Table of Contents
You let out a long, deep sigh before you open the door to your office. You’d rather be anywhere else but here right now. It feels like a fight to get through the basics of your work, to make it through the day. In the background, there are projects left untouched, calls unreturned, and this underlying feeling of dread.
You feel irritated. It feels like you just left your last day of work, and no matter what you do in the evenings and on weekends you never feel fully recharged.
What happened? You chose this work because you felt called to it. You have seen the power of the work and how it changes people’s lives. You once were energetic and full of creativity when it came to your business. The future looked bright with possibilities. You had purpose and meaning then, but now it feels hard to do the work and to care anymore.
It’s all you can do to wait to be off the clock and enjoying life again. And yet, when you finish with work for the day, the full relief and recharge never comes. This feeling is seeping into every area of your life. Your friends and family are concerned and the word burnout has been thrown around.
What if you are experiencing burnout? Is this the end? Does this make you a bad person? No!
Burnout doesn’t mean you are broken, and it doesn’t mean that this is the way it HAS to be right now. Burnout symptoms are simply cues to make a change. The symptoms tell you that you can’t keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result.
Whether you are smack dab in the middle of burnout syndrome, feel like you are slowly sliding towards burnout, or want to figure out how to avoid burnout—this manual is for you. This is NOT a short read. There is a LOT to take in. You can read this handbook in its entirety right here, right now, and/or we can send you an easy-to-read web version that you can even print out if you wish. Click here to get this handbook sent to your email so you can finish reading at the time that works for you. Take a deep breath, settle in, and let’s get started!
This Burnout Syndrome Handbook’s Purpose
This handbook was created to help business owners and entrepreneurs who are looking to understand, avoid, or recover from burnout in their businesses and private practices. You may think if you are in the mental health or wellness field you are immune, but there are more Google searches for burnout in the health and wellness field specifically than in other fields. You may think if you are young and energetic you are immune, but there are more searches for “millennial burnout” than there are for “physician burnout” each month on Google. How do we know? We used software to see what people were searching for monthly on Google so that we could better determine what to include in this handbook.
We are going to take a deep dive into the definition of burnout syndrome, the burnout cycle, the risk factors, burnout tests online and offline, and also how this dynamic plays out in your business and the steps you can take for burnout recovery. This is not an exhaustive review of all the research or a scholarly article. It is meant to be accessible. It does link to a lot of research so you can dig in more fully should you have the time or energy. Ready? Keep on reading!
Who Are We?
We are two psychotherapists with Master’s Degrees in Psychology who have trained tens of thousands of therapists, physicians, and small business owners about how to create a business that sustains who they are, makes a positive impact, and supports their needs financially.
We have experienced burnout personally, watched others go through it, helped people come out of it, and helped people avoid it. We see how burnout shifts someone’s ability to live out their purpose and do great work in the world, and we see how recovering from that burnout allows that same person to make a deep impact. We truly, deeply care about this subject and want to start a bigger, broader conversation about how to make change.
Burnout: Not Just for Corporations and Agencies Anymore
We often think about burnout as a response to corporate America and something you only experience if you are an employee. Many people start their own businesses with the hope of escaping or recovering from burnout. They believe that leaving the management, agency, or corporate culture will solve the issue. But, what happens if the burnout follows?
Opening up your own business does NOT make you immune to burnout. In fact, initial research that is exploring mental health and entrepreneurship found that 30% of entrepreneurs reported experiencing depression, compared to only 15% of the general population. While on the surface the rates of depression may seem unrelated, the symptoms of depression and burnout have a significant amount of overlap and there is an ongoing debate on how to accurately differentiate between burnout and depression.
Burnout Is Becoming an Epidemic
There are over 300,000 searches for burnout each month on Google. It’s becoming such an issue in our communities that it is being called a “public health crisis” and The World Health Organization is about to embark on the development of evidence-based guidelines on mental well-being in the workplace.
What Does It Mean and Why Does It Happen?
Burnout is a very real thing that you are at risk for and may be experiencing now. In fact, burnout syndrome is included in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). An article in Inverse clarifies, “[T]he ICD-11 doesn’t list workplace burnout as a mental health condition or a disease (it has since clarified its stance on this). Instead, it lists it as a syndrome—a group of symptoms that occur together—‘conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.’” When the chronic stress of your work isn’t managed well it can add up to burnout syndrome.
The below bullets are a direct quote by the ICD-11 describing the three dimensions of Burnout Syndrome:
feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
reduced professional efficacy.
Burnout is specific to your job or your business. Burnout does not apply to your relationships or other aspects of your life. Burnout is, in fact, a work-related illness or diagnosis. In their book, Controlling Stress and Tension, authors Girdin, Everly and Dusek define burnout as “a state of mental and/or physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.” Burnout can look very similar to depression; the difference is related to the reason that the symptoms developed, not necessarily how the symptoms look or feel.
Cause of Burnout
When you start out your business, it is fresh and new. The idea of the hustle and grind feels easy. You can work long hours because you love the work and are excited for the future.
You may have experienced burnout before. You might even have started, or be starting your business in an effort to create a life without burnout. However, if you don’t understand how the burnout happened, or put strategies in place to avoid burnout, you may recreate the same dynamic that put you at risk. In addition, if you are still experiencing symptoms of burnout, trying to work more and longer hours while still working in another position could put you at risk for more severe symptoms.
There Is Hope!
You can recover from burnout. You can create a business that supports you, your health, your joy, and your family. You can even create a business that supports the health of others. But, you have to understand those old dynamics and risk factors, or you will recreate them in your business.
We work with entrepreneurs regularly who are starting a business to escape the burnout in their previous position. It is incredibly important to change your mindset, strategies, and vision of what it means to be a successful businessperson in order to avoid burnout in the future. Also, it is incredibly easy to inadvertently create the same dynamic that you are seeking to avoid if you are not intentional about your business and you don’t take regular time to assess and reassess how things are working.
Factors Related to Burnout Syndrome: What Is Your Role as a Business Owner?
Way back in 1964, Kahn et al. identified that role conflict, role ambiguity, or role overload were all factors that came before people started to experience burnout. Read that again. Role conflict, role ambiguity, and role overload. Doesn’t that sound a LOT like the definition of being a business owner?
As an employee, roles are often separated out. The person who is responsible for pricing the services is not the person who is offering the services. There might even be a completely separate person responsible for billing and collecting the money.
Entrepreneurs or small business owners may be responsible for all of these tasks (and many more). What happens when what you feel like is best as the service provider goes against what is needed financially for the health of the business? What if what is best for the financial health of the business feels like it goes against what the needs of the customer are? What role wins out? And how does that impact both the future services for the client and the ability for the business to keep the lights on and the owner to make a sustainable income?
We teach entrepreneurs that while it may feel like these roles are in conflict, in fact, what is best for the business IS what is best for the client. But, this requires understanding the importance of each of these roles and that one cannot sustain without the other.
You need to set a fair fee, to collect money, and to give great service to your clients. If you stop doing any one of these, your business and you will start to suffer. Suffering puts you at risk for burnout. Most business owners who are experiencing burnout, or are at risk for burnout, haven’t created a process in their minds about how those different roles all work together, and they haven’t created a business plan and processes that support all the roles that they have.
In other words, until you understand the roles in your business, how they work together, and how to make them work for you, will be at risk for burnout.
How do you know how to run a business if you haven’t run one before? Or, what if you’ve run one type of business and you are starting something that is COMPLETELY different? If you are a business owner or private practice owner (private practices are businesses) you are the person who has to define the role in the business. This is an extremely important aspect that is often overlooked.
Many business owners think their business is faltering or struggling because of a lack of clients, a lack of leads, or due to needing a better marketing strategy. But often, it is this ambiguity of what their role is as the owner, what the tasks are in the business, and what tasks are associated with their role, that runs a business into the ground and leave owners burnt out and unsuccessful.
In today’s market with thousands of podcasts, blogs, and webinars around every corner, there is always another vision or version of what is required to be a successful business owner. And every new version or vision can leave an owner feeling unsure of their roles and tasks and what they should be doing to be successful.
In other words, it is unclear to most business owners what their role really is, and what they should be doing with their time to be successful. This role ambiguity leaves business owners at risk for burnout.
A lot goes into running a business—more than most business owners even realize. We’ve been running a Business School Bootcamp since 2014, and even business owners who have been in business for decades are surprised to realize how many roles they’ve been carrying. Vision, accounting, bookkeeping, cleaning, website maintenance, writing, marketing, customer service, receptionist, social media, interior designer, branding expert, biller, human resources, legal, and the list goes on. Then you actually get to provide the service on top of all of that!
Sometimes business owners take on these roles without thinking, in an effort to just get the job done. Others ignore these roles and their respective tasks. While others understand that there are tasks related to each of these roles, but they don’t truly understand their role in being able to implement these tasks, with or without help. Without outsourcing, support, education, and community, this overload of roles becomes a burden for the owner and the burnout can continue to mount.
But Where Does Burnout Really Come From?
How do we learn what it means to be a business owner? Where do our ideas and expectations about our role come from? We learn everything we know about business, work-life balance, roles, etc. from other people and other experiences. In other words, we learn from the environment that we live and work within how to navigate our work. And yet, very little research has been done on how the systems and environments that workers and business owners live within contribute to, or guard against burnout.
There are several systems within your environment that you learn from. You have the global system, which includes the larger culture you work in. For example, the United States has a different culture regarding work compared to some European countries. You have the system of the particular career that you choose—the broad regulations, rules, ethical guidelines, and norms that your profession teaches and sustains. You have the system you are working in directly, the company you work for, or the company you run. And you have the internalized system, usually influenced by the greater culture, your family of origin, and your experiences.
If you find you are experiencing burnout as an employee, you can often see systemic dynamics such as the workplace culture, the management, and corporate structure that put you at risk. You may not be in a position to change these dynamics, and you may decide to look for another job with a culture, management structure, etc., that supports you more effectively.
The dynamics that put you at risk can be more complex than simply a boss who expects you to do too much work with too little pay, though this is a contributing factor, especially in fields with internships and pre-licensed positions.
Marginalized Communities and Burnout
What if when you went into your work, in addition to all the normal work stressors, you had to worry about being harassed? What if you had to worry that you’d be underpaid based on your gender, skin color, or sexual orientation? Systemic oppression, especially for persons of color and other marginalized communities can be an additional stressor that leads to burnout. In addition to normal stressors of a work environment, minority groups face also dealing with racism, classism, gender bias, sexual harassment, and homophobia.
In some cases, your actual position may be focused on fighting this type of oppression, or helping other groups that are impacted by this kind of systemic oppression. For example, psychotherapists and social workers who work in non-profits or other governmental agencies often experience this dual role. Not only do they work in oppressive environments, but the people who they serve are oppressed and the grants and services provided are highly politicized and stigmatized, only furthering that oppression. What happens when you are both experiencing this oppression and fighting against it within your role as an employee?
Business Owner Burnout
Burnout as a Catalyst for Building a Business
The systemic struggles outlined in the previous chapter can often be a catalyst for starting your own business. You tire of the struggle of working with or for someone else in an oppressive environment, and you leave the burnout in your job to create something that you hope will free you from burnout.
You would think that starting your own business would eliminate these issues and help liberate you from burnout. You leave the oppressive system and/or you get to choose what kind of work you do. It seems like those problems should be a thing of the past!
Yet, those dynamics that put you at risk of burnout as an employee still impact you as an entrepreneur. Your work can still be stigmatized in a privatized market. We see this with mental health often. Business owners in search of an office location, for example, encounter the stigma when leasing offices do not want mental health patients in the building. Also, when you have worked in oppressive systems, that oppression becomes internalized and thus carried into the next venture. It can show up in how these entrepreneurs set up their businesses, the fees they charge for their services or products, and the processes or lack thereof. Every choice made in setting up and running a business can be a reflection of this internalization and/or a reflection of the burnout already brewing inside.
What happens when you realize you’ve created a business, a job, a culture, processes, etc., that have put you at risk for burnout, or that already have you experiencing burnout?
Business Owner Burnout: What Does It Look Like?
You may be starting to see how being a business owner might actually put us at a HIGHER risk for burnout, instead of being the path to living a more balanced life. But, we’d like to drill down a bit deeper into the kinds of habits that we see that stem from this role conflict, role ambiguity, and role overload.
Being Always Available and Not Setting Boundaries
You can’t grow a successful business without grinding, right? Fear of losing a client or a sale, or of disappointing a customer, leads owners to feeling like they must always be available. You have FOMO (fear of missing out) and feel guilty if you are not doing everything in your power to be successful. And everything in your power means being available 24/7, right?
The serious side effect of this FOMO means you never get a chance to really recharge and recover. You are always working. The answer is always yes, no matter what the question is. And the idea of setting boundaries- you leave that for “after you’ve made it.”
Different professions can look different when it comes to not setting boundaries. What could that look like?
Taking on more clients or patients than you can truly sustain working with.
Accepting clients or contracts with people that you know you don’t want to work with or that aren’t a good fit to work with.
Scheduling clients or work at haphazard times, and/or working long hours or on days that don’t really work for you.
Accepting contracts or clients at reimbursement rates that are unsustainable.
Not referring out when indicated clinically or otherwise.
Sliding down your rate for every person that calls without doing the math to see if you can actually sustain that fee (thinking something is better than nothing).
Not leaving ample time to work on your business instead of in it.
Ignoring physical and emotional symptoms.
Not setting boundaries about how you work and not aligning your choices with a workable business plan can also tank the financial health of your business, increasing stress levels, and continuing the cycle of not setting boundaries. Ultimately, you are the greatest asset and resource in your business and the most finite. The way you are used is MORE important, not less than any other resource in your business. Even if you are employing people, you need to take care of yourself first so you can better care for your employees! Ultimately, this cycle of being available 24/7 and/or not setting boundaries puts you at risk for burnout, and even if you don’t burn out, it is a recipe for not loving being a business owner.
Not Fixing Things That Are Broken
Because you are focused on generating the income, the operations and systems in your business can easily become neglected. In fact, many business owners can’t define what operations and systems look like in their business. Operations and systems include areas such as:
The contracts or agreements you enter into with clients
When and how you schedule work or appointments
How and when you get paid by clients
What fee you charge for services
How you hire, your employment policies and what you pay your employees
Client record-keeping, scheduling, and communication
Everything listed impacts your bottom-line income and profitability. Ignore systems and operations and it’s like driving a car in a race with a flat tire. Having clunky processes acts as a nail in the tire, holding you back, making the work harder than it needs to be. By not fixing things in your business, your energy is wasted. At some point you need to slow down so you can evaluate what is working and what isn’t.
If you are a person who didn’t set those boundaries, especially with your time, you might put this off until it all comes crashing down on you, impacting your health and your clients. This can take effect in all the processes—internal (billing, team communications, referrals) and external (customer service, intake processes).
When you know something isn’t working but you put off fixing it, you can still carry the psychic wait of things left uncared for. We find a lot of people feel shame and minimize what is going on in their businesses, but it only hurts them to do so.
Alternatively, many people are sure they know what the “broken” thing is and focus all their energy on fixing that “thing” when it isn’t right. The most common example we see is business owners focusing on “more clients” when they really need to focus on more profit. Going back to the race car analogy, it’s like putting all of your energy into installing a newer, faster engine into the car, but the flat tire hasn’t been fixed. You rev up your new and improved engine and the car still won’t go like you expect. You’re left wondering why you aren’t getting the return on investment (ROI) you expected. Until you have a system and business plan that works in place, focusing JUST on getting more clients will not help your business grow.
Fun fact: Many business owners who slow down and run the numbers, find that they have set up a fee for service and a business plan that isn’t sustainable even if they had an unlimited flow of clients.
We all start out with a vision of what we want our business to be and we want it now. We start chasing results and unrealistic expectations, which exhausts us. Those expectations can come from comparison to others or from unexplored fears of failure. Maybe someone put it in your head that you needed to make X amount of money, or maybe at some point you found yourself defining your success by quantity not quality. Once you set the bar so high that itis unattainable or you don’t know how to get there, shame finds another opportunity to wear you down.
When you are the leader, you get to decide the workload. If you fail to slow down, evaluate what has happened, and reset the expectations based on the results, and you instead push and drive toward something that is unattainable, you will tire your body and mind to the point of burnout.
What do unrealistic expectations look like for the entrepreneur?
Believing you can do 30+ client contact hours a week AND all the other things you need to do as a business owner
Expecting yourself to work 60+ hours a week for years at a time
Expecting that you will magically have all of the skills that you need out of the gate, and be excellent at every new skill you try (e.g. website design, setting boundaries with clients, bookkeeping, etc.)
Believing that investing tens of thousands of dollars will magically make your business successful
Thinking you can outsource high level tasks to assistants for $10 per hour and get six-figure results
Expecting yourself to onboard 30 new clients and provide exemplary services to them in 30 days
We could give examples all day of what unrealistic expectations may look like as a business owner. There is a learning curve to running a business. That learning curve is steep whenever you take on a new task or aspect of your business. You can experience this at any point in your journey as a business owner.
Isolation can be another factor in causing burnout. Isolation can take many forms as a business owner, including: isolating socially, cutting off emotionally, and not getting support for your business. In fact, you could be very socially active and still be very isolated.
Who can you ask for help in your business? Who do you talk to when you have a bad day? What happens when you are struggling to make an important decision? When is the last time you had a real, honest, raw conversation with another human being about your business?
In addition, some professionals are held to certain ethics that do not allow them to discuss their work with just anyone. Imagine hearing about serious traumatic events all day, or dealing with a huge financial crisis with a client for hours, only to come home and not be able to share details of what you experienced.
We get it. It is tough! It is easy to become isolated in your work and in your home. You know the phrase “it’s lonely at the top”? As a leader it can often feel like you don’t have anyone who can understand or support you because of your position.
To muddy the waters even more, isolation can also be driven by a fear of failure. It can feel incredibly scary and vulnerable to share your fears, frustrations, or even your lack of knowledge. By not reaching out for support, you get stuck in these fears and thus limit ideas for solutions. And, even if you do reach out for support, you may find that your worst fears are realized—people will judge you or not have any support to give you!
Real community, consultation, and connection with people you can trust and rely on can be incredibly powerful protection against burnout. You may not know hot to create that community, but it is worth your time to prioritize finding it in order to move out of isolation and to help avoid or heal burnout symptoms.
Signs and Symptoms of Burnout
Now that we have explored the causes and what kinds of patterns and habits we see in business owners who are at risk for burnout, let’s look at the specific signs and symptoms of burnout. Chronic stress can reveal itself in far greater ways than feeling negative about your work. Everyone is different. We all have different bodies and the integration of our bodies and brains are unique. BUT there are some standard areas to address when looking for where burnout shows up for you.
Look in the mirror and what do you see? Are you vibrant? Do you look awake and ready for the day? How does it feel to be in your body?
So many stressors can be manifested in our physical well-being. Here are some areas to consider that might be connected to burnout:
Posture/structural health – How you hold stress in your body is important to consider, especially if your work has you seated all day. Burnout can look like a slump in the body, physical pain or misalignment.
Gut health – Some burnout can look like loss of appetite, stomach pains (remember having a tummy ache when it was time for school?) and other digestive issues.
Other internal health – We have seen people lose their hair, have their blood pressure raised, or experience a whole host of other physical symptoms including new diagnoses of autoimmune conditions.
If you are experiencing physical symptoms, consider seeing a doctor to rule out any medical issues and also be honest about how you are feeling with your work. It can be difficult when experiencing physical symptoms to determine what came first. Are the physical symptoms the reason you burned out, or are the physical symptoms a response to the prolonged stress your body has been experiencing?
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. These symptoms are a sign that something has to change. Your doctor (and your Google searches) will often list stress management as a key strategy and we tend to glaze over and nod our heads. But, if you’ve been under stress and developed these symptoms, really take a long look. You may be like a frog in the pot—where your life has been so stressful for so long you don’t even realize how stressful it has become.
Is it anxiety, depression or burnout? Burnout can be a catalyst for a depressive episode and vice versa. How you cope with your work has a direct impact on your emotional well-being. Many times people become more irritable, frustrated, and have a lower tolerance for inconvenience or stress with their work.
Contrary to people believing that the burned-out professional complains and is negative, it can be that they stuff their complaints and frustrations and continue to tolerate that which does not work for them. They may present as having it together but internally may be feeling any range of emotions that overcome their thought processes. This emotional flooding is a result of the lack of emotional release.
The suppression and denial of the emotional self weighs heavier on the self and psyche, resulting in a slow, steady burn. Sometimes business owners use their work as a distraction and an avoidance of their feelings.
Ever feel like what’s the point of doing the work you do? When the purpose and meaning behind your vocation is lost, the burnout can impact your spiritual well-being, dampeningthe light you once had inside of you. Often times when people are burned out they feel spiritually dull or without hope. Cynicism can enter the room and squelch out empathy and compassion. This can be especially challenging when your work requires those two components. Another factor which can contribute to burnout is when your entire purpose is wrapped up in your business. That is a lot to ask of something you create, to be your everything and to fulfill your purpose on this earth.
Withdrawing from your colleagues or not discussing your work any longer can be evidence of the isolation of burnout. There can be feelings of imposter syndrome as one appears successful but internally is tired of their work. This is also where comparison can creep into the thought system, as social situations become only another opportunity to feel less than. This is in part because the business owner is giving more weight to the opinions of people who do not know them well.
How do those who know you well see you? Sometimes those closest to us can see burnout approaching long before we do, as we tend to have blinders on and minimize the stress as a phase. Ask those around you what they see, particularly those who live with you, as they are more aware than most of your daily routines and habits, and are most likely to see any shifts that may be happening.
Burnout, like depression or anxiety, can also make it harder to feel connected or motivated in our relationships because we are so depleted energetically. In fact, we can project that depletion onto our romantic relationship and not recognize its cause—our work. We see our partner as not supportive when in fact we aren’t feeling supported in our work. Look at some of the ways you have been fighting with your partner and ask yourself if it is really a fight you need to have with your business.
Stages of Burnout Syndrome
Burnout syndrome doesn’t just happen. It is a process that seems to build and progress in stages. Researchers have suggested several models including a 3-stage model, a 5-stage model by Winona, and a 12-stage model by Freudenberger and North. Each burnout syndrome model has its advantages.
The 3-stage burnout model breaks down the process simply into stress arousal, energy conservation, and exhaustion, and is best used as a test (which we will discuss later). The benefit of the longer multistage models is that they leave you with a clearer sense of how burnout progresses, which can help you to catch the symptoms and the dynamics more quickly. Let’s explore how burnout progresses.
The Beginning of Burnout: The Honeymoon Phase
While the 3-stage model ignores the beginning (what comes before dysfunction), both Winona’s 5-stage model and the 12-stage model have identified the pattern that comes BEFORE obviously negative symptoms.
The 5-stage model describes this as the Honeymoon Phase, which we think is aptly named. Much like a new romantic relationship, the habits and responses to the new position that are created in the initial stage(s) can determine the health of the relationship and dynamics ongoing. The symptoms of the honeymoon phase of burnout include:
Commitment to the job at hand
Compulsion to prove oneself
High productivity levels
Readily accepting responsibility
Sustained energy levels
The 12-stage model breaks this out into two stages:
Stage 1: Compulsion to Prove Oneself – demonstrating worth obsessively; tends to hit the best employees, those with enthusiasm who accept responsibility readily
Stage 2: Working Harder – an inability to switch off
This Honeymoon Phase Sounds Good!
The beginning of burnout often looks like an excellent employee or a committed entrepreneur who is excited and passionate. It can be difficult to see the drawbacks of this boundless energy, optimism, or creativity. The key to avoiding burnout is using this beginning stage of the business creation to create roles, processes, and a model that supports the individual’s needs long-term—long after the boundless energy has faded.
But planning, processes, and foundational work is NOT sexy. People want to talk about fifty different ways they can market their business and onboard 100 new clients and break six figures in 90 days. They want to get logos designed, create pamphlets, and start Facebook business pages.
New business owners usually do NOT want to dig into the reality of sustaining that kind of growth, such as doing the math to ensure they are charging a fee that truly encompasses the needs of their business, or creating a foundation that will have sustainable growth over time. It can be hard to get clarity on creating a business process, a marketing plan, and habits that are really workable long-term, especially if you are new to being a business owner.
When the Stress Happens
If the Honeymoon phase is not managed in a way that creates a sustainable business or role, the burnout cycle can progress. The 5 stages of burnout calls this second stage “The Balancing Act” and the 12-stage model breaks this down into three stages: Neglecting Needs (Stage 3), Displacement of Conflicts (Stage 4), and Revision of Values (Stage 5). This is where you start to “feel” the stress of the high expectations placed upon you, or that you place upon yourself. As your symptoms ramp up in the burnout cycle, the stress response leads to symptoms that could include things like:
Feeling unhappy with work
Less time with friends or family
Changing your eating habits (under or overeating)
Avoiding making decisions at work
Desk, office, and/or email inbox are a mess
Feeling panicked or jittery
Hobbies go to the wayside
Think about those symptoms for a moment. You are starting a new business, trying to get it off the ground, or maybe it is building quickly—either way… feeling nervous, anxious, and having your life turned upside down seems normal, maybe even expected. Have you ever talked with another business owner who is describing not sleeping, gaining weight, not having time to eat, feeling stressed or overwhelmed, and then heard the statement, “You know how it is.” Or maybe you’ve heard other statements, such as, “That’s the life of an entrepreneur, you are never off the clock”; “I have to be available 24/7”; or “As soon as my business hits xxx goal, then I will slow down and get the rest of my life in order.” It is as if the entrepreneur or self-employed culture promotes and even glorifies the risk factors for burnout.
As your business progresses and you start to enter into these early stages of burnout, it will not feel like the time to slow down or pull back. It will feel like what you need to do is MORE and like you have to double-down so that you can get yourself to a stopping point and “recover.” Unfortunately, that can lead you to the next stages of burnout.
The New Normal: Chronic Stress
What happens when the stress of running a business continues and it starts to become your new normal? How does it impact you long term to live for weeks, months, or years in a dynamic that is high stress and unlikely to change? The Winona 5-stage model calls this stage of burnout Chronic Stress. Symptoms of this chronic stress stage include chronic exhaustion, physical illness, anger, and depression.
Physical illness? Could your cold, flu, high blood pressure or other illness be a symptom of burnout? A recent Swedish research study (June 2019) shows that individuals with a stress-related disorder are more likely to develop an autoimmune condition. And this research article digs into the connection between PTSD and physical illness.
Can Chronic Stress Change Your Personality?
This Chronic Stress phase consists of Stages 6–11 of the 12-stage model. These stages detail how burnout can show up in the ways we relate to our coworkers, and potentially to our clients. The stages indicate how denial, withdrawal, depersonalization, inner emptiness, and depression can start to shift someone’s personality and behavior in a way that brings concern from friends and family. The below bullet points are a direct quote from this article about the 12-stage model (also linked above).
Stage 6: Denial of Emerging Problems – intolerance; perceiving collaborators as stupid, lazy, demanding, or undisciplined; social contact is harder; cynicism, aggression; problems are viewed as caused by time pressure and work, not because of life changes.
Stage 7: Withdrawal – social life small or nonexistent, need to feel relief from stress, alcohol/drugs.
Stage 8: Odd Behavioral Changes – changes in behavior obvious; friends and family concerned.
Stage 9: Depersonalization: seeing neither self nor others as valuable, and no longer perceive own needs.
Stage 10: Inner Emptiness – feeling empty inside and to overcome this, look for activity such as overeating, sex, alcohol, or drugs; activities are often exaggerated.
Stage 11: Depression – feeling lost and unsure, exhausted, future feels bleak and dark.
Years ago, while Miranda was working at a non-profit agency for people who’d been impacted by domestic violence and/or sexual assault, she heard a manager say something close to the following: “We will always respect your need for boundaries and self-care, but we will reward a lack thereof.”
Miranda worked in the counseling center as a pre-licensed therapist and had limited contact with the employees in other departments. Within 2 years of working there, she could tell from the way a person talked while filling up their water jug, or the way they walked across the parking lot to the different suites, whether they were headed towards what she called a “self-destruct notice.” In other words, she could visually see the burnout on their person and that they wouldn’t be at the agency much longer. She tried several times to catch it earlier and speak to people to try to help them create better coping mechanisms, but she was unable to resolve the burnout syndrome through random chats and hugs.
Burnout seemed to be par for the course at the agency, despite there being support and encouragement for self-care, time off, and lots of training on how to manage the high-stress environment. Ultimately, a lack of work boundaries was consistently rewarded with promotions and praise.
Crisis: Reaching a Breaking Point
At some point in the burnout cycle, the symptoms become critical. Your physical symptoms get worse or you develop new physical symptoms, your work frustrations become your main focus, you lose hope for the future, and you may just want to escape.
Kelly is a licensed therapist with a Master’s degree who worked for the county managing dozens of therapists. She found herself researching going to medical school as she thought about ways to escape the burnout she was experiencing in her daily work. She fantasized about running away. She had severe muscle tension at work, GI issues and anxiety.
It isn’t surprising that Kelly was experiencing moderate symptoms of burnout. In fact, over half of psychotherapists can experience moderate to high rates of burnout symptoms according to research studies. Simply retraining as a physician was unlikely to solve Kelly’s burnout— especially considering the rates of burnout among physicians are above 50% and can increase based on specialty.
Enmeshment: AKA Is Something Wrong with Me??
The final stage in both the 5-stage and 12-stage model of burnout both are all encompassing. The 5-stage model states burnout syndrome “can include total and mental physical collapse” and recommends medical attention. The 12-stage model describes that the burnout has become a pattern of enmeshment. “The symptoms of burnout are so embedded in your life that you are more likely to be labeled as having some significant physical or emotional problem than you are to be called a burnout case.” In other words, the burnout has become so enmeshed with your life that people can’t tell where you and your personality end and where the burnout begins.
People who have experienced burnout deeply start to question whether there is something deeply wrong with them, and whether they will be able to be successful in the future. The physical symptoms that develop can also make it confusing to determine what came first. If you develop an autoimmune condition while going through the burnout cycle, was it the stress from your autoimmune symptoms that put you at risk for burnout, or was it the burnout that put you at risk for an autoimmune response?
Are You at Risk for Burnout?
The impact of burnout on client care is not limited to physicians. If you’ve read this far, it is hard to imagine that you aren’t concerned that you might be at risk for or suffering from burnout. Burnout rates are incredibly high for physicians, social workers, psychotherapists, teachers, lawyers, retail workers, and more. And, millennials are reporting burnout at a higher rate than their older coworkers.
A new paper published in conjunction with the Harvard school of public health in 2019 deemed the burnout among physicians alone as a “public health crisis.” How does the burnout of a professional turn into a public health crisis? A 2018 meta-analysis found physician burnout was associated with an increased risk of patient safety incidents, poorer quality of care due to low professionalism, and reduced patient satisfaction.
Reviewing the symptoms above, such as struggles with sleep, depersonalization, intolerance and withdrawal to name a few, think about how those impact the way you interact with coworkers, old clients, or new clients.
Miranda continued working in the domestic violence and sexual assault agency. A few years into her work at the agency, she finished up a particularly hard psychotherapy session with a client. She found herself frustrated, irritated, and borderline angry. She sought out a coworker to vent to, and as she was complaining about the client and the session she felt like she was outside of her body watching someone else. She began to have this dual experience. “I’ve had hard sessions before, why is this bothering me so much?... Why am I taking this one to heart? I know this is a tough client, but I normally don’t take this so personally… I never ‘vent’ to coworkers about sessions, what is different today?” She realized mid-vent that she was burnt out. She went upstairs immediately to talk to her supervisor, apologized for not catching it sooner, cancelled sessions for the next few days and took some much needed time off to look at what had led her to this place and what needed to change. She came back to work the next week with clearer boundaries about taking lunch breaks, scheduling fewer sessions back to back, and closing out cases on her caseload.
What if she didn’t feel like she could ask for that? What if she hadn’t realized what was happening? How would that have impacted future sessions with that client and others? What if her supervisor had not supported that decision?
Or, what if she was self-employed? What if she was seeing too many clients, but wasn’t charging a fair fee, or wasn’t getting reimbursement at a rate that she could support herself if she cut back on clinical hours? What if her burnout was impacting her ability to pay her rent, or feed her children? There are lots of reasons that people will ignore the earlier symptoms of burnout and try to “push through.”
Risk Factors for Burnout
So, what exactly puts you or someone you know at risk for burnout? There are a few different models, but we will focus on the Areas of Worklife (AW) model developed by Leiter and Maslach. The AW model “frames job stressors in terms of person‐job imbalances, or mismatches, but identifies six key areas in which these imbalances take place: workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values.”
What does a workload imbalance look like for the person and the business? Workload imbalances happen in businesses because entrepreneurs don’t have role models for what a good fit of workload is for someone running their own business. They may simply translate the number of hours they spent doing their work or seeing clients and expect to keep the same pace, not taking into account the multiple roles they are taking on as a business owner, let alone the differences in personal life demands and circumstances.
The control balance relates back to the work role conflict that we talked about earlier. It can result from “multiple authorities with conflicting demands or incongruent values.” When you experience this conflict it can interfere with your ability to set priorities or commit yourself fully to your work. While many may see the life of an entrepreneur as having a sense of freedom and ultimate control, many business owners struggle in this area. The authorities with conflicting demands may be internalized representations of old bosses, colleagues, the IRS, licensing boards, other businesses, etc.
It may or may not seem obvious, but research has shown when someone perceives that they are getting insufficient reward for the work they are doing, it puts them at risk for burnout. The reward imbalances are not limited to financial, though. The insufficient rewards can include financial, institutional, or social. What happens when, as a business owner you do the math and realize you are making less than minimum wage? Or, if you assess your life and realize your business has overshadowed your romantic and social life, or the needs of your physical health? Those are costs that might be too high to endure.
Having community buffers the impact of stress in your work. A leader needs relationships, such as friends and family or mentors, to provide them with support. Those relationships act as a resource to outweigh the demands and exhaustion of work. Also, within an organization, community is needed amongst colleagues and team members to mitigate burnout. Team members need to feel supported, with good communication and realistic expectations, to know they are not alone in the demands of their work environment.
Fairness is something that every business leader needs, even if they are a solopreneur. In fair businesses, there is consideration for others and other perspectives when making decisions. This is something that is highly valued with teams as well. Being fair in expectations, decisions, and rewards impacts the community and the individual. When this becomes out of balance, it can look like a leader who does not listen to feedback, processes in place that hurt, neglect or hold back others involved, or unfair treatment of contractors, employees or business partners.
Values give us purpose and meaning. They also give us a road map for decision making and business growth. When the business acts outside of those values, the misalignment is cause for burnout for the leader and amongst the team. Team members need to understand the values of the business and most importantly the business owner needs to hold these to account when running their business. Individual values cannot be at odds with the values of the business. This incongruence causes more stress and strain in the work.
Every month there are over 300k searches for Burnout, and over 27k searches for a burnout test. As you were reading through the stages of burnout above, where did you see yourself? Are you at risk? How do you know if you are suffering from burnout? How do you know how progressed it is?
Maslach has created a series of burnout inventories that have been validated, tested, reviewed, and researched for decades. Here are two options for a burnout test. One is paid and one is free.
Take Maslach’s full burnout test and get your results here. You can even choose the version of the inventory that most closely aligns with the work that you do.
Alternatively, click this link to access a free version of Maslach’s general burnout inventory and see where you rate on the development of burnout syndrome.
Talking to others about their experience of Burnout Syndrome can also be a powerful way to get clarity about whether you are experiencing burnout. We asked therapists in private practice to tell us about the moment they realized they couldn't ignore their burnout any longer. Here are a few of their accounts of how they knew it was time to take action and listen to their burnout symptoms:
”When small tasks seem so monumentally huge. It's such a terrible feeling.”
“When I started feeling angry with everything and everyone with no rational explanation.”
“Brain fog, unable to make decisions, loss of joy, and a desperate need for space and being away from people.”
“When after a leave of absence it still didn't help to return to the clients. Nothing mattered anymore. My thoughts were heading south.”
“I was completely peopled out; I came home from work and couldn’t tolerate a conversation with my spouse. I just needed quiet. I’m highly extroverted so this was a HUGE sign for me.”
“When I realized, I didn't have a life or the energy to make one anymore. My weekends were always about catching up on paperwork.”
“My body was breaking down. I was sick every month. I missed way too much work. My doctor sat me down and threatened, ‘If you don’t do something about this, I will put you on disability.’”
“I thought I had a terrible disease, because I could not get well for months. My doctor did tons of tests and then sat down with me and said, ‘Your only problem is that you are doing way too much. You’ve got to make some hard choices.’ Huge wake up call for me!”
“I was crying over EVERYTHING! I couldn’t stop.”
“When the slightest stressor/inconvenience brings me to tears.”
“Freaking out over a shirt that didn’t make it in the hamper.”
“When I was sitting with a couple, listening to what was happening for them and I thought, ‘Wow. They really need a therapist.’ And then, ‘OH SHIT. I'm the therapist.’”
“When I told my friend that my agency job was ‘sucking the life out of me’ and ‘killing my spirit.’"
“Here are a few: I remember driving through a beautiful fog to the agency, wondering why I was going to work. Feeling resentful and bitter. A constant dread and fear even though I was in management and was shielded from general consequences. Crying a lot.”
“I found I wasn't looking forward to going to work and I'd feel exhausted at the end of each day. I'd get new client calls and feel overwhelmed before I even spoke with them. I knew then I was getting burned out.”
“When I realized there was a point in the evening where if I kept working there was diminishing returns and I was actually creating more work for myself through my mistakes I needed to fix later and was overall inefficient in everything the next day. The longer the days I worked the more behind I got.”
“I was starting to have brain fog so bad that I left my cell phone in several random places in public, with the worst being a time I left it at a gas station bathroom while driving to a faraway hike and only realized after driving several miles on the highway! I also noticed my shoulders being tense constantly and feeling on edge walking into work. Haven’t had all that in private practice, thankfully! Just agency work, ugh…”
“When I would wake up in the middle of the night every night in a panic attack.”
“When my husband told me that something needed to change...that he couldn't handle things continuing the way they were (which was basically me crying all the time). It was really a wake-up call for me to face the reality that continuing in my full-time agency job was no longer a possibility. Within the next few months I had taken steps to start my own practice and was signed up for BSB!”
“Laying on the floor, in my empty rental house in Oakland, in a pool of sweat, with a 10 minute run of PSVT...stress-induced tachycardia. My heart rate was over 200 the entire time...feeling like I would die. It was the final week of my crisis counseling internship. I had survived grad school. Survived 3000 hours of suicide and homicide survivor work, suicide hotline, and trauma work with Native American clients in the Mission. My wife had packed a truck with half our stuff to leave the marriage. The other half was packed in a UHaul outside, and I had no idea where I was going. And suddenly I was on the floor thinking I was dying. Yeah...that's how far it went. But...I lived. And somewhere over the next year...somehow...I heard two voices in the darkness. Kelly and Miranda.”
“When I came home one day and my husband (who had lost his father just months before) wanted to talk and my first thought was, ‘Ugh, I’ve been listening to people all day. That’s not what I want to do now!’ It was a horrible feeling. When I left that agency job I was gleeful and told my friends and colleagues, ‘I never have to do therapy again!’ And I didn’t for about three years. Thank God for psych testing!”
“I laid on my bed and cried by myself after fixing all 4 kids and my husband dinner—before I went back to work to see clients. E.X.H.A.U.S.T.E.D. And I yelled at God.”
“I felt out of touch with myself, negative, resentful, and defeated when leaving work and not able to get back to who I truly am even outside of work. The laughter, the smiles, the energy I had just wasn't there, and I was so preoccupied with just finding something else, it felt like an obsession.”
“Anxiety and panic. I see clients on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays only. I was still feeling dread after not seeing clients Friday–Monday. It still wasn’t enough time to get reset and recharged. Feeling dread the day before seeing clients. Feeling resentful toward my clients.”
“Nightmares involving clients (vicarious trauma) and I’m with those that had anxiety, panic attacks, can’t stop crying and my heart sporadically RACING.”
“I couldn't wait to get shoulder surgery so I could get a break. Less than a month left before I return to work and I'm dreading it already!”
“My body was talking very loudly and my arms were so heavy with exhaustion I couldn't lift them. And swallowing was difficult. Getting so angry and frustrated at a client’s mom, after I hung up with her. My heart pumping with massive anxiety.”
“Getting far too excited when I got a client cancellation.”
“When I looked at going back to a past career that I had hated in the past but suddenly started looking appealing by comparison.”
“I'm probably about to burn out any moment. The tension and pain in my jaw is unreal. My body is definitely trying to tell me something.”
“When I was dreading seeing clients. When I was feeling depressed and couldn't remember the last time I had fun. When I felt like I had to drag myself through the day.”
“Before I was in private practice: I wanted to watch something that wouldn't cause me anxiety. I watched a nature documentary and then cried because the baby flamingos were going to die with salt crystals crusted on their legs that kept them from flying. And then I read a book that was supposed to be a no-brainer trashy kind of novel, and it left me sobbing. That's when I couldn't ignore it any longer: I was NOT okay.”
“There were times when I considered going to work for Target or Costco.”
“I literally had fantasies about working at the bakery section at Target.”
“I had a similar experience at the dry cleaner. I was jealous of the cashier that tagged my clothing and gave me the receipt.”
“I had times when I would cry every Sunday because I knew I had to see clients on Monday. I would feel pure joy when clients no showed. I cried way too much—almost daily. Something had to give.”
“I didn't look forward to work and had a short fuse with family.”
“When I wasn’t sleeping at night, had no energy to move, and would cancel sessions, meetings, and social commitments from feeling overwhelmed and feeling frozen.”
“Escape fantasies that involved leaving my profession. Sitting in the parking lot at work and not wanting to get out of my car, or feeling nearly unable to get out of bed in the morning. Wanting to strangle clients who are having their own (expected) difficulties. Feeling very bad at what I do. Feeling uninspired. Feeling resentful of staff and clients.”
“When I stopped wanting to develop deeper connection with my husband and kids (or simply talk to them sometimes)... and when I stopped actively seeking out new learning opportunities or ways to grow as a clinician and entrepreneur.”
“Just wanting to be alone all the time. Experiencing adrenal fatigue.”
Real Life Stories: How Do You Know You are Burnt Out?
Self-care is important just as much as getting to the root of burnout in your business. We thought we should ask others what they have done to take care of themselves to prevent burnout or recover from burnout.
Know what boundaries you need to set and then stick to them—especially creating space/time for self-care.
Take the day off and rest. Take a vacation. Taking space can help heal and reset your self-care so you can break the habits that are keeping you stuck. Also GO TO THERAPY. Seeing a therapist helped me SO much (she even gave me the idea to pursue private practice!!).
Gratitude list, doing one small thing for yourself each day, exercising, moving, breaking things into smaller more manageable goals, time with family and friends.
Hire a business coach or consultant who understands burnout to help you.
Choose a time of the day, each day, that's just for you. I schedule my mornings to start at 10 a.m. so I can enjoy my cup of coffee and do my daily devotional with meditation or journaling before coming to the office.
Soft Mondays and Fridays. I only take one-offs or reschedules on Mondays and Fridays. I swear by this.
I set out a week’s worth of time off each quarter and stick to it!!!
Take a vacation, AND ALSO, budget for that vacation time. Know that you have the financial capability to still pay yourself for the week or two or three or FOUR that you take off. I used to get stuck in feeling like I couldn't afford to be gone too many days—but I always feel so rejuvenated coming back, and ready to dig back in to the work. When I use YNAB [You Need a Budget Software], I can see that I've assigned money to that time off.
Because we’re all so different, I think it’s hard to identify what could work. I basically spent my first several years in burnout mode, despite doing many self-care strategies like vacations, time alone, etc., because it boiled down to me not knowing myself well enough to know my limits, and what I actually needed. I think burnout subsides when you know who you are, and what you need and are willing to fiercely protect it.
Stop comparing yourself to others. Everyone else’s work hours/caseload/number of sessions per week does not translate into what works best for you, your needs, the work that you do. And get a business coach to help you with your blind spots.
If you work closely with other people, don’t gossip. Negative talk about your employer or other employees is so toxic and doesn’t actually do anything for anyone!
Learn to say no.
WIN-WIN! Find something you love to do, and invite your colleagues to join. Could be trivia night, terrarium making, crocheting, yogaing... whatever is your jam, invite others to join. It's a little self-care plus a little biz building all in one. You might even make some pretty cool friends along the way. I know I have.
Find/create a business support network—a group of like-minded business owners who you can bounce ideas off of, who will be excited for you, and who will call you out on your bullshit.
Invest in help.
Actively maintain resilience.
Meet up regularly with colleagues for lunch, engage with support system, attending therapy of your own, engaging in hobbies that you enjoy, traveling, allowing time to be creative and to dream, and surrounding yourself with meaningful people who are positive!
Self-regulation during, in between, before and after sessions!! Self-care is an all day, everyday, every moment practice—not just at the end of the day or ‘fancy’ treats like massages/mani&pedi/mental health days, etc. Caring for your nervous system and body (our most important and effective tool) is not a luxury.
Find that thing that put a twinkle in your eye as a kid and do more of that regularly.
I have to agree with the idea that you must know yourself very well and be willing to be flexible when things don’t go as planned. Sometimes knowing what is best for me as opposed to what I want prevents burnout. I want to help everyone I can, but my body tells me when I am doing too much. Reducing client contact hours and the overhead I’m paying reduces stress and burnout. Making myself take time off even when I want to work too much.
Pay for a really good consultation! I attend a monthly trauma therapist consultation group. It helps me gain a wider perspective on my clients as well as myself. I get to connect with others in the profession and avoid or work on the potential vicarious trauma!
Find support, talk about it and trust your inner compass. REST, REST, REST, even when you think you don’t have to do.
Can't do just one—here are three: Keeping your boundaries, prioritizing self-care, and having support. Not working on weekends. Seeing your own therapist. Having a consulting group/having therapist friends with whom you consult regularly.
Take time to self-assess and be honest with yourself. Find others that will be honest and loving in case you can’t or don’t.
This is not a section where we will discuss bubble baths and massages. Gone are the days of simple self-care theories for overcoming burnout. When looking at burnout treatment, there is the prevention and intervention.
There is little research that looks at the organization or systems which contribute to burnout, so prevention and intervention is up to the individual. We find this unfortunate as we believe that organizational structures that have biases and cause oppression must be dismantled in order to not perpetuate the pervasive burnout we see in organizations.
Treating the system is just as crucial as treating the individual, even for entrepreneurs. Why? Because we usually learn first about how business “is” or “should be” from previous employment settings, and from other people who have been raised in these same settings.
When looking at the contributing factors of burnout in the AW Model, you can reverse those as an approach to treating burnout as each of these areas are addressed. Let’s dig into ways to address each of these areas of work life as an entrepreneur.
Burnout Treatment: Workload
When you are a business owner or entrepreneur, you are often the gatekeeper for the workload. If you come from a previous employed environment that overworked you, you are likely to bring that into your own business creation, even unconsciously.
Evaluate your workload. Consider the hours you are working, the products or services you are providing and the commitments you are making. Then compare that to your time and energy spent in restoration and recovery mode. If you are burned or seeking to prevent burnout, this is where you would start to make changes.
We find distilling down to what is essential is key to discovering what you can eliminate. Simplifying your workload can provide an initial relief to a person seeking to reduce burnout and allow them time and space to address other key influences in their burnout.
You may also be able to shift the type of tasks that you take on in your workload. This could be administrative tasks to types of clients or customers you work with, all of which can be contributing to your burnout.
This may seem like an impossibility. In reducing your workload, you will need to evaluate your business plan so that you can do so without it impacting you financially. You may need some accountability to confront the beliefs of you being the one who has to do it all. This brings us to the next point.
Burnout Treatment: Control
Making decisions can be challenging when you are already exhausted with burnout and trying to get through the day. This burnout can inflame the belief that all of this is out of your control. But it’s important to understand what you can control—you. You may not be able to change a circumstance or an external factor that is causing stress, but you may be able to change your response. This often takes a person more psychic energy to slow down the thought process and evaluate beliefs about a situation so an exploration of options is possible. It is often thought of as that “stuck” feeling or being trapped; it is the feeling of not having control. This can be compounded by shame when you are the leader of the business, as it can almost be like you are doing this to yourself. In treatment and in prevention of burnout, you will want to evaluate the beliefs that are informing your responses and your control in the situation.
For example, when seeking to change your workload you may find your hours worked are all over the place. This has happened because of the belief that you “have to” work evenings for the specific kind of clients you work with or because you were taught it’s important to offer a variety of hours to your clients. As you look at this belief, you discover the evening work hours are robbing you of time with your family or alone and you come home more exhausted. Your brain power is at its sharpest in the mornings and it is the time you feel you get your best work done, and yet, you have agreed to believe that you have to work those evening hours.
There is no other evidence that you “have to” do anything. So by understanding what is happening in this decision, you recognize you have the power to change your schedule. That is in your control. Making the first step by changing an evening to a day schedule, one day at a time, empowers you to continue the process until the schedule is what works better for you and your life right now.
As you take back control, this not only alleviates the stress, it gives you further permission to continue in your journey of taking care of yourself and the boundaries you have with your business. By default you are creating a reward feedback loop for your efforts to shift the business you are creating.
Burnout Treatment: Reward
When it comes to rewarding yourself as an entrepreneur, this can feel more conflictual when you are self-employed than when you are an employee. You become the giver of the reward and the receiver. Which honestly, doesn’t always feel as fun as someone surprising us. Sometimes people feel the income should be reward enough. But then if the business is struggling, the reward never comes, and that can be demoralizing. We suggest rewarding yourself for small and big accomplishments outside of the numbers in your bank account. It’s time to acknowledge other accomplishments and in other ways beyond paying yourself. From success with clients to new opportunities generated, you can create rewards for these things once you know what motivates you.
Burnout Treatment: Community
Treating burnout does not happen internally alone. It is a communal process for the organization and for the individual. If you have a team, burnout needs to be addressed with the team as a whole. Allow room for feedback and making changes in the areas discussed earlier such as workload and reward. An organization also needs fairness and equity in order to allow for a healthier system that can prevent burnout.
As a leader, you also need to have support. This can look like psychotherapy, coaching, group support, friendships and mentorship. Expression of and the permission for negativity can provide an opportunity to explore options, whereas its suppression can lead to a build-up of burnout in the individual or team. Evaluate your business and personal relationships for trust and support. If there is a lack of those two components, then it is time to evaluate your level of control. Are these relationships that are helpful or do they contribute to the burnout? If they contribute, then it is up to you to shift the relationship and put new boundaries in place that are healthier and more protective for you. Having people you can turn to for support is a crucial factor in treating burnout.
Burnout Treatment: Fairness
How do you instill fairness in your business so that you are able to treat burnout? Let’s first talk about being fair with oneself. One of the major areas that you can look at is your expectations and goal settings. Sometimes we push ourselves beyond our limits, we put rules in place or have narratives of “have to” or “should,” thinking that we are motivating ourselves when in fact we aren’t being fair to ourselves. You want goals and expectations that are reasonable and achievable.
If you have a team, consider how you reward or make decisions for your team members. Be open to feedback and create a stronger sense of community so that there is safety for people to be honest. Evaluate processes that may oppress or cause harm to team members. Get outside mentorship and feedback as well so that you don’t remain isolated when making business decisions.
Burnout Treatment: Values
It is also important to work towards eliminating value conflicts in your work environment. When your work does not align with what matters most to you, that can lead to burnout because there is a sense of being an imposter or inauthentic. For example, a coaching client was constantly checking their bank account, obsessing over numbers to the point that their mood fluctuated with their income. When looking at their values, they didn’t value wealth or financial security, they valued transformation and making an impact. However, they had crossed those two wires and assumed that the income meant that transformation and impact were happening. That stress of checking and obsession reduced when they shifted their focus on other markers of impact, such as client results. As clients got results, the bank account by default continued to flourish. Their focus only shifted. Behavior is a demonstration of values and you want that demonstration to be aligned with what truly matters most to you. When it is not, it adds to stress and fatigue in your work.
Self-Care for Burnout
What Is Self-Care?
Self-care is often one of the first responses to burnout. There are countless articles, blogs and speakers who focus solely on this aspect of prevention and treatment. As we said at the start, gone are the days of just talking about quiet time, bubble baths and other activities to stay calm. Organizations, processes, structures need to shift if you want the epidemic of burnout to be addressed. However, self-care does have merit and a place in the treatment and prevention of burnout for the individual.
Self-care means exactly as it sounds, taking care of one’s self. That would mean addressing the health and wellness of a person from a holistic perspective. When looking at self-care we want to apply the 8 dimensions of wellness. These 8 dimensions of wellness have been researched and will serve as a road map for addressing self-care, which we will take a look at now.
Physical Self-Care for Burnout
Let’s look at how you take care of your physical wellness when addressing your self-care. Brain and body must be considered. Research also suggests this. In fact, an MRI study on people suffering from burnout by Golkar Et al in 2014 found that chronic stress does impact that functional connectivity of the brain. Brain health is a key step in addressing burnout. Meditation, for example, reduces cortisol levels and reduces activity in the amygdala. This is an example of the neuroplasticity you can harness to heal from burnout. We also know that exercise and gut health are key factors in brain health as well. While we won’t discuss specifics of exercise plans or eating protocols, it is important to consider what your body needs in order to function optimally, giving your brain and body a chance to recover from burnout.
Emotional Self-Care for Burnout
Emotional wellness encompasses the expression of emotions. This relates to how we cope with life and how we develop our emotional intelligence. To tend to your emotional well-being, it is important to be aware of what emotions you do have and then be able to express them in healthy ways such as in a journal, with a therapist, or with a friend. Establishing practices of emotional exploration and expression are important for ongoing self-care.
Intellectual Self-Care for Burnout
Your intellectual well-being is another area for self-care to happen. Stimulating ourselves with new knowledge, not necessarily related to our work, can ignite creativity and more purpose for ourselves. As humans we continue to want to grow. Some options to address your intellectual wellness would be to read books, attend lectures, have discussions with people who have a different opinion than you, or learn new skills.
Financial Self-Care for Burnout
How we allocate our financial resources is another form of self-care. When we take care of ourselves financially, this can ease stress and strain. For some this means allocating money towards self-care activities, like joining a gym, but for others it can look like donating money to a charity that is meaningful to the person, putting money in savings, or eliminating debt—all of these are forms of self-care.
Social Self-Care for Burnout
How you connect to others is an act of self-care. Having healthy, positive relationships that are mutually supportive and filled with trust and honesty is an important aspect of any persons’ life. When taking care of yourself through your social wellness you may choose to share something vulnerable with a person you love, have get-togethers with a larger community, call up a friend or schedule a date night.
Spiritual Self-Care for Burnout
Looking at your beliefs and purpose, becoming aware of your inner truth, and honoring that truth in your actions and words are all a part of spiritual wellness. When a leader can identify with a higher purpose or power it nurtures the soul. This can be manifested in ritual, religious practice or connecting with nature. Meditation and prayer are other common ways to take care of your spiritual wellness.
Occupational Self-Care for Burnout
What we do, gives us meaning. While looking at your business, continuing to align what you do with what you value and what you enjoy is important. This is an important part of self-care that we have been addressing throughout this guide.
Environmental Self-Care for Burnout
Your space impacts your mood. How you take care of what you own and the physical things around you impacts your wellness. Decluttering, simplifying and making your spaces a place of joy and refuge are another way to care for yourself.
Burnout Resources for Business Owners
Wow—that was a lot! What now? If you’ve made it this far, we want to celebrate with you! Our hope is that you now understand the big picture of burnout and what you can do about it. Our role with business owners has always been to help them build a business that prevents burnout and gives them a healthy, happy life. Building a business is a holistic process. You cannot separate the leader from their business and neither can you do the same when preventing or treating burnout.
Now for an important final question! Do you have what you need above? If so, great! Feel free to get on our mailing list here for future free trainings and events to support you and your business if you feel you would benefit.
Still feeling stuck? If you are looking for more support and direction about how to align your business and life to recover from, or avoid burnout, we know it can be difficult to determine what the best next step is.
It doesn’t feel like you can just take a break or pause from your business or life to go and seek burnout treatment. We get it. And, ultimately, you probably feel like if you could just get your business running more smoothly, you’d have time to get your life and business in balance. It can be tricky to ride that line of what comes first.
If you want to align your business to the kind of business that helps people and that also helps you, we invite you to check out the Business School Bootcamp. It is a comprehensive program for health and wellness professionals that will take you step-by-step through analyzing and updating each area of your business (and your life) and creating sustainable roles, systems, processes, and a mindset that can help you overcome burnout. Click here to learn more about Business School Bootcamp for Therapists today.
Alternatively, if you need someone to talk to, consider reaching out to a local or online psychotherapist or business coach. Our business coaching clients who’ve utilized brain spotting in therapy or in removing business blocks have had great results