Out Of The Ashes

How to recover from the burnout blues.
Magazine Contributor
8 min read

This story appears in the November 1996 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Burnout. That's something only overworked fast-track types experience, isn't it? A homebased entrepreneur who has forsaken big business for the slower, friendlier pace of a self-guided career could not possibly succumb to such a corporate malady, right?

Wrong. Burnout can--and does--affect homebased entrepreneurs. Ask E. Faith Ivery: Her case of burnout was severe enough to put her in the hospital on two occasions.

It didn't get that bad for Nancy Denning, but she began to hate her once-beloved company.

"Somebody who starts a homebased business, especially if it's the first time, usually starts with a great deal of excitement and a new sense of freedom," explains Dr. Ira M. Frank, a Los Angeles psychiatrist. "The person usually is emotionally invested [in the new business], and a large part of his or her self-esteem is involved in the success or failure of the business."

When you couple this with worries about making enough to pay the bills, Frank says, it's no wonder homebased entrepreneurs often compensate by working longer hours and eventually becoming workaholics. And because the support system they once had in the corporate office--where they shared feelings, hopes, dreams and disappointments with fellow office workers-- is no longer there, Frank adds, they sometimes feel isolated and even overwhelmed.

Going Under

Feeling overwhelmed is a sensation Ivery and Denning know well.

"My company does educational brokering, trying to give [corporate adult students] the best educational benefits for their money by providing advice on which courses to take or schools to attend," explains Ivery of her business, Educational Advisory Services Inc.

Ivery's Scottsdale, Arizona-based firm grew from a one-person shop in 1981 to one with about 50 employees in 12 major cities from Atlanta to San Francisco.

"I hired the first person through networking; it was someone I knew in the community," Ivery remembers. But with expansion, hiring only people she knew became impossible. "I had to rely on running ads in newspapers, and when you do this, it's harder to sift through and find someone [qualified]."

As the business grew, Ivery found herself spending more time talking with attorneys and accountants, ordering supplies and handling personnel problems. Eventually, her workload evolved into a seven-day-a-week quagmire. "Not only was I working long hours, but it was frustrating. I couldn't get things to move forward because of personnel issues," says Ivery, who adds homebased entrepreneurs should be aware that successfully handling the growth you think you want is a delicate balancing act.

After working at this pace for five years, Ivery began experiencing insomnia, anxiety and constant fatigue. She felt isolated and wasn't eating right. "I developed ulcers and other stomach problems. It was a head-to-toe situation where the mind and body just short-circuited. One day I woke up and literally could not move," remembers Ivery. At that point, she decided it was time to restructure her business.

Growth-related problems also bothered Denning, whose Manhattan, Kansas, publishing venture, Tour Kansas Guide, "was an entrepreneurial exercise in meeting a need," she says. "The niche was promoting small towns through a free monthly newspaper. It had stories and a calendar of events going on in the state."

Denning started the publication in October 1992. It was subsidized by advertising sold to small towns and staffed by journalism interns from nearby Kansas State University. Things went well initially, says the entrepreneur, but soon she found herself struggling to collect payment from the advertisers and get interns to understand that having a school test was no excuse for missing work.

"It's amazing the number of [advertisers] that didn't want to pay bills of $27," says Denning, who began to question what she was doing in May 1994. "Producing the guide had become a drag, and we were not making a lot of money. I was having a tremendous amount of trouble with students not meeting deadlines and found myself going in 15 different directions and working 60-hour weeks."

One night at 2 a.m., while laying out a paper that had to be at the printer by 6 a.m., Denning finally realized she wasn't having fun anymore and decided to sell the paper.

Warning Signs

When and whether you experience burnout depends on your tolerance for frustration and boredom, says Frank. It also depends on the social, recreational and creative outlets you have in your life. "For someone with a family, it's much easier to have a home office, whereas someone [who is alone] may feel very isolated unless he or she makes a special effort to meet with people," adds Frank. He stresses, however, that even a homebased entrepreneur with a family can burn out.

"Everyone has the potential for suffering from burnout unless he or she takes steps to prevent it," Frank continues. He says symptoms include chronic fatigue and inertia--finding it very hard to get going, although once you start doing something, you gain energy.

"It's hard to get out of bed, and you often begin to let your appearance go," Frank says. "You no longer dress appropriately, which is easier at home."

Other symptoms include loss of your initial enthusiasm to the point where everything becomes drudgery, says Frank. Loss of interest in sex, recreation and other things outside the business that previously brought you joy are also signs.

The first step to curing burnout is recognizing the problem, says Frank. Then you have to restructure your life.

Denning's decision to sell Tour Kansas was her way of restructuring. "Deciding to close was like giving birth to a baby and then three years later giving it up for adoption," she says. She credits her local Small Business Development Center with helping her reach the right decision. She says their suggestion that she sit back and take a long look at why she wanted to sell prevented her from taking a quick out.

Denning eventually sold the business to a small grocery store owner and his wife, a journalist. "I cried when they came and got everything," she recalls, "but I knew it was going to a good home--to people who would care about it as much as I did."

Ivery's solution was to restructure her business concept. Today, instead of providing counselors, she licenses her concept to clients who designate someone in-house to do the counseling using her system. "I'm still involved with the program at these companies, plus it gives me control over the idea, but I avoid all the staffing problems," she explains.

Ivery also learned to rebalance her life to ensure the business does not take more than its fair share. "You have to force yourself to turn off the phone at 5 p.m. and understand it's better to lose a few dollars and keep your sanity and health. You have to be confident that if you turn down a little work now, it will be made up next week," says Ivery, who admits it takes lots of discipline to do this.

Denning, now back in the working world as an employee, also advises against looking at the issue as failure. "I could let this still affect me by thinking, `Should I have sold it?' But you have to move on," she says. "Don't play the `what if' game, or you'll drive yourself crazy."

Instead, Denning considers what she did an accomplishment. "My attitude is that I'm a winner. I did something a lot of people will never do--I started and ran a newspaper for three years," continues Denning. "I think a lot of people rest on their `failures' and never go any further. I look at it as a learning situation."

Preventive Medicine

Avoiding burnout takes preparation and forethought.Here are a few tips to help you.

1. As you build or expand your homebased business, make sure you don't neglect friends.

2. If you have a spouse, significant other, children or even a pet, set aside a time of day that belongs to them alone.

3. Join professional support organizations that serve the dual functions of helping you develop your business and giving you a social outlet.

4. Take a vacation, even if it's just an extra-long weekend at the beach, camping, or at your favorite resort. And when you go, leave the business at home.

5. Realize that it is natural for your initial enthusiasm for your business to give way to more pragmatic feelings, and don't be alarmed.

6. Develop a nonbusiness-related hobby that provides you with a creative outlet.

Contact Sources

Nancy Denning, c/o Denning and Associates Inc., 4017 Coachmen Rd., Manhattan, KS 66502, ndenning@aol.com;

Educational Advisory Services Inc., (602) 922-8986;

Dr. Ira M. Frank, (310) 442-2040, fax: (310) 442-2042.

More from Entrepreneur
Our Franchise Advisors will guide you through the entire franchising process, for FREE!
  1. Book a one-on-one session with a Franchise Advisor
  2. Take a survey about your needs & goals
  3. Find your ideal franchise
  4. Learn about that franchise
  5. Meet the franchisor
  6. Receive the best business resources
Discover the franchise that’s right for you by answering some quick questions about
  • Which industry you’re interested in
  • Why you want to buy a franchise
  • What your financial needs are
  • Where you’re located
  • And more
Whether you want to learn something new, be more productive, or make more money, the Entrepreneur Store has something for everyone:
  • Software
  • Gadgets
  • Online Courses
  • Travel Essentials
  • Housewares
  • Fitness & Health Devices
  • And More

Latest on Entrepreneur