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How to spot small business burnout and find the right remedy for you

Key business takeaways

  • For small business owners, burnout is an occupational hazard—learn when to take breaks and ask for help
  • The more you care about your job, the higher risk for burnout, especially when that passion borders on obsession
  • If you’re experiencing exhaustion, self care and time off are the best remedies

Many business owners have reached the point where the stress of the job becomes overwhelming—even those who work in mental health. After 10 years running the mental health firm she founded, Chantay Golson began to feel utterly depleted. “I started to resent my own business—the business that I built with blood, sweat and tears,” said Chantay, who is now a burnout consultant. “As resentment sets in, you look at things differently… You start to dislike the very thing you love.”

In fact, most of the country’s workers have felt this way: Three out of four people say they’re burned out at work some or most of the time, defined by feeling drained, cynical, and ineffective. As this burnout spreads and labor shortages grow, more companies are working to treat the effects of burnout among employees by offering help in the form of things like mental health resources, flexible schedules, and company-wide wellness days. 

But what if you’re your own boss? A large body of research suggests small business owners and entrepreneurs are particularly vulnerable to burnout because they work long hours with fewer resources and are often extremely passionate about their jobs. 

Dr. Kira Schabram, who specializes in burnout and the effects of meaningful work as an assistant professor at the University of Washington, has found that while caring deeply about your job does put you at greater risk for burnout, it can also help pull you out of it. Her research shows that when you see the impact of your work or if you take small steps to help others, you can minimize the feelings of helplessness and alienation that can come with burnout.

“There is a high-risk, high-reward trade off,” Dr. Schabram said. “The work can be deeply meaningful while you’re there, but if it consumes your life, you’re actually less likely to make a sustainable impact, and you can often crash very quickly.”

For entrepreneurs, making a difference in their community is often the reason they’re able and willing to endure 60+ hour work weeks and high financial risk. So how can you balance your mental health with a career that you’re passionate about? The secret is treating burnout like a chronic disease—which it is: The World Health Organization added burnout to its registry of diseases in 2019, signaling that untreated stress at work can have long-term health effects, including depression, heart disease, and even death.

Dr. Schabram explains the high risk of burnout among small business owners and the best tools in your arsenal: self care and small acts of kindness.

People who are obsessively passionate about their work are more vulnerable to burnout 

Most entrepreneurs start their own business because it’s meaningful. They can work long hours without burning out, feel energized when their business makes an impact, and serve on the frontlines of the pandemic—all because they care. This dedication to work is also part of a wider belief system, instilled in many Americans from a young age. 

“For the last 20 years, we’ve been telling people: Go find work that is meaningful, that you’re passionate about,” Dr. Schabram said. “What we’ve found is there’s a high risk that organizations can exploit that—intentionally or unintentionally. ‘We’ll hire this person who cares so much that they’re gonna work all this free overtime.’ And [as a small business owner,] you’re your own boss. You do have to be careful about that yourself.”

In one 2017 study published in the Academy of Management Journal, Dr. Schabram and her colleagues interviewed animal shelter employees who cared deeply about their work. The researchers expected that the people who lasted longest in the industry would be those who cared the most—“because they have to put up with so many challenges and so many difficulties that, unless it truly is your identity, why would you do it?” Dr. Schabram asked.

To their surprise, they found the opposite: Those who cared the most, who never took breaks, were more likely to burnout. “What we found is they lasted the shortest because they were just way too invested, and so the work kind of broke them,” Dr. Schabram said. “The people who are still in that industry 10, 15, 20 years later are the ones that treat it more like a job. So it’s deeply meaningful while they’re there, but they can clock out at the end of the day and they have their family or they have a hobby.”

Dr. Schabram said these lessons also apply to small business owners, who often can’t clock out at the end of the day or who take on all the pressure and responsibility to succeed: “You started this business because you really care. And if you feel like other people around you don’t care as much, if you feel like you’re employing people who are not taking it seriously, that can really upset you.”

While caring about work is not a problem in and of itself, small business owners should understand that it puts them at higher risk of burnout. “In essence, you have an option: You can keep pushing your priorities about the work, until at one point you’re going to crash—and it’s gonna be an abrupt crash,” Dr. Schabram warns. “The alternative is to engage in preventative maintenance to make sure that you don’t get to that point.”

The 3 symptoms of burnout have varying impacts—and one hits hardest when business is down

According to Dr. Schabram, small business owners are particularly vulnerable to two symptoms of burnout: 

  • Exhaustion: feeling physically and emotionally depleted
  • Inefficacy: when work feels harder than before or you’re no longer accomplishing as much as you once did 

The good news is that business owners can sometimes be protected from the third symptom, cynicism—a feeling of alienation from your work or other people, including colleagues, customers, or clients. As long as their business is having an impact, entrepreneurs get a boost from feeling passionate and personally fulfilled by their job.  

The problem occurs when that passion borders on obsession—especially when times get tough. Cynicism can escalate as business dries up or the economy plummets. “You got into that business for a specific reason,” Dr. Schabram said. “And so then that alienation hits you even harder: ‘Hey, I’ve made all of these sacrifices in my life to start this business to do something meaningful, and now it’s not happening.’”

This dramatic swing occurred on a large scale over the past three years. Early in the pandemic, burnout rates actually decreased among essential workers, including some small business owners, who were thrust out of the shadows and celebrated as heroes. But three years in, support for those workers has declined—and the same people are tasked with enforcing mask and vaccine regulations to disgruntled customers.

“We’ve taken someone whose business is to serve food or to offer a service, and suddenly we’re making them law enforcement. How could they possibly do that job properly?” Dr. Schabram said. “[These are people that society] put on a pedestal and said, ‘Wow, you’re making this positive difference in the world.’ And now they’re getting yelled at—they’re getting maligned… That’s a really hard fall.”

If you’re a business owner whose mental health is impacted by the pandemic, Dr. Schabram said the first step is realizing you’re not alone. Many people in the grips of burnout can’t recognize the symptoms in themselves and start pulling away from colleagues: “Rather than taking advice from someone who’s been doing the work and who just looks a little different because they worked for a year and they’re exhausted, they dismiss those people and they make all the same mistakes.”

Now is the time to reach out to your support network: friends, family, even colleagues and others in the small business community. “When you’re passionate about something, you kind of get these blinders,” Dr. Schabram said. “It’s important to take those off and listen to other people.”

Treating burnout requires a combination of self care and acts of kindness

Most people who are burned out have at least tried this one remedy: taking time off. According to Dr. Schabram, this is a highly effective treatment. “For exhaustion, self care really does matter,” she said. “Small business owners often don’t permit themselves to do that. There’s often a moral or an economic drive [to continue working]. You should very much give yourself permission. You’re gonna come back refreshed after just taking that weekend off, and you’re gonna be able to go much harder rather than continuing to drag through it while you’re exhausted.”

But what if you’ve gone on vacation and are still dreading work? You might be treating the wrong symptom, Dr. Schabram said: “When you just take time off—while that will cure exhaustion, it could exacerbate things like cynicism. Removing yourself from the business—saying, ‘I just gotta shut this down for a week’—if it wasn’t exhaustion, if it was cynicism, now you’re feeling even more alienated.”

Instead, you can try engaging in what Dr. Schabram calls “compassionate acts of kindness.” Studies show that doing kind things for others is one of the most effective treatments for cynicism, partly because it reminds you of your place in a larger community. These acts could be as big as joining a community group or volunteering on the weekends and as small as sharing positive feedback with a coworker.

“People tend to overestimate how big helping gestures have to be,” Dr. Schabram said. “They think that if I want to help someone, I should help them for the day or do these grand gestures. Our research suggests that’s not true at all. A kind compliment, leaving someone a note, taking someone out for a coffee for five minutes to just talk immediately has effects on how people feel, both the person receiving it and the person offering that help.”

For inefficacy, a combination of both self-care and compassionate acts can help. Time off will restore your energy, while small gestures can give you a sense of accomplishment—even if you perform acts outside the workplace. “You might think: ‘At least I’m taking care of my health,’ or ‘If I have to enforce mask rules, at least I’m helping another business through it,’” Dr. Schabram said.

To be clear: Taking time off is still crucial for your health. But when you feel alienated from your workplace or team, practicing kindness can help you regain your footing. “It’s counterintuitive because I’m telling you, ‘You already do too much, you should do more,’” Dr. Schabram said. “But it’s kind of like when you’ve been sick, [and to get your strength back], we say: ‘Well, start walking again. Start exercising.’ It seems to work that way for cynicism..”
For small business owners who regularly engage in compassionate acts for their community, exercising that kindness muscle should be a welcome stretch. For more resources on mental health and burnout, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance for work-related stress.

The information above is provided for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice and may not be suitable for your circumstances. Unless stated otherwise, references to third-party links, services, or products do not constitute endorsement by Yelp.

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