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 Business owners at high risk of burnout - here’s how to deal with it


 High stress is a natural part of life for business owners. For one, you manage people, which is a major stressor all by itself. At the same time, you have to build and shape your enterprise while everything is on the move and you are racing against competitors. You also don’t have a boss to blame or complain to. Of course you are going to get stressed out, says Erika Wassenaar, group training manager at Business Partners Limited (BUSINESS/PARTNERS).

It could be argued that the stress experienced by business owners is a necessary ingredient for business growth - without it, a business simply cannot be willed from the drawing board into reality. But stress is like vitamins, says Erika - good in small quantities at the right time, but toxic in large doses over prolonged periods.

While everyone is susceptible to mental and physical burnout that comes from too much stress, business owners are more at risk than most. Because stress is such an expected part of your venture, the danger is that you come to see it as normal, and you lose sight of the fact that it is supposed to be a temporary state that gets you over a hump. 

Looking back at 2019 with the South Africa facing an underperforming economy, a sovereign credit rating downgrade and decreasing consumer spending, it is expected that the year was a particularly stressful one for many business owners. As we prepare for another eventful year, it is important for business owners to use the holiday season to take care of their wellbeing and put plans in place to prevent future burnout.

What can business owners do to contain their stress levels and prevent burnout?

 Erika believes that the single biggest contributor to business owners’ stress levels is having to do everything. The most important antidote, therefore, is to work on your delegation skills. 
If you are able to share the burden of growing the business with an enthusiastic team, half the battle against stress is already won. 

However, delegation is easier said than done. Many business owners are multi-talented, and because they can do many things well, it is common for them to try to keep on doing everything in the business long past the start-up days when it is actually necessary for them to do so. Add to that even a slight tendency toward perfectionism or being over-controlling in their personality, and you get a business owners who simply can’t let go of their burden. Furthermore, finding the right workers is hard work. It may require hours of searching, networking, sifting through resumes and interviews. 

Carefully managed probation of new team members is arguably even harder work. At the start of any new appointment it is almost always easier to do the job yourself rather than coach the appointee to the right standard of work. The most difficult and stressful step of all is to let a team member go if they are clearly not up to the job. Many business owners tend to postpone these hard decisions, causing even more stress by keeping an underperforming worker on for too long.

The good news is that delegation is an art and a science that can be learned, says Erika. It starts with being aware of its necessity, setting delegation goals, and working your way towards it in incremental steps. 

Another major stressor in business is busy-ness, says Erika. All business owners will experience a key employee phoning in sick, a machine breaking down, electricity load shedding and a major client cancelling a contract - all on the same day.  And even on relatively calm days thousands of issues present themselves to business owners, each shouting for attention.  The only defence against such an onslaught is prioritisation. In emergency situations the business owners must have a well-developed triage system, and in relatively quieter times they must know how to distinguish between the noisy but unimportant issues versus the less visible but important tasks.

The key to prioritisation is planning and goal setting. Long-term life goals for the business owners provide the framework for the five-year plan for the business, which in turn informs the year plan and the plans for the month, week and the day. Any issue that passes the business owner’s desk can now be measured against clear plans and goals, and either pushed away as unimportant or find its appropriate place on the to-do list. Many stress-burdened business owners argue that planning just does not make sense for their business, because things change too fast.

Erika believes it is the very lack of planning that makes an industry, a business or a busy season seem too dynamic to plan for. Having a plan does not mean the business will become static and inflexible. Of course a good plan, and even the goals that inform it, will constantly change; but having a plan in the first place is what makes changing the plan easier when an emergency crops up or an opportunity presents itself.

Erika says applying the principles of project management to the many problems and opportunities that present themselves is a useful way for business owners to create order in the chaos of the market. Again, it can be learned. The Business Partners Limited’s website ( and the company’s SME Toolkit (, a free online information portal for business owners, contain many articles on project management, planning, delegation and stress management.

A third major antidote to stress for business owners is rest and downtime. Erika acknowledges that there will be times in the life of a business owner where the work-life balance of the average corporate manager is simply not applicable, but the danger is that it becomes a permanent state of overwork.

Make time for the non-business part of your life, even if you have to squeeze it into your schedule. Nurture your family ties and the relationship with your friends, keep fit, eat healthy and get enough sleep. If you manage to get these basics right, your resilience against stress in your business will improve exponentially.

As if business owners do not have enough to deal with, they also have to be aware of the stress levels among their workers, says Erika. 

Fortunately, business owners set the tone in their business. If they manage the ups and downs of the business calmly and effectively, this attitude will spill over to their employees. 
As you learn to delegate, the stress levels will go up among your employees. This is a good thing, as long as it does not become too much for any one worker. Pay constant attention and provide the right levels of support. 

Business owners are to be admired for venturing out on a journey that is guaranteed to get their adrenaline pumping. It is a tough choice, says Erika, and if the business works out, they truly deserve the profit and satisfaction that comes with business success.



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