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It is well known that the life of an entrepreneur is most often more difficult than working for a salary. The risk of failure is huge in the beginning, income is never guaranteed and the business owner is ultimately responsible for all that can and will go wrong. No wonder that entrepreneurs are generally resilient.

But even hard-nosed and strong-willed types such as business owners have their breaking point, and many of them have come within touching distance of it during the past eighteen months as the pandemic, the loss of South Africa’s investment grade rating, load shedding and civil riots combined into a perfect storm.

In such extreme circumstances, business owners have to make a conscious effort to protect their mental health, says Dr Erika Wassenaar, group training manager at Business Partners Limited, who offers the following tips to avoid emotional burnout and build resilience:

  • Improve your delegation skills: Business owners are often do-it-yourself people, which certainly helps to get a business going. But often that tendency to tackle things on their own becomes a problem as the entrepreneur carries more and more of the work on their shoulders. When a crisis hits, it can become unbearable. You can learn delegation skills, even if it does not come naturally.
  • Work on your prioritisation skills: Knowing what to do first and what to postpone till later is one of the most effective ways of gaining control over difficult situations and avoiding burnout.  Prioritisation is a difficult skill set, because it involves constant thought about whether something that feels urgent really is urgent, and constant difficult choices between competing issues. But it is a skill that you can and must learn to get through difficult periods calmly and deliberately.
  • Lean on your support network: The idea of the lone entrepreneurial hero is a bit of a myth. No business owner can make it without a support network of friends, family, associates and fellow entrepreneurs. Reaching out for help is an acknowledgement of that reality. It is not a sign of weakness – in fact, it is an important way in which the best entrepreneurs gain in strength.
  • Acknowledge that your family is part of your support network: It is understandable that some business owners want to protect their immediate family from the anxieties of business. So they put up a brave face at home and don’t speak to their spouse about their business struggles. By doing this, you are turning your back on a huge source of support and strength. Even if they never get directly involved in your business, they can help by listening, advising and helping you get help. It can also be argued that you owe your family a certain level of transparency about your business so that they are prepared for any outcome.
  • Recognise the signs of burnout: Your family can help here, but it is important that you yourself are able to recognise when the ice is cracking below your feet. The signs of burnout include irritability, a quick temper, struggling to sleep, difficulty concentrating, and overwhelming feelings of hopelessness.
  • Know when to let go: Letting go of your current venture is not the end of the world, even though it may feel like it. Business owners build their careers over many years and many projects, some of which are sure to fail. There is so much strength that comes with recognising that a project is beyond saving, calling it quits early rather than later, and starting from scratch. Many entrepreneurs even go back to working for someone else for a while as they recuperate. By letting go in time, you can spare yourself and others a lot of hardship and damage. Understanding the limits of what you can control can help you to avoid toxic feelings of guilt that often goes hand-in-hand with business failure.
  • Know when to say no: In good times you might find it easier to turn down projects that don’t quite fall within your capacity or expertise, but when times are tough you might abandon your usual caution. Try to keep your decisions as rational as you can, and when in doubt, reach out to friends, associates fellow business owners for their advice and opinions.
  • Transparency is easier: Sometimes it helps to present an image of your business as big and established, especially in the beginning. But there is a fine line between a successful fake-it-till-you-make-it strategy and building an unsustainable facade that can be exhausting to keep up. Under-promising and over-delivering is ultimately a much better growth strategy – and much better for your mental wellbeing.
  • Build a habit of planning: Not all business owners are equally good at planning, but there is no doubt that those who focus on planning are more robust in fast-changing circumstances, more agile, and much calmer during crises.
  • Keep fit: Your mental resilience is inextricably linked to your physical health. The fitter you are, the faster you can work and the better you can concentrate. Exercise can also be a valuable outlet for the frustrations of your day.
  • Set aside time for yourself: You have to learn to rest. If you don’t, your work will become sluggish and you will find that you have even less time. Make regular inviolable appointments for yourself or for you and your family on your schedule and stick to it.
  • Don’t be hard on yourself: Guilt can be crippling to business owners who can’t help but feel responsible for the families of the workers that they have to let go. Understand and acknowledge that you cannot control all the forces that bear down on your business.

About the Author: Ben Bierman

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Ben Bierman has been our Managing Director since 2015. He joined our company in 1990 and has risen through the ranks occupying various positions ranging from being a management accountant, Head of Information Technology and Chief Financial Officer. Ben is an avid reader, enjoys classical music and being in the outdoors including for hunting trips. He is our go-to-spokesperson for our SME Confidence Index, SME sector policy and trend matters, and business leadership articles.