Even in the healthiest economy, small-business owners get burned out. But, in these difficult times, some small-company experts see a virtual epidemic of the condition.
“The recession, the weak recovery, they’ve increased the pressures on everybody,” says Daniel Murphy, president of the Growth Coach, a business coaching franchise in Cincinnati. “I see signs of burnout all over the place.”
But burnout—a reaction to constant, day-in-day-out stress resulting in everything from fatigue and irritability to trouble sleeping—can have potentially disastrous effects on a business, particularly when times are tough and everyone needs to be performing at top speed. And that’s especially true if the captain of the ship is suffering from the condition.
It’s crucial that you understand the symptoms of burnout and what to do about them.
Learn the warning signs. Generally, the clearest symptom of burnout is extreme fatigue, a feeling that you can’t get rid of, even with a few days off, and a sense of hopelessness. Murphy calls it “the business owner blues.” In addition, you’re likely to feel less enthusiastic about the business than usual, start doubting your capabilities, and over-react to things that wouldn’t have bothered you before. Worse for the business, you’ll probably find that details start falling through the cracks—you may forget about your regular Monday morning meeting, or neglect to follow-through on important paperwork.
Left unchecked, you also might discover you’re more likely to get sick. And burnout can also trigger more serious clinical depression.
Don’t fight it. “Your first step is to accept the situation,” says Murphy. “Running a business shouldn’t be painful.” For that reason, it’s also helpful to understand how widespread—and, in fact, normal—it is to experience burnout.
Look for help. It’s quite possible to find a solution on your own. But, you might find you can speed the process up by seeking the advice of others. That can mean anything from a coach, spouse, or close business associate to a CEO peer group.
Start exercising--frequently. Probably the best way to jumpstart an anti-burnout campaign is through physical activity. That means scheduling in regular, preferably daily, aerobic exercise and keeping to it the way you would any important appointment.
That’s what Peter Gilberd, CEO of Townsend Networks, did two years ago. The seven-employee company in San Francisco buys and sells used telecommunications equipment and, as the economy headed south, his business began heating up. But as the months went by, Gilberd realized the constant stress was getting to him. His usually high-energy level plummeted and he found he was flying off the handle too frequently.
What to do? An avid mountain biker, he decided to step up his training schedule. After just a few weeks, he found that his enthusiasm, mood, and ability to focus had improved. And he’s kept at it. This July, he’s planning to go on the “Death Ride”, an 130-mile endurance event—including a 15,000 foot climb—in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Evaluate your business processes—and delegate. Once you’ve rejuvenated your spirit, you can move to more substantive matters. Perhaps most important is analyzing how you run your business. Often, small-firm owners discover they’ve simply been wearing too many hats, running themselves ragged as a result. “They get lost in the details, doing everyone’s job,” says Murphy.
He points to the owner of a $6 million janitorial cleaning firm who recently saw him for help. Regularly working 65 to 70 hours a week, the client was feeling uncharacteristically grumpy and dissatisfied much of the time. Turned out, the man was taking on too many tasks, from the bookkeeping to cleaning the office. So, Murphy asked the client to put together a “not-to-do list”, which included all the jobs he was taking on that needed to be given to other staff members. He also put together a manual with job descriptions, duties and processes. “All small business owners have to put down in writing their recipe for running a business and use it to train people,” says Murphy.
Similarly, last year, Gilberd hired an administrative assistant to take care of paperwork. And he started delegating more duties to other people in the organization, as well. Recently, he also bought out his business partner and hired a vice president of operations and finance, leaving him more time to concentrate on what he loves, business development.
Assess your staff. After you’ve instituted a new, more efficient system, you may find you need to make some staffing changes. That could mean rejiggering people’s duties or, if necessary, letting some employees go. Then, every 90 days, regularly reassess how well your processes are working.
Find someone to hold you accountable. Ultimately, many of the ways to beat burnout permanently involve introducing significant changes to the way you run your business. To make sure you stick to the plan, it’s best to check in regularly with someone, such as your banker, CPA or spouse. “Otherwise, there’s a good chance you’ll fall into the same rut,” says Murphy.