In a study done by Indeed in March 2021, 52% of employees responded that they are dealing with burnout, a 9% increase from a similar study conducted prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. While there are no extensive studies on founder burnout, one survey by The Hustle shows that 63% of business owners are currently dealing or have dealt with burnout.
With continuously growing numbers like these, it’s fair to say that the risk of burning out is one of the major threats to entrepreneurs, and must be taken seriously by founders, investors, advisors, employees, and everyone else in the startup industry.
What is Burnout?
Let’s begin with some cold, hard facts, research, and definitions!
Burnout is a work-related condition that happens when a person has been under chronic, non-managed stress for a longer period of time, varying, of course, from person to person.
In 2019, the World Health Organization included burnout in their 11th revision of the international classification of diseases, not as a medical condition, but as an occupational phenomenon. Burnout only occurs because of work-related circumstances and cannot be used to describe challenges, phenomena and medical issues caused by conditions outside work.
WHO characterizes burnout by three dimensions:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- Increased mental distance from the job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to the job
- Reduced professional efficacy
How burnout affects the brain
While burnout is not defined as a medical condition, research shows that a non-managed burnout condition can have serious lasting consequences for both your social function and your brain function. According to psychological scientist at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, there’s evidence that burnout changes neural circuits in the brain, which can ultimately cause neurological dysfunction. In practice, burned out brains show signs of enlarged amygdala and changes in the connections between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, which, among other things, makes it harder for people who suffer from burnout to manage stress and control negative emotional responses.
Simply put, the brain changes as a result of burnout, potentially leaving you with a less sharp, creative, innovative and focused mind and difficulties managing stressful or difficult situations. As a result, people who experience burnout are at higher risk of serious mental conditions such as depression and anxiety.
With all that in mind, it’s clear that founders should focus their energy on not ever ending up there.
But as we all know, the road from thought to action can be long and paved with all sorts of good excuses, and shouldn’t founders be able to handle high levels of pressure and stress?
Founders are supposed to handle stressful situations, but not permanent, chronic states of stress. Not understanding the difference between the two and not working to strengthen your mental and physical health to handle those peak points is what can push you to eventually burn out.
The difference between burnout and stress
Stress and burnout are not the same. Stress is having too much. Too many tasks, too many working hours, too many responsibilities. Burnout is having too little. Too little energy, too little motivation, too little care for the work you do. While stress is often work-related, it can also be caused by situations in other life areas. On the other hand, burnout is always work-related. Burnout most likely will not affect your life outside work by much, at least not until it’s severe enough to cause other mental and emotional conditions.
So, are stress and burnout opposites? Not at all. The state of burnout follows a longer period of stress that over time has become chronic. So even if you don’t feel at risk of burning out, you might find yourself in a more or less permanent state of stress, and if so, you should pay careful attention and make some changes right away. To understand more, let’s look at the stages of burnout.
The 5 Stages of Burnout
According to Winona State University, there are 5 stages of burnout through which symptoms inhabit your thoughts, feelings and actions and become more and more visible and damaging.
The initial stages are often subtle and can be hard to notice, but when left unmanaged they can spiral you into the later stages that are difficult and time consuming to recover from.
Honeymoon Phase of Founder Burnout
Let’s look at the good stuff first.
You know that energy you feel when you get a new idea? You’re bubbling with excitement and motivation and can’t wait to get cracking on your new project, product, partnership or business idea. Right now, you feel invincible. You are on fire, and nothing can stop you. You can work for hours without noticing or getting tired. This is what’s called the honeymoon phase. You feel satisfied and happy, your creativity is flowing. You can keep going like this forever and there’s pretty much nothing you would rather be doing – nowhere you’d rather be.
Wouldn’t it be nice if it could stay like this forever? Sometimes it can, but most of the time honeymoon phases pass and are replaced with repetitiveness and demands - and before you know it, you have moved into the next phase.
The Balancing Phase of Founder Burnout
So, what happens when it’s not all fun and games anymore?
Sometimes you may feel fine doing the work. You’re still remembering the time when the relationship between you and your project was young and simple. On the good days you can get back to the motivation you felt back then. More and more though, you start feeling stressed. Like the project is just another thing on your already long to do list that you have to check off. Perhaps you’re frustrated with the tasks or with yourself because you don’t feel the pleasure and motivation anymore.
In the balancing phase, you start experiencing subtle symptoms of stress that grow and become more rapid over time. You may start to lose focus quicker, jumping between tasks or pacing back and forth between your seat and the coffee maker more times than usual. You start to forget things and can’t seem to keep your head in the game. Your flow breaks, and as a result you become less productive, more frustrated and work feels more like a boring chore than the passion project it was before.
Then you start to feel more tired, maybe you get headaches and have trouble unwinding, and you start to think thoughts like “this is what I signed up for. I need to show people that I have what it takes. I just have to suck it up and push through.” When you do go home to get some much needed rest, you have trouble turning off your thoughts and a hard time falling or staying asleep. As a result, your energy levels drop and because you need to spend the energy you do have on work, you start pulling away from activities and social connections that you usually enjoy spending your time on.
All of this doesn’t happen over night of course, instead it builds up over time and can seem like it snuck up on you. Now, if you catch yourself here, you can stop the stress ball from rolling, but if not, eventually you will move into a chronic state of stress.
Symptoms to be aware of in the balancing phase of burnout
- Increasing dissatisfaction
- Procrastinating and avoiding making decisions
- Using TV, food, smoking, drinking to escape from thoughts about work
- Fatigue and sleep disturbance
Chronic Stress Phase of Founder Burnout
In the chronic stress phase, the occasional and maybe even subtle symptoms of stress start to become more persistent. The pressure you put on yourself increases. As it builds up, you have a harder time managing your stress levels and it starts consistently affecting your work and mentality. Despite you working like there’s no tomorrow, you have a tough time completing tasks on time. You are procrastinating more and more, which leaves you in an evil spiral of always seemingly working, yet never feeling like you’re doing enough. You start to withdraw from people at the office and may even leave to work from somewhere else in an attempt to get back focus. You may have trouble controlling your temper, lashing out at the people around, and feeling increasingly angry.
While the symptoms of chronic stress visibly affect you, realizing what’s going on and doing something about it can be difficult. The apathetic behavior combined with the feeling of never doing enough will most likely push you to keep working, even though the quality of your work (and life) is going rapidly downhill. Continuing like this can eventually lead you into burnout.
Symptoms to be aware of in the chronic stress phase:
- Never having enough time to get things done
- Drinking more coffee (or caffeine) to get through the day
- Having trouble staying focused
- Needing “something” to calm you down at night (alcohol, TV, food, drugs etc.)
- Starting to miss deadlines, appointments and withdrawing from social connections on and off work
- Headaches, stomach aches and other physical symptoms
- Frantic behavior, constantly talking about work
- Denying or toning down the problem of being stressed
- Increasing feeling of anger, losing your temper
The Burnout Phase
You have reached your limit and are no longer able to function under the immense pressure. You are overwhelmed by the tasks and problems that continue to pile up and your work frustrations become an obsession, even when you’re not at work. If you didn’t already, you are probably starting to get headaches or stomach aches that become increasingly permanent, and you may have trouble eating. Mentally you’re experiencing heavy self-doubt and feelings of numbness towards yourself, your work and what’s going on around you. Your emotional responses and ability to manage your stress levels are shutting down. In a desperate attempt to keep going, you will probably convince yourself that you’re all right, that this is just a phase and that you must push through. But if you do, that’s when you’ll reach the final phase of burnout.
Symptoms to be aware of in the burnout phase:
- Physical symptoms like headaches and stomach aches increase and may become chronic
- Obsession about work frustrations
- High level of self-doubt, negativity, cynicism, and pessimism
- Distancing and not caring about work
- Desire to flee the situation or drop out of society and leave it all behind
- Actively removing yourself from social connections, both colleagues, friends, and family
- Neglecting personal needs
The Habitual Burnout Phase
Failing to act on these symptoms will eventually make the state of burnout a permanent part of your (work) life. You will feel mentally and physically drained to a point where you can no longer push it or keep going. You will start caring less and less about your work, distancing yourself from the things that just a short while ago you were obsessing about. As a result, you will either be less and less effective or completely loose the ability to do an honest hour of work. You’ll probably find yourself staring at your screen, but not being able to push a single key.
The state of habitual burnout can have severe consequences to your mental health outside work and lead to depression, anxiety, and other serious mental and emotional conditions. If not managed, your body and mind may shut down completely, leaving both your business and you at serious risk.
Symptoms to be aware of in the habitual burnout phase:
- Chronic fatigue and exhaustion
- Chronic physical pain
- Chronic emotional and mental issues
Most Common Symptoms Of Burnout To Look Out For
Physical symptoms of burnout:
- Fatigue and exhaustion
- Difficulties relaxing and sleeping
- Change in appetite
- Physical pains and feeling ill
Emotional symptoms of burnout:
- Lack of motivation
- Feeling self-doubt
- Feeling like a failure
- Feeling lonely
- Feeling generally dissatisfied
Behavioral symptoms of burnout:
- Social withdrawal and isolation
- Not performing
- Lack of ability to own up to responsibilities
- Anger, sadness and work-related outbursts
Causes of Founder Burnout
Okay, so we got the burnout stages and symptoms down. Now, let’s look at what causes them. We’ll start with some good old-fashioned generalizations.
Founders have a humongous number of tasks, they must live up to the expectations of investors, advisors, employees, boards, and themselves, and bear the responsibility of building and growing the company continuously. They must deal with customers, partners, and stakeholders, manage and take care of employees, while at the same time handling the risks of the company losing money, going into crises, or failing all together. With all this in mind there’s no doubt that the risk of burnout is higher among founders than other groups at large.
As a group, founders tend to value personal autonomy and being in control. They are always on duty and rarely get to put down work completely. Founders often prioritize work over many other things and are permanently in problem solving or “what’s next” mode.
They also operate in an environment of constant risk and uncertainty, often finding themselves in situations they can’t control. In addition, they have to build up the self-discipline to keep going, even when it feels like they’re robbed of the personal freedom that perhaps were one of the main factors that motivated them to become entrepreneurs in the first place.
For founders, work is life. Even when they are off work, it’s always taking up space in the back of their minds. In other words, when other people get to leave the occupational hazard, founders must stay behind, essentially gluing themselves to the environment causing the burnout.
Knowing the root causes that can lead to burnout is essential to prevent it from happening to you. And on that note, let’s go through the most common causes of founder burnout.
For anyone, a workload that’s too heavy for too long will cause stress than can lead to burnout. Balancing the workload on the sweet spot between having too little to do and too much to do can be tricky for many. But for founders, bringing down the number of tasks and responsibilities to attend to is the main struggle. No matter your passion, purpose, and motivation, you need time to unwind, rest, and recover. But for founders who have built their business from the ground up, most likely with very little help, letting go of being the CEO, CFO, CCO, CMO, CTO and customer service agent to restore balance during the day can feel like mission impossible.
Lack of control
As a founder, you are constantly moving in an uncertain environment. You rarely know exactly what will happen tomorrow, you must always be on top of multiple situations and possible scenarios. One day things are going well, while the next day a supplier deal falls through, a major customer churns, or an important investor backs out. Losing control and being in a state of constant uncertainty is a high-risk situation that can very easily cause stress and eventually burnout.
Mismatch between imagined and actual reality
If you’re like most founders – or most people, really – you have pictured the life you dream of living. You have seen yourself working from that beach somewhere, or entering the big, colorful office packed with the world’s most attractive talent, all working for you. You have imagined having complete autonomy of your own life, being the only one deciding what to do and when to do it, succeeding in building your life’s work, making that big exit, or building the life for yourself that you desire.
If you’re a first-time founder, you most likely did not have the slightest idea just how long the road to get there would be, and if you have done it before, you know that you never really know what awaits. Even the most realistic people can’t truly comprehend the blood, sweat and tears it takes, the ups and downs, doubts, and challenges they have to overcome on a weekly basis. Not until they are up to their necks in it.
Many founders work alone or in small teams for a long time. As such, they lack support, people to share everything with, to unload on and to celebrate with. Working alone means having all the responsibility, having to always self-motivate and self-discipline, and being the only one who keeps the boat not just afloat but moving forward, full steam ahead. Being alone and not having the help you need puts a lot of pressure on founders.
Poor selection of co-founder and employees
Even worse than actually being alone, is being alone, but surrounded by people. Having people in your business who turn out to not have the skills or capacities needed can take a toll on founders.
Bringing on the right people is essential for the success of your business, but equally essential for your success and well-being as a founder. No matter if we’re talking about co-founders or employees, a startup relies heavily on the team to move forward. As such, the people you bring onboard need to be able to step up, take responsibility, support, and challenge you in a way that demands of them the same level of passion, motivation, purpose, and work ethics that you have yourself.
Finding people you can count on, not just tomorrow but years down the line is tricky, and sometimes you’ll end up with people who just don’t have what it takes. They lack the skills, don’t understand the business, or have a hard time connecting to the company’s vision. At first, they may seem really motivated to be part of the journey, but when it comes down to it, they don't have the stamina to push through and create value for the company. This will bring immense frustration and an even heavier workload to the founder.
Lack of reward
When we talk about burnout, one thing that can push people down the wrong path is when effort and reward don’t align. Building a business is an investment. You invest your time, energy, effort and maybe a good chunk of your own cash. You probably also work for very little pay and know that you could get a much higher salary somewhere else. On top of that, there’s no one there to thank you or recognize you for all your hard work – you are in charge of rewarding yourself. Hopefully, over time, your investment will pay off in the form of a thriving business and a thriving you. But the startup business is a high-risk one. There’s no guarantee that it will work, and as we all know, most startups fail. Working for little reward can easily affect your motivation and make work feel unimportant or meaningless.
When you first start out, you get to define exactly what your company will be. You get to build the foundation of values that will be the guiding light moving forward, and you get to call the shots. But once the ball starts rolling, people will start meddling in your affairs. Investors will want a say in what you are building and how you run the business. A mismatch between your values and the values of other stakeholders can be a major cause of burnout and is something to be aware of before you take in someone else’s time and money.
Not prioritizing self-care
Although this is the last point on our list of causes for burnout, it is the most important one for sure. Not exercising, looking after your mental health, or attending to your emotional needs is a major reason for stress and burnout among founders and employees at large. There are many stories of burned-out founders, who had to hit rock bottom before taking their own physical and mental health seriously. They burn 80-100+ hours of work every week for such a long time that their bodies and minds eventually set out, forcing them to change behavior. And you can be sure that from then on out they put self-care on the top of their list of things to do daily, because they know that not doing so can very easily kill their business.
How to Recover From Burnout
Good news is you can recover from burnout. Bad news is the longer you wait to do something about it, the more difficult it will be to recover. Burnout is a sign that you have found yourself in a tough work situation for far too long, and being a founder, and therefore your own boss, you are the only one who can change that. Recovering from burnout requires acceptance of the severity of the situation, understanding the underlying causes and creating lasting lifestyle changes.
Because burnout is a work-related condition, the single best thing you can do to start recovering is to remove yourself from your job – at least for a while. Unfortunately, once you are biting the grass, a short break won’t cut it. What your brain really needs is a long break away from the workplace that’s causing your mind and body distress. If you’re not in a position to take a (long) break, there are still things you can do, but if at all possible, pull the plug for a while.
The first thing you have to do, if you suffer from burnout, is accept it. Accepting that your symptoms and state of mind are not just a temporary thing and that your condition is serious is crucial to your recovery process. You are way past a state of being “just” overworked and stressed out. Instead, you must acknowledge that you are dealing with the result of continuously exceeding your own limits.
To recover fully and create a work life that doesn’t spiral you right back into chronic stress and burnout, you must understand what went wrong. This means taking a long hard look in the mirror and figuring out what caused you to end up here. Even if many of the causes were out of your control and you feel like you couldn’t have done much differently, try to take an honest look at the events leading up to this point and map out what happened along with what was within your control and what was not.
As we wrote in the beginning, research shows that burnout can lead to changes in your brain, which, among other things, result in you not being able to talk yourself down from stressful situations - a skill very much needed for founders. So, to get better you need to reprogram your brain and get it back on track.
Use the break you’ve taken and the work you did to understand the causes of your burnout to make lasting changes to your daily work and life.
There are (probably) several changes to make in your daily life and routines. First of all, get your sleeping habits back on a healthy track. Sleep is the single most important thing for your brain to recover, so working towards getting 7-8 hours every night is crucial.
Once your sleep improves, you will start noticing changes in your energy levels. Use that energy to start implementing new, healthy habits like regular exercise, meditation, eating healthy, and spending more time with your family and friends.
Step by step you will start recognizing yourself again. When that happens, keep moving in the right direction. It is very easy to fall right back into the old drill of working too many hours and starting to make excuses for not prioritizing the things that keep you healthy and sane. But if you do, sooner or later you’ll be right back where you started. And the more times that happens, the more lasting the damages will be.
Your well-being should be part of your job – not something you do on the side when you have time. Put it in your schedule and make it part of your daily routine. If you are not ok, your business will not be either.
How long does it take to recover from burnout?
Research shows that it takes somewhere between 12-15 weeks before the results of your new habits start showing in your brain. That, however, is not the same as being fully recovered. Depending on how well you work with managing your stress levels, calming your nervous system, and prioritizing your well-being it can take anywhere from a year to several years before you fully recover from severe, habitual burnout. All the more reason to make sure you do not end up there in the first place. Instead of recovering from burnout, founders should take their physical and mental health seriously from the very beginning of their startup journey to prevent chronic stress and burnout all together.
How to Prevent Founder Burnout
“It is only by doing less that we can accomplish more”Dr. Greg Wells
To solve problems, be creative, come up with new ideas, and be productive and efficient in your startup, your brain needs time off. You must have the ability to relax your mind. If you can’t do this consistently, you can’t perform and certainly not on the level of an ambitious startup founder.
You may already know of some unhealthy or inexpedient patterns in the way you work. These are the patterns you need to break and change to prevent burnout.
Let’s look at an example:
The piles of work on your desk are getting bigger and you are feeling increasingly overwhelmed and stressed out. To deal with the workload, you decide that you need to work more. Longer hours, more days. You start deprioritizing things such as rest, sleep, and social life to make room for work. As a result, you begin to have trouble focusing, struggle to get things done and feel increasingly stressed.
There’s a clear pattern here. When work is a lot, you push yourself harder. But instead of getting more work done, you feel more overwhelmed, more stressed out, and become less effective. Doing more is not the solution. Instead you should spend more time implementing things that are healthy for your body and mind. This will make room to do what’s right for your business. Let’s have a look at some of the most important things you can do to prevent burnout as a founder:
Have a clear purpose
In entrepreneurship, times are sometimes tough. You’ll go through low points and crises that will demand a lot of you personally and as a business owner, and sometimes it probably won’t feel worth it. In these times it is important to know why you set out on this crazy trip to begin with. If you want to help yourself through hard times, make sure your purpose is crystal clear and easy to find. You can create a vision board, have your purpose or ultimate dream written on a big sign in the office, or put a reminder in your phone that pops up every day. Whatever works for you.
Daily motivation and rewards
Spend some time figuring out exactly what motivates you, and make sure to implement that in your workday. Whether it be specific tasks you enjoy doing, attending social events, or something else entirely, go ahead and put it on your to do list. And remember to reward yourself. For the big wins of course, but for the small ones as well. As a founder, most of the time you will feel like you should be doing more and that there’s no time to celebrate. But rewards are a huge part of staying motivated, and since you are in charge, you must be the one to give yourself a treat for a job well done. Think about what kinds of rewards could give you an extra motivation boost, big and small, and set up a system for yourself to make sure you get them.
Make physical activity and mental training a part of your daily routine
We’ll say it one more time. Exercising your body and your mind is crucial for your well-being. We may even go as far as to say it is the most important task you have as a founder. Choose one or two activities for both mental- and physical exercise and implement them in your daily routine. Whether it be meditating and hitting the gym every morning, or playing soccer a couple of times per week, doing breathwork and spending time in nature is up to you. The important thing is you find something you like and stick to it, even when tasks pile up.
Schedule your days
Sounds a bit blah, we know. But when you have to manage and take care of yourself and your business, planning is a must. Good news is you get to decide what your schedule looks like. The only rule is you have to make space for those well-being habits.
A good way of planning your day-to-day schedule to include work, rest, healthy habits, social events and a good night’s sleep, is to timebox. Timeboxing simply means to choose when you work, when you rest, when you exercise, meditate and when you are off work. Once you’ve boxed your plans into your schedule, stick to it. This may sound like a no-brainer, but we all know it’s not. When work gets more demanding, throw some of that self-discipline towards keeping your new healthy habits on track.
Your schedule should leave plenty of time to sleep. Sleep is the single most important thing you can do to take care of your brain. To optimize your brain function, your productivity, creativity, energy levels, motivation and all the other good stuff you need to be the best founder you can be, you have to sleep. Research and health authorities recommend a minimum of 7 hours of sleep every night for adults - that goes for you too.
Eat right and care about your eating habits
Nutrition matters, and if you’re striving to be a high performing startup founder, it’s essential.
Make sure to eat balanced, healthy meals every day that keeps your blood sugar levels stable and find and implement eating habits that work for you. For most this means three meals a day, but for some it may mean something else. Many high performers experiment with special ways of eating, like fasting. You can try out different things to see what works best for you or get in touch with a dietitian to explore how you can optimize your eating habits to support your health, well-being and lifestyle in general.
Hire people, hire right
Your budget may not cover hiring a team of people to help you out, but if it’s possible, make sure to bring people in to do the tasks that drain you or that you don’t have the skills to do. If needed, start by hiring consultants or freelancers to test out what areas you need help with the most. Once you start hiring, make sure to put in the effort finding people who are skilled, talented and first and foremost, motivated. Getting the wrong people on board your startup can be a direct path to a stressful work environment for both you and them, so investing the time and money it takes to do it right is worth every cent.
Looking for more information on how to hire right, our course Hiring for skills will kill your startup spills the tea.
Take a vacation
Last, but not least, make room for longer breaks during the year. As a founder, you may consider vacation a luxury you can’t afford. But what you really can’t afford is pushing your limits until you break. Everyone needs time off work to rest and recharge. That includes founders too.
If you’re still with us, we applaud you for sticking out our burnout tour de force. Unfortunately, as we all know, reading a really long article won’t magically fix anything. Whether you are burned out, stressed out or just don’t want to be either, you have to do the work. We just hope this course has given you the insights you need to start.