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6 Reasons You're Burning Out — And How You Can Fix It

Why you're burning out, and how you can get back to what you love about owning and managing a business.

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Over a single week in March 2020, millions of small and midsize business owners across the country pivoted. For example:

  • Tech firm Aspire, unable to pitch products from its base in Missouri, switched to producing webinars, articles, and blog posts.
  • Stork H&E Turbo Blading in New York State implemented alternative work arrangements coupled with reduced hiring, and cancelled external training and conferences to conserve cash.
  • Entire Productions CEO Natasha Miller, based in California, furloughed and laid off staff as business dropped to zero.

The goal for each of those three, and every other business across the country, was to survive whatever was around the pandemic corner. But post-pandemic, the corners have only gotten more challenging for owners — and it shows.

According to the Principal Well-Being IndexSM, 70% of business owners and managing partners are more stressed now than this time last year. Many have business ideas they can afford but lack the time to implement. And they're stressed across the board, regardless of business size.

"You become chief of IT, HR, compliance, and financials — you are the C suite," says Kara Hoogensen, senior vice president of specialty benefits at Principal®. "Then comes the pandemic, so you're still the C suite but you're also worried about business continuity and taking care of your employees — and yourself. All the ordinary small business owner stressors are more pronounced."

What is burnout? According to the World Health Organization, it's:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion,
  • increased mental distance from one's job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job, and
  • reduced professional efficacy.

Here are six reasons business owners burn out, and how you can get back to what you love about owning and managing a business.

1. You're doing too much

The average small business owner works — a lot. Pre-pandemic, they were working twice as much as employees. "Especially when you start a small business, you're not able to spread the work around," Hoogensen says.

Post-pandemic? Those hours are anyone's guess.

"There's a saying that's something like, 'Culture is how you feel about work on Sunday evening,'" says Amy Friedrich, president of U.S. Insurance Solutions at Principal. "I suspect this separation of the weekend from the start of the work week may have been forever lost or changed by the pandemic. Boundaries are thinner between work and home."

Burnout fix: Figure out how to slowly rebuild those boundaries. Outsourcing one thing can help. To start: Divide to-dos into categories such as digital marketing, bookkeeping, technology, sourcing, and human resources. What's the easiest and most cost effective to outsource?

2. You haven't delegated internally

Keeping the people you have is even harder in today's labor market: Low pay and few opportunities to advance were major reasons behind the Great Resignation. Failure to recognize the desire to grow and move up — and figure out what that path forward for your employees looks like — can leave you not only with more to do, but more key employee spots to fill.

Burnout fix: If you're not sure which employees want to do more, just ask. Aspire created "ask me anything" virtual sessions during which the CEO — without the rest of the management team — met with small groups of employees to encourage free-flowing feedback.

3. You haven't set priorities

You have hundreds of ideas for what you want to do with your business this year, next year, in five years, and beyond. Have you sat down and listed those thoughts, grouped them into themes, and prioritized them? If not, you'll just keep churning — and stressing.

"You won't change things overnight. But you can figure out action items against those ideas that are most important, which will help you set boundaries for the things that are less important," Hoogensen says.

Burnout fix: Pick one action item that addresses an internal stressor and one for an external stressor. Then reevaluate your solution after a set time; if something isn't working, ask why not — and think about what would happen if you let it go and moved on to what's next on the list.

4. You haven't shared your struggles

Fellow business owners are a great source of inspiration — and commiseration. "Create a community for that necessary connectivity that helps to reset when you're burned out," Hoogensen says.

Burnout fix: Can't meet for coffee? What about a cohort chat channel that shares ideas on different topics once a month? It saves yet another video call but allows for quick solutioning and ideation.

5. You haven't adapted

When tech firm Aspire swapped products for webinars, it found an unexpected benefit. "We forged a lot of new relationships during the pandemic with people who have since become our clients," says vice president of marketing Jim Clayman.

Rachel Hunter focused on expanded retail sales after her Colorado-based floral design business plummeted in March 2020. It worked: She generated five times the retail sales at her business A Florae for Mother's Day 2020 compared to the previous year and found retail sales surged 114% that same year. She saw the writing on the wall and opened an expanded storefront in 2021. "You learn so much about yourself when you're knocked down," Hunter says.

Burnout fix: How willing are you to adapt your pre-pandemic plans to post-pandemic realities? For example, if you're unwilling to budge on positions that could be filled with remote or hybrid workers, you may be eliminating whole swaths of people who will turn to companies that have adapted. Consider what post-pandemic realities you're willing to embrace and which ones you're not. Being clear on what you will ­— and will not — "give" on helps you make effective and efficient decisions.

6. You're not taking care of yourself

Self-care isn't something most small businesses owners focus on. "Owning and running a small business is always a heavy lift for business owners and the pandemic spread them even thinner — mentally, emotionally, and even for some, financially," Friedrich says. "I've heard small business owners talking about mental health for themselves and for their employees more this last year than I've ever heard before."

Burnout fix: Think about what you can do to benefit both yourself and your employees. In 2021, Cassie Sampson, owner of East Village Spa in Des Moines, Iowa, closed for a few days, offering paid time off so employees could tend to their own needs — herself included. "[It] was essential to my own mental health," Sampson says. "This will become a new tradition."

Need additional solutions to support your well-being, and your employees, too? Find more ways to take care of employees.

Unless otherwise noted, businesses referenced in this article are not affiliates of any company of the Principal Financial Group®

©2022 Principal Financial Services, Inc.

Insurance products issued by Principal National Life Insurance Co (except in NY) and Principal Life Insurance Company®. Plan administrative services offered by Principal Life. Principal Funds, Inc. is distributed by Principal Funds Distributor, Inc. Securities offered through Principal Securities, Inc., member SIPC and/or independent broker/dealers. Referenced companies are members of the Principal Financial Group®, Des Moines, IA 50392.

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Principal Financial Group

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