If you’ve been feeling depleted while running your business, you could be dealing with more than just a rough patch. Burnout, which the World Health Organization officially recognized in its 2019 International Classification of Diseases, is a syndrome that results from chronic workplace stress and requires its own unique attention and treatment.
Unlike other mental health issues — like anxiety or depression — burnout is caused specifically by stressors on the job.
In Hustle’s survey of more than 300 entrepreneurs, 63% of business owners reported that they’ve dealt with or are currently dealing with burnout. And burnout can be especially problematic for founders, who often wear many hats and are responsible for their company’s growth and success.
The survey showed that a variety of emotional factors negatively impact entrepreneurs and accelerate burnout, including financial concerns (22%), work-life balance (15%), and day-to-day stress (15%).
Plus, the pandemic hasn’t helped — everyday stressors are magnified by a public health crisis that is running into its 3rd year.
“People are so fatigued with the added stress of the pandemic, and that’s helpful to remind them that our context and the situation around us are things that we have to respond to,” says Dr. Sherry Walling, a clinical psychologist who specializes in counseling entrepreneurs.
“When we’re carrying the extra mental load of a pandemic or racial unrest, those things wear down our resources. Your job might not have changed, but the world has.”
Adding to the hardships: 84% of business owners say there is stigma around mental health in the community (though 61% of that group agree it’s getting better). Mental health stigma can make finding help more difficult, and cause many to suffer in silence.
If you’re a founder who is feeling exhausted by running your business, don’t despair — The Hustle spoke with leading experts at the intersection of entrepreneurship and mental health and compiled a list of tools and advice to help you recover quickly.
What Is Burnout?
Burnout is a condition identified by three key pillars: exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and/or detachment from your work, and a sense of ineffectiveness.
“What’s different about it is that it’s specifically work-related,” says Dr. Adrienne Heinz, a psychologist, and researcher who committed her career to specialize in entrepreneur well-being after losing her brother to suicide. “It certainly affects other domains of one’s life, but it focuses around work — which can also include caregiving and unpaid labor.”
While some symptoms of burnout can be apparent to those around you, many are internal, and the sense of being ineffective in your role can take a toll, especially for driven entrepreneurs who pride themselves in their work.
“It’s a sense of lack of personal efficacy — a lack of belief in yourself to accomplish what you want,” Walling says. “It’s the sense in which you kind of just doesn’t care anymore,” says Walling.
If you feel yourself questioning your own abilities, or if a loved one or colleague has noted changes in your behavior — or you’ve noticed it in theirs — it’s important to take a step back and consider the signs and symptoms.
Signs of Burnout
- A sense of defeat
- Avoidance of work
- Loss of motivation
- Loss of satisfaction in your work
- Feeling flat or numb
- Feeling trapped or like you don’t have agency in your own life
While these core signs and symptoms are an indication that someone is struggling with burnout, there are other secondary manifestations that can emerge through trying to cope with or bottle up burnout.
“The behaviors that manifest clinically — the consequences of burnout — can include drinking or smoking to cope with stress, strained relationships where you’re not nurturing your relationship with your spouse or your partner, a loss of interest in things you once found enjoyable, and trouble sleeping,” says Heinz.
Many of the symptoms of burnout overlap with symptoms of other common mental health conditions, such as depression. The notable difference between the two is that burnout has a specific, singular cause: your work.
“Burnout is like a job-induced depression,” says Walling. “It’s targeted at feeling super overwhelmed by what’s happening in your professional context. Depression can have many causes, but burnout is caused by your job.”
For colleagues, friends, or family members, signs of burnout can look slightly different from the outside. Some external signs might include:
- Lack of patience with friends or colleagues
- Distancing from work
- Snappiness and short temper
“When someone is dealing with burnout, they are walking around somewhat raw, like they have no protective covering,” says Walling. “That often looks like somebody who is becoming unkind with their co-workers, teammates, or family members.”
Walling also notes that it’s not only struggling entrepreneurs who deal with burnout; it can be those who look successful from the outside as well.
“Sometimes when your business is struggling, you know what you’re fighting against, but when your business is thriving, you might not know where to put your energy,” she says. “And when a business is successful, it might change the role of the founder. If that progression is meaningful to you and you love it, great, but a lot of people end up kind of succeeding themselves out of what they really enjoy.”
If you notice someone in your work or personal life exhibiting symptoms of burnout, check-in with them. If you are personally dealing with burnout, there are actionable ways you can lessen those negative feelings or eliminate them entirely.
Can You Recover From Burnout?
Luckily, burnout is a condition one can fully recover from when it’s properly addressed and treated. Lifestyle changes paired with added support systems can help entrepreneurs recover faster. Walling says to truly recover from burnout, what you really need to do is reprogram your brain.
“One of the things that are happening with burnout is that there are physiological changes happening in the brain,” she explains. “The connections between the amygdala — which is like the fear reaction center of the brain — and the prefrontal cortex begin to fade away.”
Walling explains that this disconnect means entrepreneurs are less able to talk themselves down from stressful situations — a pivotal tool to keep oneself calm in the workplace.
Since burnout can cause a physical change as a result of workplace stress, the ultimate treatment would be to take time away from the workplace that is causing distress.
“You have to reset the way your brain is functioning, which is hard without changing some of the patterns in your life,” Walling says. “For the brain to really reset, you’d ideally take four to six weeks of sabbatical to repattern the brain.”
If it’s financially and logistically feasible, the best course of action is to take a break from your job altogether. Whether that means time at home with family or an actual vacation, time spent unplugged and away from work is the most effective way to recover faster.
How to Recover From Burnout While Working
When stepping away from the job that is causing stress isn’t possible — and for most people, it’s not — there are still tools entrepreneurs can use in order to fight their burnout:
- Getting enough sleep
- Hiring people to help you with tasks that don’t bring joy
- Reconnecting with your passions
- Spending more time with friends and family
- Spending time in nature
- Starting a group with other entrepreneurs
- Strengthening social relationships
Heinz calls healthy habits and coping strategies like these “guardrails” and says, “they’re non-negotiable because if you don’t stay in your guardrails, you can crash and fall into the ravine.”
Prioritizing these guardrails in your day-to-day routine can help combat the stress that comes with a high-pressure job. Heinz also says that an important part of this foundation is to center your career around your personal values and to remove any values that don’t serve you.
“It’s about unlearning messages that are toxic or unhelpful about how we should work or how we should lead,” says Heinz. “It’s a willingness to reset and build your company and conduct your work based on your personal values. Productivity addiction is not serving us.”
Walling adds, “If someone can’t take time away, but they’re still able to make some of these really targeted changes — exercise, hobbies, social support — they really need to rehab their life and make some significant changes.”
How Long Does It Take to Recover From Burnout?
Though an exact timeline cannot be put on recovery, experts are certain that full recovery is possible if the right changes are made.
“We see changes in the brain when we change the context and some of those adverse effects from burnout are observable in a functional MRI, and we can watch them change — usually in 6 to 12 weeks,” says Walling.
The level of severity of burnout is also a factor in how long recovery takes, according to Heinz.
“[Recovery time] varies and depends how far they’ve gone down the rabbit hole — how much they’ve denied themselves care or strained their relationships,” she says. “People don’t live in a bubble; they live in systems with their families and co-workers, and burnout not only damages the individual but it also damages relationships, which makes it hard to come back from. You need a global repair of your life.”
Heinz adds that mental health resources and support groups are vital so that entrepreneurs do not reach a crisis before getting help.
“Usually when people come to me, they’re in crisis. They’re drinking too much, being threatened with a divorce, their kids are having behavioral problems, their co-founder finds them impossible to work with,” she says. “Acknowledging the psycho-education around the warning signs and realizing when you aren’t doing too great and calling in more resources can act as prevention. Once you burn out, it’s really hard to come back, and it’s a soul-crushing experience.”
Experts agree that forming a peer group with other entrepreneurs can be one of the best tools for fighting burnout and maintaining your mental health. Entrepreneurship can be an isolating venture, and connecting with other founders can combat that loneliness.
Preventing Burnout Long Term
Because of how painful burnout can be, it’s important for entrepreneurs to be cognizant of their emotions and energy in order to identify, treat, and prevent burnout sooner.
Implementing recovery tips into day-to-day life can be a long-term way to keep burnout at bay — those actions don’t need to be used only as a last resort.
“Some key preventative strategies are staying connected to people in your life, time management, exercising, sleeping well, and the understanding you’re in a marathon and need to pace yourself, and having a hobby — not just because it’s fun, but because that’s neurologically diversifying, which is really healthy for your brain,” says Walling. “Anything that helps your brain as an organ to be healthy is going to help protect you against burnout.”