Getting it right can be enormously satisfying, but when it goes wrong it can lead to the nightmare of entrepreneurial burnout, a condition so awfully debilitating that the sufferer is often not able to recognise it when it strikes.
But Lionel Billings, Business Partners head of national consulting services, has often seen business owners succumb to the state of paralysis caused by too much stress, too much work and one crisis too many. The entrepreneur’s productivity plunges, his problem-solving ability becomes severely diminished and all sorts of avoidance behaviour sets in that makes everything worse. It is classic vicious-circle stuff.
The irony, says Billings, is that entrepreneurs who took all the risks of giving life to a business now become the biggest risk to the business themselves.
Because entrepreneurial burnout impacts strongly on the judgement of the entrepreneur, they are often unable to reflect on what is happening to them. They certainly feel overwhelmed and very stressed, but often blame fate, circumstances and the failings of others for their predicament, rather than recognising that they suffer from burnout.
The tell-tale signs are many and may differ from entrepreneur to entrepreneur, say Billings, but the common symptoms include a sense of hopelessness, insomnia, a lack of focus, indecisive handling of tasks and problems, not being able to get through the day’s tasks like you used to, inability to prioritise, irritability, a withdrawal from social and business networks, and avoidance behaviour such as staying away from the office and postponing important phone calls. Inboxes and voicemail boxes overflow with urgent messages, and desks are even more chaotic than usual. Almost always, entrepreneurs suffering from burnout lose their enthusiasm for the business to such an extent that they wish they had never started it.
Another tell-tale sign may be a severely diminished sense of self-worth. Entrepreneurs who suffer from burnout may well recognise that they are the problem, but they wrongly diagnose the condition as terminal, thinking they are simply not good enough, that they are failures who are not cut out for the business world. Entrepreneurial burnout has affected their judgement so much that they cannot see a way out.
Of course it can be overcome, says Billing, even though the road back to entrepreneurial health can be difficult. Because the condition affects the judgement and analytical ability of the sufferer, the first step to recuperation is finding a confidant, someone whom you trust to give you an honest and supportive assessment of your situation rather than simply agreeing with your rants about why things are in a mess.
Such a confidant can be anyone from your spouse (if the burnout has not damaged the marriage too much yet), to a mentor, a friend, a fellow business owner, or even a hired consultant or coach. Provided the burnt-out entrepreneur is receptive to advice, a few sessions with the confidant can do wonders to reshape warped perceptions, to help finalise difficult decisions and to come up with a rescue plan.
First, try to win small, achievable gains, says Billings. When the business is in trouble, these will probably not be life-saving breakthroughs such as new finance or a major contract. They are more likely to be measures to prevent more damage, such as a meeting with the financier to discuss restructuring of debt, or with the landlord to discuss rental arrears.
Clearing the inbox and desk, getting the books up to date and coming up with a new list of priorities can all be small but important milestones on the way to recovery.
Next, says Billings, it is crucial for the burnt-out entrepreneur to regain some balance. Even in crisis mode, if the whole day is consumed by the business, things will just get worse. Spend some time doing something completely different, take the kids on an outing, go for a jog, take a walk, meet a friend or date your spouse. Throw in a few completely self-indulgent “guilty pleasures”. If needs be, diarise these activities as crucial tasks. It may not feel like it in the beginning, but slowly they will help to relax the entrepreneur, repair sleep and reboot the brain.
Entrepreneurs must learn to set boundaries, says Billings. “Many are so anxious to make their businesses succeed that they never check out. They don’t shut the door to their business for the day.”
Once you are on the road to recovery, do some serious reflecting about why you started the business in the first place and try to “go back to the thing you love”. Billings uses the example of an entrepreneur who loved selling and demonstrating his product to clients. As his business grew, he had to stop selling and start managing people. It made him miserable.
Although most entrepreneurial firms start off as owner-managed, it is possible for entrepreneurs to work themselves out of management positions so that they can concentrate on their passions. Having a clear plan about how to get there can be a powerful motivator for a tired entrepreneur.
One of the most difficult aspects of recuperating from burnout may be the big decisions that you sometimes have to take to make sure that you get control over your life again. This could include scaling back the business, outsourcing large parts of it, retrenching staff, restructuring your operations and even letting it go. In the throes of entrepreneurial burnout, such decisions may at first seem inconceivable, but once executed they invariably bring the relief that you need to recuperate.
Billing says: “Entrepreneurs need to realise that they control and rule the business – it’s not the other way around. Yes, they are going to face tremendous pressures, but they must keep in mind that ‘I’m in control. This business doesn’t control me. I determine what happens to me and what happens to my business’.”