As entrepreneurs, most of us are rational optimists; we believe in our businesses, we believe in our teams, and despite occasional crises of confidence, we believe we’re the right ones to lead our organizations to success. We make assumptions about who we are and how we function in our entrepreneurial roles, but one of the easiest assumptions to make is also one of the most frequently violated: the assumption that you’ll always remain enthusiastic and energized about your role.
The truth is, entrepreneurial burnout is a real and common phenomenon. Through some combination of working too hard, underestimating stress, or failing to have an outlet, many entrepreneurs eventually get to the point where they dread their jobs and can’t stand the thought of continuing.
It’s not a fun position to be in, but it doesn’t happen overnight. Instead, burnout creeps up on you when you aren’t paying attention, accumulating through innocuous events and repetitive strains. So how can you take notice and counteract burnout when it’s still developing? It starts with recognizing and addressing these five important warning signs:
1. You aren’t excited to come to work. Nobody is excited to come to work every single day, but those of us with good jobs at least look forward to coming to work regularly. There are ups and downs, but consistently, there’s a positive association with coming to work. This trend is even more powerful for entrepreneurs — in fact, most new business owners are thrilled to get out of bed and continue building their dreams. If you find yourself consistently unenthusiastic about going to work — you have trouble getting out of bed, or you dread the idea of entering the office — it’s a sign that you’re headed for burnout. Try to find new reasons to be excited about work, or make a change to relieve yourself of the more negative qualities of the workplace.
2. You’re irritable with your teammates, partners, or clients. You built this company, and you built this team. You chose the teammates, employees, partners, and clients you’re working with, so why are you consistently irritated with them? You’re never going to get along with everybody all the time, but if you find yourself troublingly quick to anger or become frustrated with others, you could be projecting your frustrations onto the people around you. Ask yourself if these people are truly doing anything wrong; if they are, give constructive feedback, and if they aren’t, reset your expectations and try to isolate what’s really making you feel this way.
3. You’re physically and mentally exhausted. This is a classic sign of burnout, so don’t ignore it. Many entrepreneurs will regularly push themselves to the brink of exhaustion due to their internal entrepreneurial engine, but if you feel it’s gone too far, and too consistently, it’s a sign you’re headed down the wrong path. You may even start experiencing physical symptoms like headaches, backaches, or other problems. Take some time away from work to take care of yourself; eat healthier, exercise more, and get enough sleep every night. The work can be delegated, or it can wait.
4. You’re disillusioned or cynical about your business. Most entrepreneurs are grounded optimists. If you find yourself overcome by pessimism or feelings of disillusionment, it’s not necessarily a sign that your business is going downhill — in fact, it’s usually a manifestation of your internal feelings. If you’ve worked too hard for too little reward, or if your early expectations haven’t been met, it’s easy to feel like hope is lost or that your business is objectively less capable of future success. Don’t let this bring you down; take a step back and do some honest, objective evaluations. Get a third-party perspective so you aren’t corrupted by your own biases.
5. You feel detached or ineffectual. This is the hallmark of burnout; you go into work, and you still do things, but you feel a strange sense of alienation or detachment from the work, almost like an out-of-body experience. You may also feel like all of your tasks and projects are worthless, or at least not worth your time. These feelings of detachment and ineffectualness tend to manifest after prolonged periods of repetition combined with unmet expectations. There’s no easy way to compensate for this, but you can try to focus more on the work that does lead to a result, or think back to the motivations that led you to start a business in the first place, and prioritize those in your daily work.
Most people will experience burnout at some point during their lives, in a career, hobby, or other institution. It’s normal and common, though it’s not exactly healthy. When you get to the final stages of burnout, it’s not a sign that you weren’t meant to do this, and it’s not a sign of failure; instead, it’s usually a sign that you poured too much of yourself into a venture, and you could almost take that as a point of pride. Still, burnout isn’t enjoyable or productive, so monitor it proactively, and take steps to prevent it.
For more content like this, be sure to check out my podcast, The Entrepreneur Cast!