Ten signs of burnout and what you can do about it

Small business owner stressing about his cashflow

Business owner burnout is on the rise. But when does everyday stress and overwork turn into a much more serious health problem? Rachel Miller investigates

Burnout, especially among business owners, is becoming a significant issue. Often known as the "high achiever" sickness, burnout is a form of chronic stress that causes physical, psychological and emotional distress leaving many people unable to go on.

Why is burnout on the rise?

Many aspects of running a business have always been stressful; burnout certainly isn't a new phenomenon. However, technology has brought in an "always on" culture that has squeezed downtime to its lowest levels. And that's making burnout more common.

According to research from Bupa, we are scheduling less time for rest and relaxation than ever before. Around 40% of UK employees surveyed took less than half of their annual entitlement last year. The average employee took just 62% of their holiday entitlement.

Bupa says the average person is trying to cram 17-and-a-half hours of activity into their day - leaving them with less than seven hours for sleep. And this activity includes both work and other "always on" tasks such as shopping, exercising, socialising and checking email and social media.

Overwork is also a growing problem in small businesses. According to research by AXA PPP Healthcare, 29% of staff in SMEs work seven or more hours of overtime every week. Iain McMillan, AXA's SME director, said. "Our study shows that owners and bosses may be putting themselves and their employees at increased risk of burnout and ill health through protracted overwork."

Heading for burnout

The problem with burnout is that is can creep up on you; many business owners and managers just don't see it coming. The way many of us deal with work overload is just to put our heads down and try and get through it - when the best thing you can do at this point is refocus and actually take more breaks.

Once you go past the point of no return, however, you often have to have a complete and sustained break to return to full health. So, it's vital to spot the signs and take avoiding action if you are heading towards burnout.

Key symptoms of burnout include fatigue and a lack of energy, loss of appetite, insomnia, forgetfulness, mood changes (including anger), an inability to concentrate, a tendency to get ill more often, anxiety and depression.

But before you get to this stage, there are often signs that you are heading for trouble.

Ten warning signs of burnout:

1. You've lost sight of what's important

When you're busy, it can be tempting to just "keep calm and carry on". But simply powering on through is not always the best way to get things done, and it can mean you forget what your goals are or why you're doing it in the first place. Boredom, procrastination and distraction are all signs of impending burnout. In short, running your business is just not fun anymore.

2. You're dancing to someone else's tune

One of the joys of working for yourself is that you make the rules, but many business owners find that client demands, business responsibilities and constant deadlines are calling the shots. If you feel that you have no control in your business - or if you feel trapped - then you are at risk of burnout.

3. You are working long hours

Excessive busyness and an inability to switch off are warning signs. If you are always the first one in and the last to leave - and you're taking work home with you - then you are at risk of running out of steam altogether.

4. You feel overwhelmed

If you're not on top of your workload, then you could be close to burning out. As the owner of the business you need to be able to step back and see the wood for the trees. Look at your "to do" list; if it's impossibly long then it's time to work out your priorities, delegate tasks or even change direction.

5. You've been making mistakes

When you keep forgetting things or making more mistakes - and others notice - then your stress levels have begun to affect your performance.

6. You are running on empty

Fatigue is a key marker for burnout. If your energy levels are always low and you just can't shift your tiredness, you need to listen to your body and find a way to recharge your batteries.

7. You have neglected your own wellbeing

Your good health - physical and mental - is precious. If you are not taking time to exercise, eat well and rest then you risk burnout. Watch out for bad habits, such as using sugar and caffeine to get you through the day.

8. You don't recognise yourself

Have you lost your mojo? Are you grumpier, more cynical and less pleasant to be around? Have you been neglecting your employees or snapping at your family? Have you lost your sense of humour? These are all signs that you are heading for trouble.

9. You are suffering from anxiety

Stress and exhaustion can trigger the "fight or flight" response leading to feelings of anxiety and even panic attacks. If that is happening, you need to stop, take stock and put your own mental health first.

10. You dream of jacking it all in

You used to love work and were firing on all cylinders; now you are in a nightmare of stress and deadlines. If you want to stop the world and get off, it's time to make some significant changes.

How to avoid burnout

  • Manage your time better: Don't let work creep into every minute of every day - prioritise tasks, review your goals regularly and schedule time for everything including rest.
  • Get organised: An overflowing in-box and a cluttered desk can trigger anxiety the minute you arrive at work. Set aside time to get through the backlog and establish better ways to keep on top of emails and other tasks.
  • Ask for help: Many business owners need to learn the art of delegation; it's also worth talking to a business mentor or a life coach about ways to improve your work-life balance.
  • Prioritise relaxation: If you can't switch off easily, you may need help in the form of regular massages or low-level exercise such as walking. Try mindfulness - there are many apps you can use to make it easy to incorporate this into your everyday schedule.
  • Get enough sleep: Good sleep hygiene is about going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. Give yourself a chance to get ready for sleep by removing phones and laptops from the bedroom.
  • Eat well: Again, this is about eating regularly as well as choosing healthy options - not skipping meals and grabbing snacks on the run.
  • Move around: If your job is desk-bound, you need to make time to exercise and have fun. Get out in the fresh air with friends and family. If you can, incorporate a walk or a bike ride into your daily commute.
  • Identify your pain points: Take time to think about the things that stress you out the most and work out a plan to reduce their impact. This could include delegating certain tasks or even rethinking the direction of your business.
  • Know when to stop: Working long hours is not productive or healthy; it's worth setting specific work hours and trying to stick to them. You may also have to say no sometimes to avoid taking on projects that you really don't want to do.

Above all, avoiding burnout is about making time to rest and recover. It's vital to prioritise relaxation; if you don't, burnout could force you to take a much longer break from your business.

Workplace wellbeing tool

Poor employer or employee health can have a big effect on productivity. Employees taking lots of time off sick or turning up for work unwell and being less productive than usual, not to mention risking infecting other employees can all have a big impact on your business. The workplace wellbeing tool on the GOV.UK website can help you work out the costs to your business of poor employee health and how to create a business case for taking action.

You can use this tool to:

  • calculate the annual cost of employee ill health, absence from work and staff turnover
  • create business cases for workplace health and wellbeing initiatives
  • estimate the return on investment of setting up a health and wellbeing programme

Use the workplace wellbeing tool on the GOV.UK website.

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