#1 Burnout

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Mental health is a topical concern. It’s also sensitive, delicate and for entrepreneurs specifically it can be sore, often kept secret. At the end of 2019, while running my men’s mental health magazine MAN_AGE, I found I work the equivalent of four, maybe five jobs. 

Where’s a speed camera when you need one?

I’m Senior Editor, publishing articles (not all solicited, and each needing to be read through, edited, and eventually uploaded; needing unique graphics, formatting, SEO, social and browser images); I am Social Media Co-ordinator (posting across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn; carefully selecting hashtags, cross-pollinating content, replying to the inbox, checking analytics for the best times to post); I am Administrator & Accounts Payable (chasing payments, generating POs, filing receipts and uploading to tracking software, answering emails and calls and organising dates); I was Accounts & Sales Manager (cold calling, warm calling, explaining my business in great detail; designing a media kit and populating it with relevant, exciting and pragmatic information); I am Content Creator & Graphic Designer (producing the magazine from scratch, formatting a professional aesthetic, forecasting print and delivery costs); and I am Workshop Co-ordinator, designing and delivering workshops for the NHS, government initiatives and companies. It’s arguable that “five jobs” is a conservative estimation, but in practical terms it means my phone is always on, there’s always something to do, and “out of hours” don’t really exist.

That’s a big paragraph, I know, and if you found it a breathless read then imagine what it’s like to live it. Chances are, you’re an entrepreneur with a start-up and you won’t need to…

A lot of the jobs I’ve listed are essential, and quite often they’re unforgiving – they need doing, right?! Some, like social media, probably don’t, but in today’s modern world it feels a necessity all the same. If a tree falls in the woods and it doesn’t get a flurry of retweets, did it even?

All this to say that I was on the cusp of “burnout”. Luckily, Christmas came at just the right time for me to sit back, recharge and focus on the truly necessary responsibilities. I re-evaluated what I wanted to achieve and how best to achieve it, and I reviewed my successes. But boy, was I tired. When explaining my fatigue to someone, I remember saying that I was “Managing five jobs and working at 200%”. What they cynically heard is that each job only received 40% input.

“Huh,” I thought. “That’s a fair point, though. I’m working twice as hard and only moving at about half-speed. No wonder I’m tired all the time…”

Burnout – don’t ignore the “check engine” light

The term “burnout” was first coined in 1974 by Herbert Freudenberger in his book Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement, making it a relatively new consideration. The concerning reality is that it undoubtedly affects entrepreneurs at a disproportionate rate to the rest of the population. So, what is burnout, exactly: How do we recognise the signs, and how do we mitigate it?

Burnout is a physical reaction to ongoing stress or activity. You may feel disconnected or begin disassociating with your job, your personal life or with relationships. You will be chronically exhausted, will become increasingly cynical, and your ability to do your job(s) well will be greatly impacted. While it is important to recognise that burnout will display differently for different people, there are generalised signals to look out for:

  • Reduced performance and productivity.
  • Anxiety.
  • Detachment.
  • Feeling listless.
  • Low mood.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Lack of creativity.
  • Fatigue.

Do any of these look familiar? If so, you’re probably approaching burnout. You’re working yourself too hard, likely juggling many aspects of your business, and while at first the juggling, the multidisciplinary work, the freedom to choose what to do today will all feel productive and amazing – riding on that excited energy – you have to acknowledge and then understand whether it’s sustainable. Can you do what you’re doing for long?

You don’t need to quit the race, you just need pitstops

Starting any business is always going to be tough, and you’re one of the few people that has the drive, the passion and the wherewithal to even consider such an undertaking – let alone going ahead and doing it. You’re something else, something exciting.

Maybe you’re starting up while working a full-time job, focusing your energies to evenings and weekends; maybe you’re confident enough (or currently financially stable enough) to make it your sole focus; or maybe, for whatever reason, you simply don’t have anything to lose and everything to gain… Now, no one truly expects their business to be a success overnight, so this means being careful with your energy, and no matter your personal situation one truth will always be the same: it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Take Formula 1, for instance. Anyone would agree, regardless of starting position, that accelerating all the way through is not only a recipe for disaster, it’s impossible. It’s simply not how it’s done. (It’s also important to note that races cannot last longer than two hours for driver safety reasons, such as physical exhaustion and mental fatigue.)

Every race requires pitstops to change the tires, check the engine’s status, and the driver themselves needs attention. Even then, there’s a team working hard to get them back on track ASAP – most entrepreneurs don’t have that luxury.

In this analogy the car is your business, you are the driver, and the race itself represents your day to day activities – that extended straight is a flurry of morning emails; that first easy left is a phone call; that hard right a presentation. When are your pitstops? What are you doing daily to ensure that you’re healthy, that your business and you aren’t breaking down, and that you can endure?

Executive decisions

Often, it’s a race engineer who decides when to pitstop. The driver is told “Now is the time to come in”, and they listen. You, by comparison, are likely focusing so much on the race that these subsidiary decisions might not be so easy to recognise, let alone manage, and while you’re probably not physically whipping along at 100mph, it can feel that way mentally. Well here’s the good news: the race engineer doesn’t just call in pitstops randomly, they work to a flexible plan…

The best aspects of running a business include the freedom of choosing where to work from, who to speak with, and how to fill your day. It’s liberating. However, even though it’s natural to want the most from every day, you need to include regular breaks and downtime.

So, what can be done to avoid burnout? Here are a few examples:

  • Recognise signs of fatigue – are you becoming cranky with family and friends? Are you dreading the next important call or meeting? Have you just reread a sentence for the second time? Have you just reread a sentence for the second time? You might need to step off the gas.
  • Regain perspective and composure – not sure what to do, but feel like you should be doing something? Why? Are things not happening as fast as you need them to? Again: Ask yourself “why” and be completely honest.
  • Organise your day – do you have a meeting in the morning and call shortly after? Make sure to schedule a break between commitments. Travelling isn’t downtime and stay off your phone! If it’s that important, they’ll call.
  • Take regular breaks – 10 minutes here and there can really add up, refreshing both perspective and energy. If you’ve spent a couple hours at a screen, make sure your break is away from one.
  • Schedule personal time – most people and companies clock off around 5 or 6pm, so you probably should too. If you must send that email or file that receipt do so, but make sure to have personal time, separate from your business.
  • Learn to enjoy your personal time, guilt free – you’ve scheduled time to read a book, watch movies or exercise, so go do it! If you find thoughts of work creeping through, catch them as soon as possible and verbally state “You don’t have to do that until tomorrow”. Speaking aloud in the second person can really help.
  • Socialise, socialise, socialise – you might be isolated, and have little time to be the you that isn’t tied into your business. Meet a close friend and make sure you don’t only talk about your business.
  • Look back at your success – this is important. You work hard, but do you stop long enough to recognise how far you’ve come? What led to your successes? This will be revealing.
  • Work smart – this is the big one. Find your end goal and work backwards from there. What is truly necessary and what is misspent energy? Choose the path of least resistance, sometimes.

Behind the safety car

Finding the balance between accountability and taking time to recharge will contribute most to longevity. At the end of each week look at your activities – your five or so jobs – and strip them back to either what is necessary or leads to success. Plan the week ahead: list activities, due dates and likely length until completion – and include downtime! Those moments of switching off will become your most valuable ROI.