Nothing left in the tank? 10 strategies to avoid burnout in your small business

Thoughtful young woman with her head in her hands

As the saying goes, if you put a frog into a pot of boiling water, it jumps right out. But if you put it in a pot of tepid water and bring it to the boil, the frog won’t become aware of the heat until it’s too late.

The same applies to burnout. Many of us don’t pick up on the warning signs before reaching crisis point.

Recent research found that 73% of professionals are suffering from burnout in the wake of the COVID‑19 pandemic, with 3 in 10 reporting it’s because of a lack of separation between work and life.

Even before the pandemic, workplaces moved at a relentless pace with too little downtime for workers – a phenomenon business owners weren’t immune to either. Now, with the added pressure of running a business amid a global pandemic, the psychological stress business owners face is creating an environment ripe for burnout.

What is burnout?

While everyone experiences hard days, burnout is more than just feeling stressed. It is the result of chronic workplace stress that hasn’t been successfully managed. Under normal stress, we still have the capacity to do our work, but burnout is when we feel so spent that we have nothing left in the tank. Our energy, passion, motivation and mental health are depleted to the point where we can’t function.

How do I know if I’m burnt out?

The signs of burnout can include:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • changed sleep patterns
  • loss of appetite
  • irritability
  • brain fog and reduced professional efficacy
  • disinterest or a lack of participation in work or activities that you previously enjoyed
  • feelings of negativity and cynicism related to your job
  • a general feeling of detachment.

Consequences of prolonged burnout

If left to boil away (remember the frog?), burnout can have a serious impact on not only our ability to successfully run a business but also on our mental health and wellbeing too.

While burnout is not a medical condition, in 2019 the World Health Organisation (WHO) recognised burnout as a syndrome and occupational phenomenon with health consequences such as depression, anxiety, alcohol or substance abuse, heart disease and high blood pressure.

What causes small business burnout?

So often you hear small business owners talk about how the reality of small business is so different from what they expected. Research by the Commonwealth Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources shows that small business owners and their employees are more likely to experience a mental health illness compared to the rest of the population. Of the small business owners surveyed in 2020, 56% said that running a business has led to feelings of anxiety or depression.

Even before the pandemic, 43% of business owners worked every weekend, with 85% of respondents admitting to regularly taking their work home with them. High workloads, the availability-creep of COVID‑19, and today’s unique financial and social stressors have created one of the most challenging environments in history in which to run a business.

10 strategies to mitigate small business burnout

Addressing burnout isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. It’s about making conscious choices about how we want to integrate work and life for our unique situation.

1. Manage transitions between work and home life

We may not realise it, but we probably have transition rituals that provide a buffer between home life and work. Pre-pandemic, this might’ve been our commute to the office, but now it could be as simple as making a coffee before checking emails or changing into pyjamas to signal the end of the workday. While these are small acts, such habits play an important psychological role in preparing us for the day ahead and winding down in the evening.

As a business owner there is always work to do. You may wear many hats and feel the pressure to be ‘always on’ but no matter how much work gets done, there is always going to be more deliverables. It’s up to you to prioritise the demands on your time. Doing so will create a business that is more sustainable in the long run.

Read more about how to manage workplace stress on the Business Victoria website.

2. Set realistic expectations

We often set standards for ourselves that we would never expect of anyone else.

Step back and evaluate your business and personal responsibilities and ask yourself if they’re realistic when you take into account your time, values, needs and wants. Expectations that may have been reasonable before may not fit in with a changing work role, modified responsibilities, or your current personal responsibilities.

3. Communicate your boundaries

Communicating consistent and clear messages to those around you will help you to set priorities and boundaries between work and personal time – people aren’t mind readers!

One upside of the pandemic is that it’s providing us with the opportunity to rethink the way we work. As a society, we’re moving away from long 15-hour days and paving the way to work in more sustainable ways.

As a business owner, there’s never been a better time to reaffirm your boundaries and use technology to help stick to them, too.

4. Know when to disconnect from work

While it is important that we remain connected with staff, family and our wider social networks, it can be equally valuable to ‘switch off’. You would never expect your mobile phone to keep working without the opportunity to recharge at the end of the day – so why shouldn’t you? You can only do today what you can do today.

Set a clear work schedule and share this with your team. This will help compartmentalise your work and personal time and allow you to engage wholeheartedly in activities that are important. The people in your life will appreciate having your full attention – especially children, if you have any.

Psychologist and Co-Founder of Transitioning Well, Justine Alter, has written an article to help small business owners juggle parenting with running a small business.

5. Prioritise sleep

It’s late. You’ve just caught up on work emails, the dishwasher is stacked and you finally have a few quiet moments to yourself. Instead of going to sleep, you stay up late binge-watching one more episode despite needing to be up early the next morning.

Welcome to the phenomenon known as ‘Revenge Bedtime Procrastination’. Small business owners are especially prone to this sleep procrastination with all the competing priorities they have to juggle.

Good-quality sleep is crucial for maintaining both physical and mental health. So, ditch the technology, reach for a book or include a relaxation activity like a hot bath to help wind down in the evening before bed. Your brain will thank you for it.

6. Access support

Staying connected to others minimises feelings of loneliness, isolation and increases your tolerance of change occurring at work or in your personal life. In tough times, you might need to step outside of your comfort zone and ask for support from others.

The Partners in Wellbeing Helpline is a free and confidential one-on-one service that provides support for small business owners and employees through trained wellbeing coaches, financial counsellors and business advisers. Call 1300 375 330 for support to access financial counsellors and support to improve your wellbeing.

Also, remember that your GP is an important source of support to reach out to if needed. Don’t forget those checkups, which small business owners so often push to the bottom of the ever-growing to-do list.

7. Keep bad habits in check

Be wary of any unhealthy habits that might creep in at times of high stress. Unhealthy habits, whether they come from other people or yourself, can disturb your ability to balance work and life. Personally, I know when my chocolate addiction cranks up a notch and I stop exercising that this is a red flag!

As the restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic limit our social lives and create additional financial and emotional stress, some people may find themselves drinking or using substances more as a way to cope. If you’re one of the many Australians whose alcohol consumption has increased during lockdown, you might want to consider taking a break to help reset unhealthy drinking levels.

While we may think it’s relieving stress, consuming alcohol can disrupt our ability to have a good night’s sleep and make feelings of stress and anxiety worse.

There’s no quick fix for getting our health back on track, but we know that prioritising sleep, eating healthily and exercising regularly is beneficial for not only our physical health but our mental health too.

Remember that when we feel busy and overwhelmed these healthy habits are often the first things to go – we need to hold onto them with two hands!

8. Honour your values

When you ask people what they value most in life, they’ll often say it’s friends and family, yet we often let work priorities or our phones crowd out these intentions.

Make sure you bring your values into your life and honour your highest priorities in practice, not just in theory. This may mean putting away your phone as soon as the workday ends or not checking emails between the hours of 6pm and 8am.

Be conscious of how your business operations may be affecting those who work for you or your own family. Make steps to create a more sustainable business practices, prioritise connection and be more present with those who are important to you.

If you want to revisit your values, you may find this exercise we developed at Transitioning Well useful at this time: Building your Lighthouse through COVID‑19.

9. Use technology to your advantage

It can be draining trying to remember every little detail of what you need to accomplish every day. Technology can take some of the weight off your mental load – for example, itemising purchases in an expenses app, setting staff priorities in Microsoft Teams or using a meditation app to help switch off at night.

There are plenty of productivity and reminder apps that you can use to keep track of all the things you need to do and when. Research tells us that those who write a detailed to-do list and get it out of their brains fall asleep 15 minutes faster than those who don’t.

10. Practise self-advocacy and self-care

Don’t feel selfish for prioritising your basic physical and mental needs. In small business, we so often advocate for everyone else before ourselves. It is so important to ensure that we have fuel in our own tanks and our basic physical and mental health needs are met. As Libby Trickett, the famous Australian swimmer puts it best, ‘You can’t pour from an empty cup’.

With increasing levels of burnout and workplace exhaustion being witnessed across the globe, now is a great opportunity to test the temperature of your water so you can take stock and continue to live and work well.

Learn more about how to manage stress, burnout and mental fatigue in business

Access the following resources for information and advice on managing your stress and mental health.

Mental health and wellbeing support services

Crisis support services

Sarah Cotton

Organisational Psychologist and Co-Founder and Co-Director | Transitioning Well

Dr Sarah Cotton is a registered organisational psychologist and Co-Director of Transitioning Well. With a PhD in work-stress and a specialisation in work-life wellbeing, Sarah is motivated to help individuals and organisations navigate the challenges of modern work. Recognising the impact the work-life interface has on our mental health and wellbeing, Sarah co-founded Transitioning Well in 2011.