Beating Business Burnout

5 Remedies for relief when the pressure's on.
Magazine Contributor
15 min read

This story appears in the June 1997 issue of . Subscribe »

Victoria Nuttall is a graphic-arts consultant with skills that should have been appreciated. "I was working 50 to 55 hours a week, feeling like a real hero to the company because I was putting out work no one else could do at that time," she says. "They had me train people and expand the department, but never consulted me on new equipment purchases and procedures. Add to this a bad relationship with an operator I trained and management that didn't care if people trashed one another, and you get `work hell.' " Nuttall burned out.

You've heard the story a thousand times. In fact, maybe you started your own company because the pressures of working for someone else got to you. Well, with , there's not much of a difference between entrepreneurs and 9-to-5 employees, according to Dr. Beverly Potter, author of a number of books on burnout, including Overcoming Job Burnout: How to Renew Enthusiasm for Work (see sidebar below for ordering information). "Job burnout is something like job ," she says. "It's a motivational problem where your ability to get yourself moving and keep moving is impaired. It is caused by feelings of powerlessness--such as the `damned if you do, damned if you don't' feeling--like you're being caught in the middle."

After her brush with burnout, Nuttall started Renaissance Interactive in , which offers multimedia consulting and training. She acknowledges the potential for burnout still exists, even though she's her own boss. Money concerns have replaced anxieties over office politics, but she's happier where she is. "I don't have ," Nuttall admits, "but at least I have a buffer zone away from negative people, and that means a lot."

The Ins And Outs Of Entrepreneurial Burnout

If you find yourself exhausted, ridden by , suffering physical problems such as headaches, stomach aches, or sore muscles, it's time to consider whether you're on the verge of . Start by asking yourself a few questions:

  • What must I do to regain the happiness and feelings of fulfillment I used to enjoy in my business?

  • What is the number-one problem I'm experiencing, and what can I do about it?

  • Who can I call on to help get relief from the constant pressures I'm under? While every individual is different, many people who eventually burn out share some common traits:

1. Inability to set boundaries. During the start-up phase, it can be especially hard to know when to say "no," according to Mark Gorkin, a Washington, DC, consultant also known as "The Stress Doc."

"Entrepreneurs sometimes work 24 hours a day," he says. "They feel they have to do that to make the business work." Gorkin asserts that entrepreneurs, as risk takers, target very ambitious goals. That's not a bad thing, he says, "but sometimes their expectations are out of whack with reality. They give themselves very difficult tasks which, sometimes, they can't realistically meet."

Developing "detached concern" can help you set those boundaries, says Gorkin. "With detached concern, you're genuinely involved with people and projects," he explains, "but you weigh how much you give and how much you take, or expect, from yourself and others. Detached concern means not being all things to all people."

2. Lack of balance. Gorkin points out that many entrepreneurs get little sleep, working almost around the clock, mostly on adrenaline. He points to exercise as a vital ingredient in burnout prevention. "Partially, it's just getting away from your work that's helpful," he says. "But when you're feeling vulnerable and overworked, a sense of control is important. Exercise, such as running, can give you a mental lift. If you go for a run, there's a beginning and end point and a sense of control. You've accomplished something tangible."

Lisa Roberts, a marketing and communications consultant in Fairfield, Connecticut, and the author of How to Raise a Family and a Career Under One Roof (Bookhaven Press, $15.95, 800-782-7424), says, "When you're working at home and running your own business, you're constantly shuffling to accommodate the needs of your clients, your children and your spouse. Your `self' gets buried at the very bottom."

But even people who don't work from home face the self-management problems that can bring on burnout. "Learn to take the big picture and break it into specific tasks," she says. "If you don't get on top of it, you'll get buried underneath."

Treat yourself as well as you do your business, advises Nuttall. "When I'm tired, I rest. When I'm hungry, I stop and eat," she says. "Sound simple? When you're driven by work, you put off eating and resting to get this one thing done, and the next, and so on. Now, even in the middle of a very busy spate, I will take off one day during the week and go hiking or do something totally non-technical. I might get a massage when things get stressful. I think a lot more about balancing all aspects of myself with work."

Victoria Siegel, owner of The Perfect Gift, a personalized gift-basket and gifts company in St. Louis, tries to leave her home office by 6 p.m. and avoids working weekends. "Since I tend to lose my determination to stick to this regimen, I make plans with friends to either be out of my house or at least entertain them here," says Siegel. "When I'm done working for the day, I close and lock the door and pretend I just left an office building and can't wait to get home."

3. Inability to prioritize. With so much to do, many entrepreneurs slip when they can't decide what's really important. Siegel explains why it's so difficult for her to prioritize: "As an entrepreneur, I'm the stock clerk, receptionist, shipping-and-receiving department, inventory department, order department, accounts receivable, accounts payable, customer service person, designer, marketer, saleswoman, writer, buyer, janitor, file clerk, data-entry person, secretary and purchasing department. Sometimes I get to be the owner, too! There's so much to be done that there's no way anything can ever be totally completed."

Another entrepreneur who has seen his employees burn out, Steve Thomson, president of Avenida Travel Services in Irvine, California says, "In my opinion, burnout occurs when someone just continues wrestling with their to-do list without asking some key questions: Is this vital to the client or my company? Is this urgent? What will happen if I don't do it now?" The key to avoiding the problem, according to Thomson, is to "organize your day, every day, before you start."

4. Perfectionistic tendencies. Thomson believes perfectionists are the most likely to burn out. "Among people who've left our company due to burnout, I see a pattern of perfectionism in their overall approach to life, and that they have trouble adapting to the fact that this is just not a perfect world."

Perfectionists believe they are superhumans who can have it all and do it all--perfectly. "They can range from the overbearing taskmaster to the self-sacrificing martyr," says Gorkin.

Putting constant pressure on yourself day after day when you're growing a business is an invitation for disaster. To prevent total collapse, perfectionists need to learn to give up some control. Delegating can be exceedingly difficult for perfectionists, but it may be the only way they can avoid total burnout.

5. Lack of motivation. Potter targets lack of motivation as a symptom of burnout. To fight it, own your life, not just your business. "Managing your own motivation involves setting magnetic goals that attract you," says Potter, "and rewarding yourself for small steps on the way to those goals."

Nuttall is dedicated to attending conferences and trade shows to keep up with a quickly evolving industry, widen her circle of contacts, and keep her life and business interesting. "Now that I work for myself, I pay a lot of attention to learning new things, not just rehashing the same ground professionally," says Nuttall.

Gorkin agrees. "Get new training. Learn new skills," he says. "As I like to say, `Variety in the day keeps burnout away.' "

Signs Of Burnout

How do you know when you're heading for or are already in its grasp? Beverly Potter, author of Overcoming Job Burnout: How To Renew Enthusiasm for Work (Ronin Publishing Inc., $14.95, 800-858-2665), explains six common symptoms:

1. Negative emotions. It's normal to feel frustrated, angry, depressed, dissatisfied or anxious occasionally. But if you're caught in the burnout cycle, you usually will experience these negative emotions more and more often, until they become chronic. Eventually, you will feel emotional fatigue.

2. Interpersonal problems. When you feel emotionally drained, it becomes harder to deal with people at work and at home. When the inevitable conflicts arise, you're likely to overreact with an emotional outburst or intense hostility.

3. Health problems. You may frequently experience minor ailments, such as colds, headaches, insomnia and backaches. In general, you feel tired and run-down.

4. Below-par performance. During the burnout process, you may become bored with your job, lose enthusiasm for your projects, or find it difficult to concentrate. You become less productive and the quality of your work declines.

5. Substance abuse. To cope with the stress associated with job conflict and declining performance, you may find yourself drinking more alcohol, using more drugs, eating more (or less), drinking more coffee and/or smoking more cigarettes. Increased substance abuse further compounds your problems.

6. Feelings of meaninglessness. Increasingly, you find yourself thinking, So what? and Why bother? This is particularly common among burnout victims who were once very enthusiastic and dedicated. Your enthusiasm is replaced by cynicism. Working seems pointless.

Reprinted with permission from Ronin Publishing Inc., Berkeley, California.

Sales & Marketing

It's News To You

As you've probably heard, the newsletter-publishing industry has been growing at a light-speed rate. Consider that Hudson's Subscription Newsletter Directory (The Newsletter Clearinghouse) listed an additional 864 new entries in 1996.

By now, you've probably also been told how your company should have a newsletter to seal business relationships, using a friendly medium with helpful information. Besides advertising and promotion, producing a newsletter is a great marketing strategy to help you stay in touch with long-distance clients, keep your company on their minds, and serve as a forum for announcing product or service innovations, staff additions, and other business milestones.

So, what are you waiting for? If you're anything like other new small-business owners, it's probably a question of being able to afford to print a glossy, four-color publication and hire a designer--not to mention mailing costs. However, don't feel obligated to spend a bundle on putting out a splashy newsletter with award-winning graphics; your main concern is to communicate with clients, which you can do affordably. Here are a few ways you can cut costs:

  • Design your own. Today, there is a slew of software programs that come with ready-made newsletter templates, which easily allow you to drop in clip-art images and paste in your logo. Some word processing programs that you're likely already using, such as Microsoft Word, contain several newsletter layouts which you can edit to your taste. Desktop-publishing programs, such as Microsoft's Publisher '97 (for Windows 95; $79.95) and Corel's PrintHouse (for Windows 95; $29.95), are geared specifically for do-it-yourself newsletters, brochures, and other communications materials.

  • Hire a student intern. Since most colleges across the country boast student work-placement programs, you can easily hire an intern who would probably welcome the opportunity to create your newsletter. Simply contact schools that have journalism, corporate-communications, graphic-design and/or desktop-publishing courses.

  • Deliver it through e-mail. Mailing can prove to be costly, depending on the size and format of your newsletter. A cheaper way to go is to e-mail it to those clients who are online. Besides saving on postage, you can also save on production costs, since you don't have to worry about actual paper stock or printing.

  • Fax it. Another option is to fax your newsletter, especially if it's four or fewer pages. If you're concerned about long-distance costs, you may want to use a computer program, such as Symantec's WinFax 8.0 (for Windows 95; $99), and set your faxing schedule for late-night delivery when calling rates are much cheaper.

  • Find advertisers. If your newsletter-recipient list is large enough (from 100 to 1,000, or more), you may be able to entice some of your clients to place ads for their own companies in your newsletter. This gives those clients' businesses more visibility and an affordable way to advertise to a targeted audience, and allows you to generate extra revenue to help finance the next issue of your newsletter.

Finally, for tips on putting together a successful newsletter, you can refer to "Subscribe! Potent Newsletter Marketing Ideas to Help Gain New Subscribers and Retain Old Ones." Annual subscriptions are $39, or send for a free four-page sampler by sending a SASE to Page One, Subscribe! Sampler, P.O. Box 194, Bryn Mawr, PA 19010-0194. --Angela Pirisi

Can You Manage?

Oops, I Goofed!

As a consumer, you've undoubtedly been on the receiving end of goofs: the repairman who showed up three hours late; the mail order blouse that arrived in the wrong color; your name misspelled on every engraved invitation to your party. Those foul-ups can be infuriating. But when you're the entrepreneur who makes them, they can be more than aggravating--they can be expensive.

Ellen Shapiro, owner of EPSD Graphics in Somerville, Massachusetts, made an error that might have cost her one of the company's best customers. The hours Shapiro put into a project greatly exceeded the number she'd quoted in her original bid. Understandably, the client's eyebrows shot up when Shapiro handed her an invoice for almost 70 percent more than anticipated.

Shapiro felt terrible and agonized over what to do. "I considered taking the whole invoice in trade because I felt uncomfortable about not telling them sooner," she says. After thinking it over a bit more, she sent a revised invoice that included a partial trade. "The client offered compensation of an amount in between, and we basically split the difference."

What did Shapiro learn? For one thing, to get everything in writing. She realized having an agreement letter explaining that the bid was a ballpark estimate could have saved her the trouble she encountered.

Of course, avoiding all goofs is a worthy goal, but since that's not realistic, here are some ideas on reducing the damage should you happen to mess up:

  • Take the long view. Tom Gibbons, president of Cornerstone Associates, a Sparta, New Jersey, consulting company, emphasizes that entrepreneurs must be farsighted in trying to right a wrong. In the case of Shapiro and the overpriced invoice, Gibbons counsels, "The issue is not the invoice or the cost, but the long-term relationship. Is she looking to maximize the profits of each job or of all her jobs?" If you want customers to be yours for life, be sure to act in ways that will help the relationship endure despite periodic problems.

  • Accept the blame. Have you ever called a company with a complaint and been passed from person to person like the hors d'oeurvres platter at a cocktail party? Not helpful, is it? Finger-pointing and excuses only infuriate customers. Instead, take a deep breath and admit you made a mistake. Customers appreciate and respect someone who is honest with them.

  • Put yourself in the customer's shoes. If you're worrying about how to make things right, take a look at the situation from your customer's perspective. If what happened to him had happened to you, what would it take to satisfy you? What could be done to ensure that you would continue to do business with the company?

  • Figure out why it happened. Ron Willingham, chairman of Integrity Systems, a training firm in Phoenix, and author of Hey, I'm the Customer! (Prentice Hall, $10.95, 800-922-0579), suggests following a simple four-step formula to regain your customer's goodwill following a slip-up: 1. Understand the problem; 2. Identify the cause; 3. Discuss solutions; 4. Solve the problem.

Typically, Willingham says, businesses skip step number two and treat goofs as isolated incidents. They send a coupon and an apology and think they're home free. "But if you understand the cause," he says, "you can then understand the effect, have a better chance of correcting it, and avoid making the same mistake."

  • Find the best solution. Every goof will require a different action to resolve it. In some cases, a small gift accompanied by a note of apology will suffice. Ask the client what you can do to satisfy him. If he likes you and appreciates your products or services, he's likely to want the problem resolved fairly.

Whatever you do, be sure that your customer is happy with the final outcome. Check back after a couple of weeks to ensure his continued support. --L.H.C.

Contact Sources

Lisa Roberts, (203) 372-4977,

Avenida Travel Services, 2 Venture Plaza, #140, Irvine, CA 92718, (714) 325-4637.

Cornerstone Associates, P.O. Box 514, Sparta, NJ 07871, (201) 729-9992.

EPSD Graphics, (617) 666-3874.

Integrity Systems, 2425 E. Camelback Rd., #785, Phoenix, AZ 85016, (602) 955-9090.

Renaissance Interactive,

Ronin Publishing, P.O. Box 1035, Berkeley, CA 94701, (510) 540-6278.

The Perfect Gift, 9648 Olive Blvd., #403, St. Louis, MO 63132, (314) 872-0202.

"The Stress Doc," (202) 232-8662, (


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