to your family doctor if you’re seeing signs of burnout or reach out to a professional therapist directly for additional support. While busy schedules and competing priorities make it hard to find the time for therapy sessions, flexible and virtual services are available.

Explore our directory of resources for entrepreneur mental health and well-being, including links to free and paid support services and apps.

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