Have you ever experienced a drop in your mood, performance, and sense of oomph? A time when you felt that you didn’t have your usual energy or zest for life?

Burnout isn’t something that happens to the weak and whiny – it can creep up on anyone at anytime. There’s a common misconception that someone suffering from burnout might be mentally weak, and that’s simply not true.

Given that anyone can find themselves dealing with burnout- if not you, then it’s likely someone whom you live with or work with. It’s a good idea to learn how you can help to prevent it, and recover from it:

Get our tips for recovering from burnout here

What is burnout?

Often the real threats to your business aren’t competitors or market volatility, but what lives inside your head or the heads of your team.

Burnout is defined as a chronic state of stress, which leads to an inability to function successfully on a professional and personal level. Someone who has been hit by burnout may feel a range of physical and mental symptoms, usually beginning with an overwhelming sense of exhaustion.

Bianchi et. al describe burnout like this:

“Burnout has been defined as a combination of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment caused by chronic work stress. This constellation of symptoms involves overwhelming fatigue and loss of motivation, a cynical view of one’s job, and a sense of ineffectiveness and failure.”

What’s the difference between burnout and depression?

Burnout and depression are not the same thing. While some of the symptoms may be similar, depression is a clinical condition which includes lower lows, and tends to impact every area of your life. (I wrote about founder depression here).

Burnout is usually specific to work-related causes, whereas depression is usually more generalized.

Both conditions can successfully be treated and can occur together.

I always recommend that you seek specific professional consultation when you feel like you aren’t yourself. The details of your unique situation determine the best plan for you. Most of us (myself included!) are too close to our own lives and we need external feedback to be able to ensure that you have the best care plan for yourself.

Burnout can strike anyone at anytime, even when things seem to be going well Click To Tweet

How to recognize burnout

As a founder, it’s important to recognize burnout, not only in yourself, but potentially in the team members around you. It’s often not an easy thing to have a conversation with someone, but making resources available to help burned out team members can be a good strategy.

While the term “burnout” is often used by people who have simply had a trying day, there is more to true burnout than that.

Here’s what you might see in yourself or team members that can indicate burnout:

  • Physical and emotional exhaustion. The 10th edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) describes burnout as a “state of vital exhaustion,” which is a great description of how encompassing it can be. In some people, this may manifest as physical symptoms due to their immune system being low, for example a persistent cough that lingers for weeks.
  • Cynicism and detachment. You might lack your usual enthusiasm or find it hard to care about things which you’d usually be vitally interested in.
  • Ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. You just don’t feel like you’re achieving at levels where you usually do. Perhaps you’re plodding along, basically just clocking in and out each day but not really making progress. Perhaps you’re killing it, but you don’t feel like it.

Burnout is toxic to both creativity and productivity. You might notice that you seem to be stuck in a rut, or perhaps, despite devoting the time to it, you’re not finding satisfactory answers to problems as you would usually. Sometimes you really feel like your brain is just drained, the tank is empty and you have nothing new to offer.

Beyond the impacts on your professional and personal lives, researchers have found that burnout also leaves its mark on our brains, leading to distinctive changes. In fact, we can change the structure and chemistry of our brains, overwhelming cognitive skills and neuroendocrine systems. Your amygdala, the brain’s alarm system, can become overactive, leading to further impairments.

Prevent burnout

Tips for preventing burnout

I like to look at preventing burnout as involving the inverse of the recipe that causes it. It’s important to note that burnout might not mean that a person has been working long hours, it can strike for other reasons too.

Here is a recipe for burnout – the particular ingredients may vary for individuals:

  • Not enough social support
  • No clear or meaningful goals
  • Too much work
  • Few observable or rewarded successes
  • Limited control over work
  • A mismatch between what we think is important and the demands of our work day.

Here are some steps for preventing burnout:

Fight isolation

Fighting isolation is one of the first solid steps toward preventing burnout. Human beings need meaningful connections, as has been borne out consistently in studies. Carnegie Mellon University’s Brooke Feeney and University of California, Santa Barbara’s Nancy L. Collins published a study showing that close relationships are vital to helping people thrive:

“Relationships enable us to not only cope with stress or adversity, but also to learn, grow, explore, achieve goals, cultivate new talents and find purpose and meaning in life,” said Feeney.

These relationships may be within or outside of work, and it’s important to consider how these might be developed. For example, do you work from home? Is your team largely distributed? This situation can create unique challenges to connection with others, but you can still find ways to fight the isolation.

Respect time and the need to focus

Disruptions are frequent in our modern workplace. Someone pings you on Slack and you take a minute just to check or respond, but in reality, it’s not a minor distraction at all. Disruptions to our work can create a mind-fatigue that contributes to burnout. Research has shown that when interrupted, it costs considerable time and mental load to get back to what you were doing.

A strategy to combat this can be found with Cal Newport’s Deep Work. This provides you with a strategy for focusing without distractions when working on cognitively demanding tasks. Of course you need a quiet place and to communicate that you need to work without interruptions. As a founder, this is important for you to take – make yourself unavailable sometimes! It’s also a good idea to be tolerant of this as a strategy for your team members. This just might be how they get their best work done.

Manage your workload

Everyone needs to have boundaries set around what is feasible for them to get done. Talk to any employee and you’ll often hear horror stories of times when they had more and more work piled on them, and felt powerless to do anything about it. (You probably have these stories yourself!)

Within your workplace, you can help by developing a culture where it’s okay to say “no, I won’t be able to do that,” “I can get to that later,” or “please help me to get this task done.” You’ve got to set these boundaries for yourself too – it might seem like a good opportunity to add that extra speaking gig next month, but will you be stretched to fit it in?

Prevent burnout

Control what you can

There’s another factor that can impact the person who gets more things piled on them all the time – a sense of not being in control of their own work. Having more control over work, including meaningful choices about projects, scheduling and areas of growth can produce happier team members and of course, a happier founder too!

It makes total sense really – have you ever been happy when you feel that things are out of control? When it comes to burnout, having meaningful choices means that people can take their own physical and mental health into consideration when deciding their path.

Articulate clear goals

Let’s take a moment to talk about goals. We’re not talking about feedback metrics which you use to measure progress over time, but clearly identifiable, accomplishable tasks that set a pathway for achievement.

Having big goals is fine, but chunking them down into smaller, more quickly achievable goals can help to deliver a sense of accomplishment sooner and more often, helping to keep you (or team members) enthused. We need those observable successes to motivate us forward.

Celebrate success

Celebrating success plays an important role in helping to keep us engaged with our work and avoiding burnout. When we celebrate, we release endorphins, helping us to feel good and changing our physiology. In teams, it can also help with bonding.

Your celebrations don’t have to be huge, just do something to acknowledge your accomplishments. A person I know had a great system – he wrote the goals he needed to accomplish individually on sticky notes, then attached each sticky note to a bottle of wine. Once the goal was achieved, the bottle of wine was there to celebrate with!

Stay connected to meaning

We need to avoid that mismatch between what we think is important, and the reality of the demands of our work day. This means we need to stay connected to meaning – how does what you do make life matter?

Some people refer to this as your “big why”, the overarching reason for why you do what you do. A study conducted by The Energy Project found that deriving meaning from our work tends to trump other benefits, such as growth opportunities. Among employees, those who derived meaning were more than three times as likely to stay with a company than those who didn’t.

This makes absolute sense for founders too – how engaged do you really feel with something that you’re not deriving meaning from? Try to keep your overarching “why” in sight.

You can recover from burnout – get our strategies here

Final thoughts

You can have the best job on earth, but even that will begin to lose its shine if you lose yourself. Burnout can strike at any time, even if your results are amazing and everything from the outside looking in appears to be going great.

As a founder, it’s important to take the time for self-care and to check in every now and then with how you are feeling. Know the potential “recipe” for burnout, and be on the lookout for signs among your team or people around you too.

Importantly, if you’re experiencing symptoms, recognize that it’s okay to take time out to look after yourself. Talk to a medical professional and determine a plan to help you get through.