Entrepreneur Burnout: 5 Key Signs and What to Do About It

I’ll bet when you first started your business, you were thrilled. Sort of like jumping out of an airplane thrilled… You were scared but at the same time it was exciting. You couldn’t believe you were doing it, for real!

But now the reality of the scary parts has caught up with you. The financial ups and downs, the sleepless nights, the endless work, the never-ending demands are getting you down.

This is totally normal. I see this with so many of my clients, and I have experienced the emotional rollercoaster of entrepreneurship myself. This is something all small- and micro-business people experience… but never talk about!

And, if they go unaddressed, they can lead to trouble.

But before I say more, here’s a caveat.

Even though public health restrictions may have been lifted where you live–maybe that happened a long time ago–the fact is that 2+ years of living in a global pandemic has an unquestionable impact on your mental health.

The shadow pandemic is likely to cause a long tail of mental health issues.

In the so-called post-pandemic era, it’s important to note that what you are experiencing may not actually be burnout. It may be  pandemic-related trauma.

Causes of entrepreneur burnout

causes of entrepreneur burnout

Have you experienced any of the following?

• Sleep deprivation: either because you can’t sleep or you work late into the night

• Food deprivation: scarfing food down or not eating at all

• No time for rest or leisure activities

• Sitting cramped at the computer for hours at a time

• Putting off going to the bathroom

• Always on, 24/7 with no down time

This is the life of an entrepreneur, right?

Because of the freedom and flexibility, the autonomy and self-determination, the scope for creativity, and all its other benefits, you wouldn’t trade it in. No entrepreneur wants to be told to go get a J-O-B.

But at the same time, entrepreneurship is taking a toll. You’re risking entrepreneur burnout.

White woman looking stressed with her hand on her forehead

Despite the clearly excessive demands of entrepreneurship, strong powerful, competent business women call me thinking there is something wrong with them because some “little thing” has done them in.

But these are not little things!

It’s common to minimize the impact of the demands of being in business for yourself. It’s how you manage on a day-to-day basis. But the consequence, over the long term, is entrepreneur burnout.

“But, but but…” you say, “this is just business. This is the norm for a business owner.”

OK. I get it. You’re not convinced.

Let’s just take these phenomena out of the entrepreneurial context for a second.

Sleep deprivation, hunger, enclosure in a windowless room for hours on end, prohibited from meeting bodily needs, restricted physical activity, lack of contact with other humans…

What does that sound like?

It’s much like the kinds of tactics used by police and military all over the world to break people down.

Is it any surprise entrepreneurs break down and burn out?

Symptoms of entrepreneur burnout

Do you recognize yourself in any of these?

  • short fuse and irritability
  • low mood
  • difficulty sleeping
  • difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • lack of motivation
  • anxiety
  • headaches and muscle tension
  • digestive problems
  • and many others.

Mental health challenges are inherent in entrepreneurship

Research has shown that entrepreneurs have a higher prevalence of mental health challenges than the general population.

One survey, conducted by a psychiatrist in the US, found that 49% of the entrepreneurs surveyed reported having a mental health condition, with depression and anxiety being two of the top three.

In addition, people who are entrepreneurs have a predisposition toward mental health issues. People who are on the energetic, motivated, and creative side are both more likely to be entrepreneurial and more likely to experience strong emotional states including depression, despair, hopelessness, worthlessness, loss of motivation, and suicidal thinking.

Have you experienced entrepreneur burnout or other difficulties with your mental health? You’re not alone.

In any given year, 1 in 5 Canadians experiences a mental illness or addiction problem.

By the time Canadians reach 40 years of age, 1 in 2 have—or have had—a mental illness.

This is just the general population, but in a 2019 study, the CMHA reported that amongst entrepreneurs, two-thirds report feeling depressed at least once a week.

That’s a lot of people.

It’s a common problem.

Don’t keep entrepreneur burnout a secret

In 12-step programs there’s a saying: we’re only as sick as our secrets.

Personally and professionally, I think it’s the silence and stigma around entrepreneurial burnout and the related mental health challenges that keep us sick.

There’s a lot of public talk around de-stigmatizing mental health but there’s still a lot to be done on the person-to-person level.

So many of my clients say they are afraid to share that they’re struggling, especially if they’re entrepreneurs.

Did you know that isolation–being alone with your problems–is as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day? This is where support can make a big difference. It gives you somewhere to share your distress and helps combat the secrecy and silence, giving you resilience.

If you stop to think about it, it makes sense that entrepreneurs would have mental health challenges, and experience entrepreneur burnout.

Entrepreneurs have unique risk factors

In my work, I’ve identified 7 factors unique to the experience of entrepreneurship that make our lives and work so much more stressful than that of the general population. My experience echoes the data in the research.

  1. Isolation
  2. VUCA: volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity
  3. Hustle (and lack of restorative behaviours that help us recover from the stress of being entrepreneurs)
  4. Barriers to accessing mental health and other supports
  5. Linking self-worth to business success
  6. Predisposition to mental health challenges (as mentioned above)

And the secret seventh factor: these six potentiate one another.

It therefore makes sense that we are at much greater risk of entrepreneur burnout, given the conditions of entrepreneurship under which we run ourselves ragged.

There’s nothing wrong with you

If you find yourself burning out, there’s nothing wrong with you!

Your organism is like a motor: if it’s run too hard for too long, it will burn out.

Your mind, body and spirit need time to rest and digest, and to repair.

So, if you “burn out” after being run into the ground, there’s nothing wrong with you.

What’s wrong is we’re taught that stress, burnout, depression and anxiety are exceptions, not the rule.

By implication, if we experience them, we have somehow failed.

The trick is to recognize that these are risks inherent in entrepreneurship, and to control for them.

Tips to prevent burnout

Unless you take action, your mental health will suffer. Here are some tips to get you started.

  • Establish your mental health KPIs and evaluate them regularly.
  • Find someone to be your mental health accountability buddy and schedule time to check in with one another regularly.
  • Take brief time-outs during your day to soothe your nervous system.
  • Use the HALT acronym (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired) as a cue that you need to intervene. If you’re experiencing any of the HALT symptoms, stop what you’re doing and address the issue.
  • Attend an entrepreneur support group like this one.

Next Steps

Learn how we can work together to identify, track and assess KPIs for your mental health, so you can avoid entrepreneur burnout. You’ve got KPIs for every other aspect of your business. Why not for your mental health? You are quite literally your business’ most valuable asset.

About the author 

Shulamit Berlevtov  -  Shulamit (she/her) is the Entrepreneurs' Therapist. She is working passionately to mitigate the entrepreneurial mental health crisis through keynote speaking and educational workshops and by supporting women entrepreneurs 1:1 to care for their mental and emotional wellbeing and their money psychology in an era of relentless stressors that can make you want to lose your crap on the daily.

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