Burnout: recognising the signs and how it can be avoided

Do you have frequent feelings of anger, irritability, cynicism, or dread about the prospect of the working day ahead? These could be key indicators that you’re approaching burnout.

We all know that when you’re the founder of a startup you have to earn your mettle – because there isn’t anyone else who is going to do it for you. You have the vision. The drive. The passion. And you’re determined to make it happen.

But at what price does that determination come? Did you know that, statistically, one in six people struggle with their mental health because of workplace stress.

There is an adage that if you do what you love, then you never work a day in your life – but that’s not necessarily true. Whilst you might love what you do, there is a work/life balance that needs to be addressed, otherwise what you love will become your life and you’ll never be able to switch off.

Many founders feel that they have to be available 24hrs a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year – and they’re so busy building their business during the daylight hours, that it only leaves evenings for networking and promotion.

However, just like our physical health, our mental health is very important. The complex art of understanding mental health and seeking mental wellbeing is not clear cut, since we are all different, and we all have different limits. Mental health is invisible, so how can you identify the signs and turn burnout into mental wellness?

According to Charlotte Dixon, Psychologist and Senior Consultant at Designed4Success (D4S): “When we're overwhelmed we often feel we are powerless and out of options. Exploring what works for us when we are in a calmer state means that we have coping strategies ready to lean on when we're struggling and less able to think clearly.  Developing our own ‘toolbox’ of resources or strategies is the key to taking back control.”

D4S, an independent consultancy, specialises in organisational development, with options for exploring how to support leaders and teams with managing stress via coaching and tailored sessions.

And with a call for regulation into work-related suicides to be investigated, it is more important now than ever that we look after our mental health and wellbeing because there is only one of you. You can never be replaced. You are unique. And you can only take care of a team and a business if you first take care of yourself.

Identifying burnout

Burnout is not one isolated symptom, but a cluster of signals that are your physical and mental warning signs.

Potential triggers:

  • Workload – feeling like you can’t manage your time and have too much pressure placed on you
  • Lack of control - feeling like you have no power
  • Colleagues/employees – feeling like you can’t count on the people around you, or there are toxic feelings
  • Lack of support – feeling like you are on your own and there isn’t any help available
  • Work hours – working long and unsociable hours, and feeling like you have no time to spend with friends or family
  • Isolation – sometimes working in isolation leads to feelings of being removed from the world and being completely alone
  • Money – when you’re a startup, funding a business and supporting a family can be a real cause for concern

Symptoms of burnout:

  • Lack of energy and motivation
  • Feelings that you’re not performing your work as well as you used to
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Headaches and stomach aches
  • Feelings of hopelessness

How to regain balance:

  • Talk to someone – whether that is a professional, a peer who has been through the same journey as you, or a good friend. People are happy to share their knowledge.
  • Take time out – as counter-intuitive as it may seem, sometimes time out is what is needed. It doesn’t have to be weeks, but perhaps carving out even two hours a day where you spend time with family or friends or just reading. No phone, no emails, no work. Just time for you.
  • Stay away from social media – although it is now a beneficial tool for building a business and networking, it can also lead to growing feelings of stress and anxiety – so time away from hours of scrolling, comparing, messaging, and digital networking is vital.
  • Go outside – the power of taking a walk is huge. When we take ourselves away from work and walk – noticing all the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells around us rather than actively thinking about work, we come back refreshed and with a new perspective. A walk could be the very thing needed to solve a problem.
  • Eat well – good food that sustains you will reward you much more than that quick fix which can lead to a crash.
  • Sleep – when you’re suffering from stress and burnout, sleep is commonly affected. Try getting yourself into a routine where phones, televisions, computers – all gadgets are turned off an hour before bed, giving your mind time to unwind.
  • Write it down – the power of the pen is very underrated. But if you have growing concerns, sometimes it is good to write them down. Perhaps writing a pros and cons list. Or even writing about someone or something that is causing you stress or anxiety – once it’s done and out of your system, tear it up or burn it. This could be just the visual trigger you need to move on.
  • Understanding – understand what you can control and what you can’t. Know that whilst you can’t control someone else’s actions or reactions, you can control your own.

These tips aren’t anything new, and for good reason – it’s because they work. Burnout only comes when you stop paying attention to you. And if you burnout, the costs could be much higher than if you made a few manageable adjustments to your daily life.

And remember that nothing is permanent. Not the good. Not the bad. Everything will pass. It is this state of flow that enriches our lives because when things are good, we know they’re good and we need to enjoy the moment, and when they’re bad, we know that that too won’t last, and we must acknowledge the feelings but then let them go – knowing that better times will be back again.