If there is one word we’ve heard time and time again over the last year or so related to work, it’s “burnout.” If you Google “worker burnout” right now, thousands of results will pop up, many of them from very recent articles. And while, for the most part, the focus is on employees, we can’t forget that company founders are also feeling the strain.
Long before the pandemic hit, founder burnout was common. It will still be prevalent long after it’s gone, too. To help mitigate it – or to avoid it altogether – there are things company leaders can do, and it starts by identifying the root causes.
The emotional journey every founder goes through is unique, but certain unhealthy patterns repeat across start-ups and small businesses. Here are three common mistakes founders make that lead to burnout:
When you first started your business, how much did you do? The better question may actually be how much didn’t you do? Even if you have now brought on more people and don’t have to do everything yourself, you may still have trouble delegating or trusting others to get things done. Leaders also get worn down when they think they have to put out every fire.
“I had built this culture where people brought up problems, and I felt very alone trying to figure out the solutions,” says Matt Munson, CEO of SanityLabs. “It’s very destructive as a leader, but it’s also just very destructive as a human to be that tied in with something.”
When you’re excited about something, it’s easy to want to jump in and dedicate yourself to it. But, over time, that passion can fade, especially if you work tirelessly to see it come to fruition. Says Joel Gascoigne, CEO and co-founder of Buffer: “I lost motivation. I just didn’t care. I knew I cared deeply, but I had nothing left. I couldn’t get up in the morning.”
If turns out you were more passionate about being a founder and didn’t feel as strongly about the product or service you were working on, you can get burned out pretty quickly.
Work-life balance is another thing we’ve heard mentioned quite a bit recently. With the increase in remote work, the line between the two has gotten really blurry. For founders, however, it often doesn’t exist. To many founders, their work is their life. They frequently forget about the actual important stuff, like taking care of their physical and mental health. And when you neglect one or both of those things, burnout is almost inevitable.
If you’ve already found yourself burning out, it’s OK, there are ways to get your passion back and your feet back under you.
Now that your one-person show has evolved into a series with a variety of well-developed characters, it’s important to realize that you no longer have to do everything yourself. If you’ve hired smartly – and perhaps also have co-founders or partners – let them start doing some (or maybe all) of the heavy lifting. If you need extra help, don’t be afraid to outsource certain tasks.
Yes, actually leaving your business for a while can be tough. If you have real trouble just going home at the end of the day, this is a clear sign that you need an actual break. Get out of the state. Get out of the country. Heck, get off the planet if you swing it. Just get away so you can recharge. And do this regularly.
“I knew I needed to do something because, in my burnt-out state, I couldn’t lead the company,” said Gascoigne. “I wrote a memo to the team sharing my plans and delegating responsibilities, then I signed out of Slack and almost immediately started taking leave.”
It took Gascoigne about a month of rest, exercise, and kitesurfing, but when he returned to work, he had rediscovered his motivation.
If delegation and time off don’t help, you may want to find someone who can provide assistance. An executive coach, for example, could help you better identify the reasons why you’re burned out and how best to deal with them. You might also consider speaking to a therapist. Munson and Gascoigne both underwent therapy and said it helped significantly.
If you’re not at the burnout point yet, that doesn’t mean you’re safe from it. Over the long term, most founders run into some burnout. Here are a few ways to get ahead of it.
Remember that passion we mentioned earlier? It has to be directed at something tangible, not just being a company leader. Your business was started to solve a problem, and this should be your focus. When you go to work every day eager to solve this problem, you lessen the risk of burnout.
To avoid having to do everything yourself – or to think you have to do it all – you need the right people next to you. With co-founders, all of that stress and strain can be shared. Plus, you can support each other through the tough times and celebrate with each other when things are good.
When you eat, sleep, and breathe work, you’re setting yourself up for burnout. This is why you have to be able to disconnect periodically. Go to the movies, hit the gym, start painting again; whatever you enjoy doing that doesn’t involve work, make sure to schedule time to do it.
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