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5 ways to avoid burnout as a small business owner

4 minute read

Have you ever worked so hard that you feel you’re ‘running on empty’ and just can’t work any more? If your answer is ‘yes’, you might have experienced burnout.

Studies have suggested that business owners and entrepreneurs are particularly susceptible to it, because they’re strongly motivated to keep working, have higher pressures to contend with and are often more socially isolated. According to academics, burnout happens when you become so stressed and exhausted that you can’t cope anymore.

When your physical and emotional energy is severely depleted from working too hard, you instinctively start to withdraw from what’s causing you stress. The effect on your productivity is major, and this perpetuates the cycle because your inability to get things done makes you feel useless, which adds to your stress. All this takes a mental and physical toll, with possible symptoms ranging from loss of appetite to anxiety, chest pains to insomnia.

When you’re self-employed, whether that’s working as a freelancer or running your own small business, you don’t have the same degree of financial security that you have when you work for someone else. The temptation can, therefore, be to ‘make hay while the sun shines’ – in other words, grab every bit of work that comes your way, for fear that your income might dry up further down the line. Not only that, but you’re likely to be single-handedly juggling all the aspects of running a business alongside doing the actual work, often with little practical or emotional support.

All this is a recipe for burnout, and it’s in the interests of you, your business and those around you to make sure you don’t reach that stage. Here are five ways to avoid it.

1. Take regular breaks and enforce time off

Let’s start with the most obvious strategy for avoiding burnout: making sure you have enough time off. You might think that being responsible for your own time means you can work as little as you like, but the opposite is true; it’s down to you to bring in enough money to live on, and that puts lots of pressure on you to work harder than you might have to if you were employed. What’s more, because your time isn’t necessarily restricted to the normal 9 to 5, Monday to Friday routine, work can all too easily start to encroach on your evenings and weekends.

Impose some boundaries on work so that you still have time to relax. Some people work better in the evenings, but if you’re going to work late, take some time out during the day to compensate for it. If you’re primarily desk-based, get up and walk around every hour or so, and perhaps try to get out for a lunchtime walk. Even if you can’t take the whole weekend off – the ideal – then at least try to give yourself one complete day of rest each week.

2. Work from a different location

It’s said that ‘a change is as good as a rest’, and if your schedule is so packed that you feel you can’t take time out, then try switching location. If you normally work from home, try settling down to work in a local coffee shop for a bit. If you usually work in a co-working space, why not try the local library? Just breaking your normal routine by working in a different environment can be enough to reinvigorate your creativity and stop your work from stagnating when you’re starting to feel the effects of working too hard. That said, this measure should be a last resort, when taking a break isn’t an option.

3. Delegate or outsource tasks where possible

Whether you’re a freelancer or a small business owner, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of feeling that you have to do absolutely everything yourself. While on one hand the feeling that ‘if you want something done properly, you’ve got to do it yourself’ is entirely understandable, and it can be difficult to hand over control of any aspect of your pride and joy to someone else, there will reach a point when it’s simply not possible to find the time for everything.

At this point, it’s worth thinking seriously about outsourcing, or hiring staff or other freelancers to whom you can delegate work. This will free up time for you to focus on the things you do best, as well as allowing you to strike a better work/life balance. And you’d be surprised by how much you can delegate or outsource; from accounting to marketing, there are lots of people and companies out there who can not only alleviate some of your stress, but who can actually bring great value to your business with their own skill sets.

If you’re serious about outsourcing and you’d like to learn more about it, we’ve talked more about what you can outsource as a freelancer here, and about ethical outsourcing for small businesses here.

4. Don’t over-promise

Self-employment is high-pressured enough without making promises you will struggle to keep. Whether it’s agreeing to a tighter deadline than you can really manage, or trying to fulfil an order that you don’t have the resources to cope with, over-stretching yourself will lead not only to you burning out, but to sub-standard work that your clients or customers aren’t happy with. Managing their expectations from the outset will help you do the best job you can, without putting undue pressure on yourself.

5. Learn when to say no

Saying ‘yes’ to every project feels like common sense when you don’t know when the next bit of work will come in. But, in a similar way to over-promising, accepting every project is a sure-fire way to overstretch yourself, because you won’t always have the time or expertise for a particular job. It’s also important that you learn to recognise when a potential client may cause you more stress than the work they’re bringing in is worth. We’ve talked more about why and how to turn down work in this post.

Burnout can take a major toll on your mental and physical health, which in turn affects your productivity and what your business as a whole can achieve. So, do yourself and your business a favour: don’t work yourself into the ground! In the long run, you’ll go further by maintaining a healthy work/life balance than you will by allowing yourself to reach burnout levels. If you’ve taken on board the advice in this post and you’re planning some time off, here’s your next article.

Rachel Ingram is a freelance copywriter with a background in digital marketing. She's written copy for clients ranging from the United Nations World Food Programme to The North Face, and particularly enjoys working with lifestyle and travel brands. In her spare time, she volunteers for Guide Dogs and flies light aircraft and helicopters.

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