Small business burnout: the signs and how to avoid it

It’s been a bit of a buzzword, but it’s only because burnout is affecting more people each day during this ongoing pandemic. It’s no surprise that while job security is weak and the fate of our future can be seen as futile, people are working overtime just to keep financially afloat – especially small business owners.


Running a small business is a lonely journey if you’re doing it on your own or with a silent partner – we're often stuck making the big and small decisions on our own (cue the big girl pants)! From making that decision comes ideation, delivery and reporting, which is a big feat for just one person to handle with each new decision that pops up.


Let's paint this picture you're all too familiar with:


Say you're going about your week, getting your shit done and the biz is running pretty smoothly.


You feel so good you to add more things to your list instead of taking that afternoon off like you planned.


You fill it with things like housework, catching up with friends, or doing that job you’ve been putting off, like spring cleaning the spare room (like me)!


Before you know it, the weekend comes around and it’s full of obligations, commitments, more housework, socialising, or sport – and within the blink of an eye it’s Monday again, back to the to-do list for the week and the daily grind.

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Repeat that week a few times over and you’ll soon realise you haven’t actually taken a break from running your business or your life at all—and BANG—burnout hits you like a tonne of bricks attached to a wrecking ball covered in SHITE!


Did you see the signs that were pointing to this inevitable blow? Probably not.

As small business owners, we don’t let a little fatigue stop us from getting the job done – hello, have you seen our to do list? We've gotta get this shit done:

  • fill orders

  • reply to emails

  • market on social media

  • create invoices

  • edit images

  • update the website

  • buy materials

  • and do the work!


Have you ever said to yourself "Just have your third cup of coffee, pop a couple ibuprofen and shut the f**k up!"


If you don’t get it done, it doesn’t get done at all... right?


What happens when burnout forces you to stop and fall flat on your ass?


Well, because you were avoiding rest altogether and taking breaks, you’ve caused your own body to force the rest on you out of the blue. From this, you might feel unorganised and panicked because you haven’t prepared for a mental and physical break in your overflowing routine; herein lies the real problem.


Whether you have experienced burnout a few times or feel like you’re on the verge of experiencing it for the first time, it’s actually a little tricky to pinpoint exactly what burnout feels like and how to avoid a total crash-and-burn scenario. You might have had burnout before but never knew it was that, as it can be disguised as feeling rundown and even getting sick.

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Burnout in this sense is caused by overworking, but it can also be hiding a much bigger mental health issue like depression or anxiety. The severity of burnout varies with individuals as well, which can depend on your current mental health, family life, job capacity and factors like personality traits and thought patterns i.e. pessimism.


What are the tell tale signs of burnout?


Burnout happens when you experience chronic job stress which can be characterised by exhaustion, reduced professional ability and cynicism toward work. We spend most of our daytime hours working, so when we feel dissatisfied with our jobs, or feel over-worked and under-appreciated, it can have an impact on how we view life as a whole.


When you’re on the verge of burnout...


You dread going to work


Whether your workspace is at home, in an office or studio, this isn’t just a throwaway moment of “ugh I don’t want to work today!”. Burnout brings on an overarching feeling of cynicism and irritability that comes with waking up and getting ready for the work day, and doesn’t go away even with a win at work. For small business owners, this feeling of dread can be brought on by low morale, a dive in sales, or working overtime for little reward.


You’re finding it hard to concentrate


Whether it’s the task at hand or just being at your desk, you’re finding it harder to stay focussed on the present moment and daydreaming about being anywhere but there. Your energy levels are consistently low and you’re finding even a slight bit of effort leaves you exhausted. In small business, having a creative roadblock is often a sign you need to take a break as your reduced performance can affect your plans moving forward. This can also occur when we constantly compare our business to a competitor who seems to be kicking goals every week.


You’re emotionally drained


When you get home from work, or move away from your home office, you’re unable to connect with your loved ones because you don’t have the mental capacity to deal with anything else. The struggle continues from work to home with an inability to switch off your work brain, help your kids with homework, make dinner or talk to your partner.

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You feel physically weak


Thanks to the way chronic stress works on the body, your energy is being drained from a physical level and your body becomes more susceptible to migraines and headaches, stomach pains and gastrointestinal problems. You’ll also find the lack of energy to your vital organs means you’re feeling hunger more often and craving high-carbohydrate foods to get you through the day. Your body needs to consume more energy so your brain can keep functioning, and your body and health may suffer alongside it.


Disclosure: These signs can be associated with mental health conditions such as depression, generally feeling this way not just about work but life as well. Feelings of hopelessness, apathy, suicide, fatigue and other factors can be experienced when developing depression. Get immediate support by contacting Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or LifeLine on 13 11 14.


How to prevent and treat burnout for small business owners


Lighten your load


One of the easiest things you can do to avoid burnout is taking some obligations off your plate. Whether you’re at work and need to talk with your boss to create a better work/life balance, or running your business solo and needing to hire a helping hand – nothing is more important than asking for help.


For small business owners, hire someone to take over the tasks you dread doing such as accounting, marketing and social media, packing orders or general admin! Even though you’ll be paying someone and feel like you’re losing money, you’re giving your time toward growing the business and bringing in more income, rather than doing the mundane tasks that are wasting your precious time.


Take your sleep seriously


As business owners we can get carried away in the creative momentum and end up working through the night – been there, done that! Sometimes inspiration for content comes to me as I’m drifting off to sleep, so that’s where I grab my phone and write the idea in my notes for tomorrow. Sleep is a huge factor in how productive we are the next day, so trying to unplug from your devices at least 30 minutes before hitting the hay is crucial. Personally, I use a salt lamp to add natural warm light to the room and take night magnesium to help me sleep soundly.

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Don’t ignore your social life


As small business owners, we often put our business above everything else and that includes seeing friends and family. Carve out some time in your week to get out of your ‘work bubble’ at your home, office or studio and switch off your work brain even for an hour. Not only will this allow you to connect with someone outside of work, but it can help to step away and come back to a task with fresh eyes.


Take regular brain breaks


You don’t have to slip into an hour-long meditation or go for a hike to switch off (though if you like to do that, go for it)! All you need is 5-10 minutes in a quiet room, preferably away from your workstation, and practice mindfulness. Focus on the moment by concentrating on your breath work and what you’re physically feeling at each moment – this allows room for your mind to calm down, reset and take on situations with patience and an open mind.


Enjoy movement where possible


It’s been said a million times and I’ll say it again, but exercise actually works! Sometimes all it takes is a short workout or walking the dog to produce enough oxytocin (happy endorphins) and give you a sense of joy. Exercise doesn’t need to be strenuous to be enjoyable; whether you want to do a favourite workout, practice yoga and stretching at home, or take in the sunshine on a brisk walk, physical activity is a great way to deal with any stress.


Have strategies in place from now on


Rather than getting to the edge of burnout each time and having to pull yourself away with everything you have, make your small business life more sustainable. Create self care strategies that you know will work for you, whether it’s scheduling in a lunch break and going outside, or clocking off early every Friday to enjoy some “me time”. Whatever works for you to help you feel rejuvenated each day can be the difference between burnout and a healthy work/life balance.


Where to from here...


Now that you know the signs of burnout and how to combat it, you can realise just how important taking respite can be for your body, your health and your business. Don’t let yourself or your business suffer because you’re working yourself to the bone – you’ll see success tenfold but taking a step away every so often and enjoying the beauty of running a small business!



If you found this blog helpful please leave a comment or listen to the Lexicon of Life podcast on this topic for more insight.


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