Magazine

Beat Burnout


Recognizing the signs and taking action can save your sanity and your business

Peter Gilberd found it a new and unsettling experience. Gilberd had worked nonstop for seven years on the company he co-founded, San Francisco-based Townsend Networks, which buys and sells used telecommunications gear. He was accustomed to throwing himself into his work, firing up his sales staff, and hitting his targets with gusto. In his off hours, he tackled his mountain bike training with the same enthusiasm.

That all changed at the end of 2007, when the economy first started to slide. Demand for Townsend's products, which cost 60% to 80% less than new gear, soared. Gilberd began putting in longer hours than at any time since he'd started the 12-person company. He'd also recently become a father, and the stepped-up demands of his business meant he was spending less time with his one-year-old daughter, Grace.

The crush started to get to him. Gilberd found himself forgetting to hold his regular Monday morning sales meetings, losing his temper after lost sales, and giving short shrift to tasks he once prided himself on. He even stopped his bike training, knowing full well he was likely to let his cycling team down if he didn't get in shape.

Entrepreneurs are used to long hours and relentless stress—they come with the territory. But for many, there's a time when it all gets to be too much. Like Gilberd, they start to lose their edge. Suddenly they feel tired all the time and just can't snap out of it. Worse, they lose the ability to motivate the troops. It means one thing: They're burned out, and if they don't address the problem head-on, they may seriously—perhaps irrevocably—damage their company. "I've always relied on my optimism and energy," says Gilberd. "I started thinking: 'If I lose that, what will happen to my business?' "

A little bit of stress can be a productivity booster, an extra push to help rev up your performance. Then there's the acute short-term strain that can be caused by anything from a family emergency to unexpectedly having to make a major presentation. Burnout is different. It's a reaction to constant, relentless, day-in, day-out stress, the kind that starts as soon you get up in the morning and doesn't stop until you put your head on the pillow—and probably not even then. "It's a psychological syndrome that occurs in response to chronic stress in the work environment," says Christina Maslach, a pioneering researcher in burnout and a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley. Business owners, who typically work nonstop, juggling many balls at once, may be more susceptible than many others, says Michael Leiter, a professor of psychology at Acadia University in Nova Scotia and an expert on burnout. "Most entrepreneurs experience a bout of burnout at some point in their careers," says Leiter. And a bad economy can make the day-in, day-out pressures of running a business even worse.

That's why it's imperative for small business owners to understand what burnout is and how to deal with it. The signs are not that hard to recognize, but it's important not to confuse them with symptoms of other conditions, such as depression. If you're burned out, you first need to find a way to reenergize yourself. It can be a bit trickier to diagnose the underlying cause of your burnout and devise an effective response. Here's how to get started.

YOU START TO DOUBT YOURSELF

The most obvious symptom of burnout is exhaustion—a fatigue you just can't kick, even by taking a few days off. But there's more to it than being tired. You may experience a loss of enthusiasm that often results in your doing the bare minimum, as well as a loss of faith in your abilities. "People start thinking they're just not cut out for this work after all," says Maslach. You may be short-tempered and overreact to minor things. Work seems to spin out of control: No matter what you do, you can't get all of it done well. You may actually start making more mistakes than usual or allow things to fall through the cracks.

If burnout remains unaddressed, the symptoms can get worse. Some people may become physically sick. In others, burnout may trigger a more serious clinical depression, characterized by a general feeling of hopelessness, trouble sleeping, and eating too much or too little.

If this describes you, it's time to take action. That does not mean doubling down and catching up on all the work you think you're behind on. It means just the opposite—backing off from your business to clear your head and think strategically about what led to your burnout in the first place. "The only way to recharge your batteries is to step away from the business," says Carol Crawford, a principal at the Alternative Board, a small business peer advisory organization in Grand Rapids, Mich. Ideally, you want to get a day or two away from the office on a regular basis.

When Gilberd realized he had to do something about his slipping performance, he took two days off and focused solely on his mountain bike training. "Physical exercise has always been a powerful source of emotional well-being for me," he says. And Dr. Gaby Cora, a doctor and business coach who focuses on burnout, says a critical component of any recovery is regular exercise. That means at least 30 minutes of aerobic, repetitive exercise a day, which will help release stress and replenish lost energy. Gilberd mapped out a detailed training plan during his time off, specifying exactly how long and how fast he would go each day, and stuck with it. Within a few weeks, his spirits had improved enough that he felt ready to start tackling his business problems.

For Sue Reninger, CEO of RMD Advertising in Columbus, Ohio, it was mental exercise that allowed her to step outside of the day-to-day grind and recover from debilitating burnout. But she also uses physical exercise—running—to help her maintain her new, healthier perspective. In the summer of 2008, Reninger, usually an upbeat person, realized she was completely unenthusiastic about her 12-employee business. "I lost all excitement for anything except my children," she says. So Reninger, a self-described "lifelong learner," tried to recall the times when she was most energized. One standout was a stint, three years ago, serving on the task force of a professional association. What made her tenure particularly exciting, she realized, was the chance to learn from a "brilliant" group of colleagues.

What she was lacking, she decided, were more opportunities to learn new things. "I needed to keep feeding my brain," she says. She started listening to business and self-help books on tape during her 45-minute morning and evening commutes and told employees to do the same, believing it would boost their creativity, too. She has added a regular Thursday meeting at which employees discuss a new skill or idea. The topic at one recent meeting was burnout.

And, like Gilberd, she has embraced exercise, recently completing her first half-marathon. Her employees can participate, too, through optional group runs three times a week. Chatting during those runs "really helps manage our emotions," she says. That has become even more important recently, as clients "worried that the other shoe will drop" are more aggressive about negotiating terms and "want results yesterday."

Jeff Clanagan, CEO of Los Angeles-based Codeblack Entertainment, found he needed a break from his routine as well. Codeblack was the second company he had launched to sell DVDs. (He sold the first one in 2001.) But reinventing the wheel was boring to the high-energy CEO, who soon found he was burned out doing the same old, same old. Clanagan's answer: different, but more challenging, work. As shelf space for DVDs shrinks, his 10-person, $21 million company has launched a Web site selling 3,000 books and 2,000 DVDs and streaming DVDs. He's developing iPhone applications that will be created around celebrities, recently launching dance instruction software featuring Carrie Anne Inaba of Dancing with the Stars. His Hoop Fighters, a hybrid basketball/martial arts game for the iPhone with Shaquille O'Neal, is set to come out in February. "I'm more energized than at any time in the past five years," he says.

Feeling better—more optimistic, more energetic, even temporarily—is just the first step in combating burnout. Then you have to do the hard work of making sure it doesn't happen again. That can require some tough decisions about personnel and clients. On reflection, Reninger thought part of her trouble lay with her staff. The qualities she valued most in employees were a high level of energy and an interest in trying new things. But she had hired several people who she now thought lacked those characteristics. "They had become complacent," she says. She ended up replacing them with employees who she felt could contribute to creating the more upbeat environment she wanted.

Then there were the clients. Reninger saw that she was working with a few who were wearing her down. "They were making the day truly a grind," she says. Eventually she decided she had no choice but to end the relationships. Reninger says her company's $1.5 million in revenues should grow 13% this year, thanks in part to the changes she's made.

Gilberd started by hiring an administrative assistant earlier this year to take care of such tasks as sending out invoices and mailing thank-you notes. Last year Gilberd would go through each week's purchase orders and make sure everything had arrived. Now his warehouse guys do that. In short, he's tried to eliminate "all the things that took away from the things I love to do," he says. He realized that what really excites him is business development, so he started giving his sales team more responsibility for bigger clients, allowing him to focus exclusively on the most strategic accounts. "I like mapping out a strategy, making the initial contact, selling people on the company," he says. He's even confident enough to embark on a major marketing push, hiring a few more salespeople, and generally "stepping up the gas." Gilberd's goal is to increase sales 10% in 2009, but he says that 25% isn't out of the question.

Many entrepreneurs can use a hand making these sorts of diagnoses, says Steven Little, a Wilmington (N.C.)-based small business management consultant. A friend, spouse, fellow entrepreneur, or business coach may be able to offer a useful perspective. You could also arrange a consultation with a retired executive with small business experience through your local SCORE chapter. Or join a local CEO peer group, in which owners of noncompetitive businesses meet monthly to discuss issues they're facing.

Perry Mehta, founder of FutureGroup, a Detroit information technology firm, continued to do the day-to-day management of his company himself even as it grew from $400,000 in sales and four employees five years ago to $7 million and 50 employees. Feeling overwhelmed, irritable, and exhausted, he called in a business coach in 2007. The problem was bigger than simple micromanagement—Mehta's strategy wasn't working well. He'd been accepting too many small projects for local municipalities and needed to concentrate on bigger ones. Mehta crafted a plan for where he wanted the company to be in five years—doing business with such federal agencies as the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—and how to begin to win more of that business. Since starting to implement his new strategy, revenues have increased and the company is more profitable.

To take some of the pressure off himself, Mehta has added three people to his executive team, including an operations manager and a proposals manager. But just as important, he now tracks performance metrics, such as quarterly and annual growth figures, that managers need to present at weekly, monthly, and annual meetings. Productivity has skyrocketed since introducing the system, according to Mehta. "I feel I have pretty decent control over [burnout]," he says. "I've learned from past mistakes."

Return to the BWSmallBiz August/September 2009 Table of Contents


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