BUSINESS BUILDER: How to create a burnout survival plan

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Most entrepreneurs tend to ignore, minimize, and hide their own struggles and stress as they prioritize the business, their employees, and their customers. PHOTO by Pexels.

When you started your shop business, you may have envisioned yourself signing with a dream client, or cutting the ribbon of a new facility. You probably didn’t picture yourself exhausted, overwhelmed, and thinking about throwing in the towel. Nevertheless, nearly all entrepreneurs find themselves in this situation at least once (and often multiple times) during their careers.

No wonder, says small business fixer Julie Bee: The “burnout deck” is stacked against us.

“As a business owner, you’re financially responsible for a lot of people, your reputation is constantly on the line, and you’re often figuring out next steps (or as the case may be, frantically putting out fires) on the fly,” says Bee, author of Burned: How Business Owners Can Overcome Burnout and Fuel Success. “Plus, it’s lonely at the top! You may not have a trusted peer or mentor to ask for advice, empathy, or help.” 

The result is that most entrepreneurs tend to ignore, minimize, and hide their own struggles and stress as they prioritize the business, their employees, and their customers. They believe that if they put their heads down and just keep grinding, things will eventually get better.

Many don’t realize how badly they need help, and even those who do often resist seeking it out, says Bee. “Admitting we’re not okay can feel terrifying.”

Bee speaks from experience. Several years ago, she went to the ER for what she thought was a heart attack—but it turned out to be a panic attack brought on by business owner burnout.

In hindsight, this shouldn’t have been a surprise, says Bee. “I had way too much on my plate, and I had been ignoring the many signs that I was exceeding my bandwidth. I thought I didn’t have time to be stressed, and not addressing it took a serious toll.”

In Burned, Bee acknowledges that periodic stress, struggle, and even burnout are givens when you own a business. Her book provides tactical advice on how to make space for addressing burnout, fix any problems it has caused, and leverage its lessons while running a company and placing guardrails around your mental health.

 Here, she shares ten things you need to know when (not if!) business owner burnout looms on the horizon.

If there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s stress. If you’re stuck in the dark, it’s burnout. How can a spread-thin entrepreneur distinguish stress from burnout? While stress can feel acute, it’s temporary. There’s often a deadline to look forward to: turning in a proposal, hiring a new employee to fill a vacancy, meeting a deadline, etc.

“With burnout, you have little or no energy left to move forward,” says Bee. “The passion you once felt for your business has turned to dread. When faced with a challenge, you may feel ‘stuck’ or just plain indifferent. Instead of fulfilling you, your responsibilities feel like a burden—and you can’t see an end in sight to being in this state.”

Know your red flags: You’re sleep-deprived, snappy, and buying stock in dry shampoo. “Most of us don’t go from ‘fine’ to ‘running on fumes’ overnight,” says Bee. “There are usually red flags that indicate you’re headed toward burnout: actions, habits, or behaviors that indicate you’re off-balance, stressed, and working unsustainably.” For instance:

  • You’re having trouble sleeping (or you’re sleeping too much).
  • Your interactions with others have become more contentious.
  • You’ve started to socially withdraw from friends and family.
  • You’re finding it difficult to focus, make decisions, and/or come up with new ideas.
  • Your self-care (e.g., grooming, nutrition, exercise, etc.) has slipped.
  • You’re leaning harder into a coping mechanism (e.g., alcohol, medication, etc.).
  • You’re clinging to the belief that if you can “just get through” a particular deadline or challenge, everything will magically get better.

Be alert for trigger warnings: Scour your schedule for stressors. Triggers differ from red flags because they are external to you. They tend to be other people, places, or situations that cause you immediate stress, and can thus hasten burnout. The more you’re exposed to (or even think about) your triggers, the more your dread, anxiety, and overwhelm ratchet up. If you’re already noticing burnout red flags, avoid your triggers when possible!

“Burnout triggers are often seemingly small things like hearing the phone ring or seeing a difficult client’s name appear in your inbox,” Bee explains. “They don’t even have to be work-related: A spouse’s bad mood or the sight of your overgrown lawn can also cause your stress to spike. It’s important to identify burnout triggers so you can eliminate, limit, or deal with them.”

Master your new mantra: “NO!” (for now). If you’re close to (or in the throes of) burnout, you must make space to deal with it. Bee’s top tip is to temporarily say no to new. Just for a while, stop chasing new opportunities, developing new ideas, and forging new partnerships. Put your time, energy, and thought into strengthening your business (not expanding it) and alleviating your stress.

“Think of this as saying ‘no for now’—not necessarily ‘no forever,’” advises Bee. “Maybe you do have a fantastic idea that is right in your business’s sweet spot—but first you have to make space to properly develop and execute it. Sometimes the best way to speed up is to slow down.”

Beach trips, and downward dogs are great—but they probably won’t stop burnout. Many burned-out business owners are trying to boost their well-being. They take vacations. They’ve hired a lawn-maintenance service. They exercise, repeat affirmations, and attempt to eat well when they can.

“These things are helpful, but they aren’t enough because they don’t address the source of the problem,” says Bee. “For instance, if you take a vacation, are you able to totally disconnect from your business and block out your worries? Probably not. Do you feel guilty about being away? Most likely. Even if you do gain some measure of rejuvenation while lying on a beach, it will quickly become depleted because the same stressors will be waiting when you return to work.”

Run the “why” test to pinpoint what’s causing your symptoms. First, think of something that’s causing you stress (your burnout triggers are a good place to start) and list three thoughts or feelings you have about that stressor. Now ask “why”—three times—about each thought or feeling and answer as honestly as you can. Here’s an example with the feeling “frustrated”:

  • Why am I frustrated? Because I have zero enjoyment in my business.
  • Why do I have zero enjoyment at work? I’m always putting out fires and never get to the important work.
  • Why am I always putting out fires? Because someone has to do it (aha!) and, if I’m honest, I don’t manage my time well (aha again!). I prioritize putting out fires over doing important work, because in the moment, they feel more urgent.

“As you apply this exercise to various stressors and your thoughts and feelings about them, you’ll probably see a few themes pop up,” says Bee. “Maybe you feel like you must solve all problems yourself, or maybe you lack firm boundaries. These themes are probably major causes of your burnout.”

Now that you’ve diagnosed your burnout, treat it! In the “frustration” example above, you might carve out more time for important work by determining which of your daily tasks you can eliminate, delegate, or save until later. (Sounds simple—but when’s the last time you actually did this?) If an employee’s resignation tipped you over the edge from “stress” to “burnout,” you need to create a plan for covering the employee’s responsibilities until a replacement is hired.

“Don’t do this alone,” urges Bee. “You need a team to support and advise you: key employees, business partners, loved ones…even a therapist! When you’re in a state of burnout, it’s hard to see things clearly and objectively. Outsiders may see something you haven’t noticed, and they can also get close to the source of the issue without succumbing to stress like you might.”

Then, focus on your personal recovery. Being burned out means that you’ve been depleted faster than you could replenish. Now that you’re on the other side of the urgent fire, you can focus on the personal toll it has taken. To start, Bee recommends identifying an action or activity that will comfort and replenish you that can be accomplished in the next thirty days. For example, you might go on a hike, book an appointment with your therapist, or splurge on a weighted blanket to help you sleep more soundly.

“Yes, I said earlier that this type of self-care won’tcure your burnout, and that’s still true!” says Bee. “But you need to capture a few quick wins so you’ll have the attitude and energy to make bigger, more impactful changes that will help you prevent (or at least mitigate) future burnout.”

Put a prevention plan in place… Create thoughtful guardrails designed to keep you from traveling too far into your red-flag danger zone. One anti-burnout strategy Bee recommends is to define your ideal workweek.

“For instance, on what days of the week will you work and at what times?” she asks. “When will you work on big-picture, visionary tasks? When will you invest time with your staff? When will you do tasks you do not enjoy? How often will you network? How will you handle personal calls, texts, etc. while you’re working? Answering questions like these can help you set boundaries, prioritize effectively, work efficiently, and communicate clearly—all of which will give you more bandwidth to deal with stress and setbacks.

“I also recommend defining your personal life in a similar way,” Bee adds. “A good work-life harmony doesn’t just happen. You have to think about how you want to show up and what you want to accomplish outside of work.”

…But make peace with the fact that burnout is like a bad penny (albeit one you can still spend wisely!). As Bee has stated, burnout often isn’t a one-and-done event—you’ll probably encounter it several times throughout your career. Circumstances can appear out of nowhere that will take a wrecking ball to even the best-laid prevention plan. But not all burnout has to fully deplete you, set your business back, or impact your health.

“Nearly every entrepreneur I know who has gone through burnout has taken away something valuable,” says Bee. “Sometimes it’s a lesson or an idea; sometimes it’s a full-on breakthrough or reinvention. My best advice for embracing burnout is to adopt the classic improv rule of ‘Yes, and…’ Own and name your circumstances (that’s the ‘yes’ part). Then figure out how to make the most of it…or at least move on from it (that’s the ‘and’ part). For instance, ‘Yes, I experienced this crisis…and I’m going to do XYZ to protect my business/diversify my options/explore new possibilities going forward.’”

“Remember that experiencing a setback—even one as all-consuming as burnout—sets you up to make a comeback,” concludes Bee. “Leverage the lessons burnout has taught you to improve your routine, set better boundaries, pursue a new idea, and/or approach future challenges with more self-awareness and resilience. With the right tools, it’s not just possible, but probable, that burnout will light the best kind of fire in you…instead of charring you to a crisp.”

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