Understanding Entrepreneurial Burnout (And How To Deal With It)
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A few years ago, Business Insider published an article about depression in the startup community. According to the article, 7% of the general population report suffering from depression, while 30% of founders report dealing with its effects, and more than 50% of those get to burnout. While there are no specific studies focusing on entrepreneurs yet, there are countless clinical research papers and stats on the rise of depression and burnout in the general workforce population, with the contributing factors ranging from air pollution, poor quality of food, screen time, to long hours of work, little personal interaction, and general loss of meaning in professional life. These studies seem to also differentiate between two types of burnout: circumstantial and existential. Circumstantial burnout stems from workplace challenges, neglect of personal life, and not taking some time off. Existential burnout stems from loss of meaning in one’s profession, lack of self-validation, loss of understanding of professional identity, and loss of connectivity with colleagues and clients.
While all of the above applies to the general workforce population, in addition to this, each profession has its own particularities and challenges. When it comes to entrepreneurs, the reality is that they are often the most passionate and driven people, but they can also be the most obsessive and out of balance. The reality is also that entrepreneurship is an intense endeavor, and it’s hard to separate the self from the business. Sooner rather than later, and because of the rollercoaster nature of entrepreneurship, business setbacks start happening (a lot!), and some entrepreneurs can’t help but take them as personal setbacks, especially when they get so invested in their business. Depression follows, and so does burnout.
But what does burnout mean in the first place?
Normal stress can be healthy, and it can even contribute to one’s peak performance. But when we consistently don’t recuperate by resting, we start building chronic stress, which can lead to any combination of disorders and illnesses, ranging from hormonal disorders, muscle tension and aches, high blood sugar levels, diabetes, high stress hormones, heart problems, weakened immune response, to anxiety, depression, irritability, and insomnia. Eventually, the continuous stress on the body over a long period of time (called chronic stress) disturbs the endocrine system, which is responsible for regulating the “fight or flight” response. When the endocrine system is disturbed, it starts taking over everything that the brain considers nonessential, like sleep, digestion, and the reproductive system, while amplifying the functions activated during high alert moments, like muscular and cardiovascular functions. This is when burnout starts. At its highest degree, burnout is a state of complete mental, physical and emotional exhaustion.
Psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North developed a 12-stage model of burnout, to visualize its progression:
1. Compulsion to prove oneself - demonstrating worth obsessively.
2. Working hard - with an inability to switch off.
3. Neglecting basic needs - lack of sleep, lack of healthy eating, lack of social interaction.
4. Displacement of conflicts - problems are dismissed.
5. Revision of values - values are skewed, friends and family dismissed, hobbies irrelevant.
6. Denial of emerging problems - intolerance, perceiving collaborators as stupid, cynicism, aggression, problems are viewed as caused by work.
7. Withdrawal - social life small or nonexistent, hard social contacts.
8. Odd behavioral changes - changes in behavior obvious to friends and family.
9. Depersonalization - seeing neither self nor others as valuable.
10. Inner emptiness - feeling empty inside.
11. Depression - feeling lost, exhausted and the future feels bleak and dark.
12. Burnout syndrome - includes mental and physical collapse; medical attention required.
It is smart to be aware of any of the early signs and do something about it, instead of waiting longer for the more problematic signs to appear. The above list is compatible with burnout signs experienced both by employees and entrepreneurs. It might be even smarter to explore the particular underlying root causes for entrepreneurial burnout.
From my own experience, I have observed that some entrepreneurs tend to identify completely with their work, which leads to their moods and sense of selfworth becoming intertwined with the ups and downs of their business. Other entrepreneurs get used to the initial high adrenaline of the setup phase, or hyper growth phase, that they lose any sense of meaning when things slow down– even though the business is still doing great. I have also met some entrepreneurs who can’t handle the pressure of having too many people whose livelihoods are dependent upon them, especially when the business is successful. A lot is at stake, and the constant worrying and pressure can lead to debilitating and crippling anxieties. The last observation is about entrepreneurs who relate their own sense of purpose with the purpose of their business, which can be dangerous when the bubble bursts, leaving the entrepreneur completely empty.
It is worth remembering for entrepreneurs that nine out of every ten startups fail within the first two years- a common tagline even in Silicon Valley! Knowing that fact can be helpful in preparing and mitigating for failure. It is also worth pointing out that burnout doesn’t only occur when things aren’t going well. Many entrepreneurs running very successful businesses can be, and are, just as susceptible to burnout.
DEALING WITH ENTREPRENEURIAL BURNOUT
Today’s society makes us believe that we can only be successful when we work incredibly long hours, and “sacrifice” our health, our personal time, and our relationships. This can’t be further from the truth, for what is success when we lose our health, our inner connection, and our relationships with others? Moreover, when we spend more time with ourselves (not working), we are able to have better mental clarity, more abundant creativity, and improved ability for sound business decisions.
Another societal belief lies around the fact that everyone has to have a job that reflects their own sense of purpose. As idealistic as this notion may sound, it is as equally wrong as it is harmful. It first presupposes that we can only express that purpose through a job, when the reality is that our purpose is expressed through everything we create, say, interact with, etc. And second, it makes people ungrateful to the fact of having a job in the first place, which pays the bills and puts food on the table. It may seem noble to identify personal purpose with that of the job in a society that glorifies optimal productivity and financial success over personal wellbeing; all so much more in the startup world, as successful entrepreneurs are almost deified. It is not my aim here to dismiss the importance of both productivity or success, for they both are outcomes we thrive for through our job occupations, and they are both measures of our creativity, excellence, and validation. But again, there is a fine line between creativity and pretentious dishonesty, excellence and selfish obsession, validation and validation-seeking. A quotemantra I’m personally fond of is by Dr. Jimi Wollumbin: “Your job is a journey, an art, a duty, a trap, but not the destination.” Our purpose is initially internal, personal and intimate. It can be reflected outwardly through our actions, occupations and relationships, but only after we do the inner work on ourselves. Once burnout is reached, it is of course a case of supervised medical care. Having witnessed it first hand, I know how hard it is, and I don’t wish it upon anyone.
Perhaps there are a few things to keep in mind for entrepreneurs to avoid getting there. First, keep your external values in check. That includes balanced time with family, friends, and personal nurturing hobbies outside of work. Second, keep your physical health in check. That includes healthy eating, exercising, sleeping, and outdoors activities. Third, keep your mental resilience in check. That includes not letting daily setbacks and obstacles, negative feedback, or erratic schedules affect you. You can grow it every day through small goal gains, as simple as committing not to miss your daily workout, setting time to meet your friends on weekends, or pledging to eat natural foods for a month. And lastly, keep your personal sense of purpose in check. That includes knowing the difference between external and internal sources of validation. It also includes doing our best, then letting go of the desire to control everything outside of us, and becoming the witness of everything unfolding with gratefulness and humility.
And that is the tao of work! In the end, we each determine for ourselves what truly matters, and what is truly worth pursuing. All the different parts of our existence will then become a natural expression of that which truly matters to us, and naturally our professional path will follow. When we get into that frame of mind, we embody a sense of purpose that is ever transforming, evolving, and built upon. We also emanate a sense of confidence knowing that there is a higher intelligence, and that things will always happen the way they are supposed to happen. I wish you a tao journeying through your work!
WHAT DOES TAO MEAN?
According to Wikipedia, Tao is a Chinese word signifying “way,” “path,” “route,” “road,” or sometimes more loosely, “doctrine,” “principle,” or “holistic beliefs.” In the context of traditional Chinese philosophy and religion, Tao is the natural order of the universe whose character one’s human intuition must discern in order to realize the potential for individual wisdom. This intuitive knowing of “life” cannot be grasped as a concept; it is known through actual living experience of one’s everyday being.