Entrepreneur Burnout: When Too Much is More than Enough

It’s 2 o’clock in the morning and you are writing a press release. You have been up for twenty hours. And really, you haven’t slept more than a few hours a night since you launched your business. The endless worry, the never finished to do list, and the emails, which never seem to stop, all have you burning the candle at both ends and then adding string along the sides so the whole thing is a tower of flame. Everything to get your business off the ground, make your dreams come true. You are passionate about your cause. There are people you want to help but now it is all becoming too much. And you can’t bring yourself to care about the newsletter you need to send and it takes you forever to get to your desk to update your website. You start to think no one will read it and you aren’t having an effect so there is no point.

Does this sound familiar?

This is burnout.  And you might have it.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. They list three characteristics:  feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of cynicism related to one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy.

Burn Out Amongst Entrepreneurs 

According to Jennifer Moss in her article “When Passion Leads to Burnout” for The Harvard Business Review, purpose driven work, the work which drove you to become an entrepreneur in the first place, is one of the sectors at high risk for occupational burnout.

As she says at the beginning of the article, “do what you love and you will never work a day in your life” is the messaging we are exposed to constantly. There is even merchandise which says if we are passionate about helping communities, people, or the environment then it will never feel like working. You will do it all the time and feel good about it. But that is simply not the case.

A 2019 study at the Vienna University of Economics and Business looked at burnout in Social Impact Award alumni. They found that more than 40% of social entrepreneurs in the program experienced some level of burnout with 5% having experienced severe burnout. Those are some big numbers in a small population.

Some of our highest profile entrepreneurs have been speaking out against burnout for years. Mike Lanner, the founder of Vollpension and Gebrüder Stitch, said in an interview with Die Presse, “if you define your self-worth through performance and work, you will never stop working” and that he believed a lack of self-worth and wrongly learned belief systems about working drove him to burn out.  “It’s not external pressure but mostly the pressure you create inside your own head.”

Ali Mahlodji, founder of watchado, stated that the younger generations adopted old belief systems which perpetuate a culture not suited for today’s circumstances in an interview with Weiner Zeitung. “They feel overwhelmed in a culture that doesn’t meet their needs which often leads to burnout.”

I can hear you start to object, saying you made your own culture because you own your own business. However, these two social entrepreneurs are referring to a pervasive idea of workplace culture. According to Moss, “burnout can show up when leaders equate long hours with getting ahead”, when you expect yourself to show up every day regardless of physical or mental illness, or when you have pushed your relationships to the side and are lonely. These are just as a big a risk for social entrepreneurs as it is for large, multinational organizations.

Building Up to Avoid Burnout 

Social impact entrepreneurs want to make a difference. They want to help. However, new research suggests the only way they can do this is by drawing healthy boundaries. Dr. Edward Ellison ‘stresses that they can mitigate this “always-on” mindset by being aware of when passion becomes a double-edged sword. “If you are so inspired to do what you do, then you’re not necessarily good at setting boundaries. We need to teach people that setting boundaries is OK. It’s not selfish. It’s actually selfless. It allows you to be more effective at what you do, and to better [help] those you wish to serve.”’

Impact Hub Global has teamed up with other partners to create The Well-Being Project. The tagline on the website is “well-being inspires well-doing”. “We are catalysing a culture of well-being for all changemakers”. There are articles and webinars on well-being with a specific focus on entrepreneurial wellness. A healthy entrepreneur means a healthy business. Being in good mental health makes us more resilient, able to tackle new challenges, and lets us think through problems and find more solutions.

The 2020 edition of RE:WIEN accelerator program (which is in fact its 5th cycle) incorporated a pilot wellbeing program in collaboration with the Hil-Foundation in the accelerator’s curriculum. The wellbeing-centred modules aim to drive a cultural change in the way entrepreneurs perceive, approach, and manage their wellbeing. Led by the theme of “Healthy entrepreneur equals healthy venture”, the Wellbeing Program teaches entrepreneurs the holistic approach of building personal strengths and resilience through a series of hands-on workshops. While the pilot is currently implemented only in RE:WIEN, the long-term intention is to include such training across all startup programs.

What Can Individual Entrepreneurs Do?  

Shockingly, foster friendships. Go to board game nights, play video games over the internet, have a stitch and bitch, host a cookie exchange. Do anything to keep yourself connected to your friends. This is your support network outside your office and you need it. Nurture it and it will nurture you.

Talk about it. The Schwab Foundation found that almost 50% of social entrepreneurs experienced burnout. That means one of the people sitting on either side of you at Impact Hub Vienna is either going through it now or has been through it. Talking about it removes the isolation and the stigma.  It might also help you make a new friend (see the paragraph above).

Make an actual work day. Set hours. Only respond to business enquiries during that time. This is part of boundary setting, which Dr. Ellison says is necessary. Everything outside of those working hours is meant to be for you.  Time to eat, time to spend with friends and family, time to sleep, time for sport.  This will keep you refreshed and ready to tackle any issues.

Exercise.  Take a walk in a park.  Go for a run. Go hiking.  Studies suggest that exercising, especially outdoors, can have a significant impact on mental wellness.  Some researchers have found that outdoor exercising can help you feel more revitalized.  Many psychologists suggest walking therapy as an effective treatment of burnout.

Remember, a healthier you means a healthier business and a healthier community.

Jennifer Cornick - Impact Hub Vienna
Jennifer Cornick Freelance journalist and blogger for various publications in Vienna. When I am not writing, I can generally be found with a book (or anything with words on it - even […]