In fall of 2013 I led a sales team of seven people, traveled half the time for work, managed eighteen million dollars of business to exceed our sales goal by ten percent, finished the first draft of my novel, scheduled round-the-clock caregivers for my dying father, helped him plan his funeral, and bicycled 55 miles in one weekend. Superwoman? Read more and you’ll find everything you ever wanted to know about burnout.
By spring of 2014 I had buried my father, dispersed of his possessions, lost my job, ridden in an ambulance to the ER, and spent months on my couch incapacitated with severe vertigo and double vision.
We usually see burnout after the fact
At the time it felt like life attacked me with one relentless purpose: “Make her miserable.” Now I know I was burned out from years of living at a fast pace, jumping from one thing to another with little rest, and working nonstop. I was passionate about both my corporate career and my writing, earned a nice income and lived in my dream house, but even when things were good I didn’t enjoy it as much as I expected.
When I was hit by the unexpected stress of dad’s illness, I didn’t have the emotional or physical reserves I needed to make it through. As a result, I got sick and hit rock bottom and stayed there for a couple of years. Yet on the long climb back to health and prosperity I learned a lot about burnout, what it does to us, and how to live to prevent it.
What is burnout
In 2019 the World Health Organization classified burnout a legitimate occupational phenomenon and included it in the ICD-11 diagnostic manual. They defined it as:
a mental health phenomenon characterized by feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy.
The Nashville Chamber of Commerce published an article about burnout and listed these common signs:
- Achy muscles
- More frequent illness
- Silly mistakes
- Brain fog or memory loss
- Interpersonal conflicts
- Irritability and negativity
- Loss of motivation
Psychologists Herbert Freudenberge and Gail North say burnout progresses in twelve steps, but it’s the third that resonates most with me as a health coach and wellness advocate:
The third step is ignoring basic needs such as lack of sleep, lack of healthy eating, lack of social interaction.
There are good reasons entrepreneurs and small business owners have a high rate of burnout. Great passion and commitment to their work may be the main factor. Because you care about your work, it matters. The stakes are higher and it seems legitimate to give it everything you’ve got. You also may have few financial cushions to fall back on, and feel ultimate responsibility for making your dream succeed.
As a result, it’s not surprising that a quarter of members of a large national entrepreneur and small business networking group said they were moderately burned out. Three percent claimed strong burnout.
While giving all to the business seems most important in the short term, it’s important to realize that when you burn out you have brain fog and can’t focus, feel overwhelmed by all the decisions you face and either make poor decisions or shut down and don’t deal with things, and even when you succeed don’t relish it as much as you expected.
Thus, ignoring your health because you want to succeed could be the very thing that damages your business and personal success in the long run.
Quality of life
When you are burned out you don’t enjoy the wins and tend to be more devastated by the losses. In other words, you have a poor quality of life. Yet most of us only recognize burnout in hindsight. In the moment we blame circumstances, other people, or tell ourselves “when this is over” things will be different.
I blamed my crash and burn on my dad’s cancer, my employer’s restructuring, and the short-sightedness of all those people who wouldn’t give me a new job right away! It was a dark time. Now I’m glad those experiences forced me to make hard decisions and overhaul the way I live. I have fewer possessions, more time, and better friends.
What can you do to prevent burnout? Build rituals of health into each day, and resist the appeal of big efforts—the big exercise program, the restrictive diet, the huge makeover. Those approaches just add more stress and exhaustion and your brain fights back with active resistance. Build new habits one step at a time and practice them until they become automatic behaviors you don’t even think about. As you feel better, you’ll be empowered toward more small choices.
My return to health and vigor started with a very small action to improve my hydration. At the time I hated drinking plain water and secretly made fun of those who carried water bottles everywhere. I decided to drink one cup of cold water first thing every morning.
Using what James Clear calls “habit stacking” in his book Atomic Habits, I chose a visual cue to remind me. Every night I placed this bright yellow mug (one of my father’s possessions) on the counter by the teapot in which I brewed tea every morning.
Drinking water became a habit. That habit blunted my cravings for sweets, gave me more clarity and vigor, and reduced headaches. Since then I’ve added many other habits for what I eat, how I sleep, when I exercise, and how to book work and time away from work. I go into those ideas and guides in more detail in the book I’m writing.
Where are you?
Here are some quotes to consider as you evaluate where you are on the burnout scale.
Entrepreneurship is a personal growth engine disguised as a business pursuit.
People do not decide their futures, they decide their habits and their habits decide their future.
Self-compassion isn’t about taking baths or getting massages. It’s about conscious noticing long term patterns of avoidance and building the skills to change them.
Don’t let burnout sneak up on you, like it did me. To get fresh ideas for areas of life to address to help prevent burnout, take my burnout quiz. You can find it here:
Burnout with work:
- Burn-out an “occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases https://www.who.int/mental_health/evidence/burn-out/en/
- The 12 Stages of Burnout, According to Psychologists https://www.inc.com/jessica-stillman/the-12-stages-of-burnout-according-to-psychologist.html
- Six Tips for Fighting Burnout https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/tips-for-avoiding-burnout
- Workism Is Making Americans Miserable https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/02/religion-workism-making-americans-miserable/583441/?utm_source=eb
©2020 Deborah Rankin RD