- Studies and surveys suggest small-business owners and entrepreneurs are at risk of burnout.
- The pandemic and economic uncertainty have also taken a toll on founders’ mental health.
- Founders and experts share their advice on avoiding and beating burnout.
- This article is part of Talent Insider, a series containing expert advice to help small business owners tackle a range of hiring challenges.
The cascading crises of the past few years — the pandemic, economic upheaval, and political and social unrest, not to mention rising inflation, a labor shortage, and a looming recession — have taken a toll on the workforce. Many workers have reported symptoms of burnout, which the World Health Organization describes as a workplace phenomenon marked by feelings of exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced efficacy.
Some studies suggest that small-business owners and entrepreneurs are particularly at risk. In a survey conducted in March by Capital One, 42% of small-business owners said they’d struggled with burnout in the past month. A 2018 Harvard Business Review article describing research on the topic suggested these groups are susceptible “because they tend to be extremely passionate about work and more socially isolated, have limited safety nets, and operate in high uncertainty.”
“This has been a tough time for entrepreneurs,” Michele Williams, an associate professor of management and entrepreneurship at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, told Insider. “They’re coming off of the pandemic, where they had to make all sorts of changes and be flexible, and now they’re dealing with the economic downturn.”
She said opportunities often arise in tough economies, adding that GE and Microsoft were founded during a recession. “But if entrepreneurs are stressed and burned out,” she said, “they can’t take advantage of opportunities because they can’t see them in the first place.”
As small businesses generate roughly 44% of US economic activity, entrepreneur burnout has critical implications. Not only do founders need sound mental health — American innovation and growth depend on it. Insider spoke with three experts, including a highly successful serial entrepreneur, about how founders and small-business owners can keep burnout at bay. Here’s their best advice.
Devise a ‘don’t do’ list
Jim McKelvey has a lot on his plate. He’s the cofounder and director of Block, the payments firm formerly known as Square, as well as the CEO and founder of Invisibly, a startup that gives people free access to news articles without ads. He’s also a prolific author, a glassblowing artist, the chair of the Federal Reserve Board in his hometown of St. Louis, and a father of two.
Despite his myriad businesses and pursuits, McKelvey said he rarely feels burned out. His secret? He meticulously keeps track of his time and energy using a “don’t do” list.
McKelvey got the idea for it decades ago when he spoke at a conference with Jim Collins, the author of the seminal business book “Good to Great.” In between sessions, Collins told McKelvey that he needed to preserve his energy — and that maintaining focus on what he wants to do requires ruthless, explicit decisions about what he doesn’t want to do.
McKelvey was taken with the idea and developed a list of tasks to ignore. Today, it includes attending certain work meetings, watching TV, using social media, and paying attention to the 24-hour news cycle. “It’s been a great clarifier to me,” he said.
Keep your battery charged
Even before McKelvey developed a don’t-do list, he’d long subscribed to the notion of having a “personal energy score,” an imagined tally of how he feels in light of the activities he’s doing that boost his stamina and the ones chipping away at it.
“Burnout is an energy equation,” McKelvey said. “You have to keep your battery charged.”
He scores himself on a scale of one to 10. Most mornings, he says, he wakes up with about five “units” of energy, depending on whether he had a good night’s sleep. Then he considers his agenda for the day. “There are fun things that I do that add a charge to my battery,” he said, “and then there are tasks that have a unit cost, such as solving a tough math problem, giving a speech in public, or having to fire someone.”
McKelvey said he manages his energy by constantly calibrating his score: He counteracts chores and appointments that sap his energy with relaxing and enjoyable activities.
“You need to get your energy from somewhere,” he said. “So when you have to do a lot of things that are draining, you always need to ask yourself: Where is the energy going to come from?”
Get support and remind yourself what you’re capable of
Burnout is not just about being too busy or feeling overwhelmed, said Richie Norton, an executive coach who wrote the book “Anti-Time Management” and founded a product-development firm. “It’s feeling like your work has no purpose and you don’t have support,” he said.
He said solopreneurs are especially vulnerable. “You’re spending a lot of time alone in a dark room with nothing but your idea,” he said. “It can lead you to have a more cynical view of the world.”
When you’re on the verge of burning out, you might be tempted to pull inward, but Norton said it’s imperative to reach out to others. Surround yourself with people who support you — friends and family, and fellow entrepreneurs who share your vision and encourage your ideas. “You need help getting unstuck so that you can find meaning in what you’re doing and move forward,” Norton said.
Williams said it’s also important to cultivate your inner strength. She recommends keeping a personal “brag book” where you reflect on the obstacles you’ve overcome and what you’ve achieved. Additionally, research suggests journaling can help people overcome feelings of distress and self-doubt.
“When you’re feeling low, you need to remind yourself that you are capable of meeting challenges,” she said.