How to Combat Burnout When Running a Small Business

4 weeks ago
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No sick pay, holiday pay or compassionate leave? Keeping on top of your self assessment tax returns, private pension contributions and payroll all by yourself? Feeling like you can’t have any time off work out of fear of losing out? Or having time off and then checking emails or doing work anyway? 

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s likely that as a small business owner or freelancer you’ve experienced burnout at one point or another. And it’s no surprise given the amount of responsibility you have and the pressure you have on your shoulders.  

In this article we chat to Occupational Psychologist Hayley Lewis, owner of Halo Psychology to find out what freelancers and small business owners can do to prevent burnout. 

Why is it important for small business owners and freelancers to take time off work? 

“Human beings aren’t designed to work 24/7 365 days a year. Our bodies and minds need rest in order to function at their best. I often refer to the analogy of Formula 1 racing where the car is driven at high speed for a certain number of circuits and then has a pit stop for fuel etc. Why do we think we can go without that regular pit stop? The danger of not scheduling in regular rest could mean you develop conditions related to chronic stress, such as heart problems.”

How much time off should business owners take each year? 

“I think it varies from person to person. One chief executive I worked with a long time ago talked about knowing your limits and your circadian rhythms, which is why he scheduled some form of break every six weeks. As a business owner myself, I schedule a week off at the end of every financial quarter. This does two things. First, it gives me something to look forward to. Research has shown that there are as many health benefits in the act of looking forward to a holiday as there is in actually being on the holiday itself. Second, the break acts as a milestone for each quarter and helps me focus on the priorities that really matter and that I really need to achieve before I can take that break. It’s pretty galvanising. My main suggestion is to experiment – see what works for you.”

What impact can not taking enough time off work have on your mental health? 

“In the extreme and long-term it could lead to depression. A 10-year study of 10,000 Whitehall Civil Servants found those working 55 hours a week or more begin, in their middle years, to experience cognitive issues. For example, their performance was poorer when tested for vocabulary, reasoning, problem-solving, creative thinking and judgement. This level of mild cognitive impairment in middle age seemed to predict earlier dementia and death.”

If you work for a small business and are suffering from burnout or your hours are too long, how can you approach your employer about this?

“If your employer is reasonable then you should be able to have an honest conversation about how you’re feeling, without fear of reprisals. Explain that by taking a bit of time off more regularly, you’ll be able to do even better work than you do already. We’re already seeing increasing numbers of small businesses and start-ups experimenting with different work patterns, such as the New Zealand company, Perpetual Guardian, who hit the press about how their move to a four-day week had seen increased productivity and profit. 

And if your employer isn’t reasonable, and we know there can be issues of bullying and intimidation in some start-ups and small businesses, then it might be worth you sprucing up your CV and finding a new company that has a better, more modern attitude to work-life balance.”

How can you stop yourself from being tempted to check emails or do work on “days off”?

“A concept called ‘self-nudging’ suggests it’s possible to strengthen our self-control by making simple changes to our environment. One way to self-nudge is to make it harder to do the wrong things and easier to do the right. For example, deleting the email app from your phone, making it harder to check your emails non-stop. Still not convinced? Maybe think about the impact on your family. A 2018 study from Virginia Tech found that work email monitoring during non-work hours was detrimental to the health and well-being of not only employees but their family members too.”

We hope this article has provided you with some useful tips and advice for combating burnout as a small business owner or freelancer. If you think you may be suffering from burnout, take a look at the following resources for more help and advice: 

  • https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/high-octane-women/201104/overcoming-burnout
  • https://qz.com/work/1640624/a-psychotherapist-explains-how-to-deal-with-burnout-symptoms/
  • https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/mental-health-helplines/

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