Are you on your way to burnout? Here's how to recognise the symptoms and avoid business burnout before it's too late.

Running your own business can be such hard work and the stress you can feel from having so much responsibility rest on our shoulders can be quite overwhelming. As a business owner myself, I have experienced burnout and I have seen so many people around me experience the same thing. I hope that this post sheds some light on the subject so that you can take charge of your business, instead of it taking charge of you.

The Difference Between Stress and Burnout

A healthy level of stress can allow you to work efficiently but if you are experiencing one or more of the following symptoms, it’s time to make some changes!

  1. Exhaustion: Physically and emotionally. Ok, so we’ve all been exhausted from time to time. Maybe when the kids or neighbours keep you up all night and you have a deadline the next day. But if you are living with exhaustion and feeling drained and depleted every day, then this is a sign of burnout.
  2. Insomnia: As business owners, it is SO hard to switch off. So much responsibility rests on our shoulders. There is the worry about when the next paycheck is coming through. Worry about the deadline. Worry that you’re worrying. Worried that you can’t sleep and OMG I have 2 hours until I wake up – tomorrow will be a disaster!
  3. This leads me to the next tell take sign – Anxiety. When you are feeling anxious it can be hard to control your thoughts and you may experience physical symptoms such as a racing heart, shallow breathing, even panic attacks. When you run on adrenaline for long periods of time, your body may have trouble switching out of “fight or flight” mode. This is damaging for our bodies and can result in serious illnesses.
  4. Forgetfulness: feeling scattered and finding it hard to concentrate because you’re in overwhelm. TOO MUCH TO DO AND REMEMBER GOD DAMN IT. Am I right? I have so many stories of doing the most stupid stuff because my mind is thinking about 100 things I need to do and not at all in the present moment. Such as trying to get into my apartment with my bus pass instead of a key pass, or driving back to my old apartment after I had moved…. 6 months earlier! According to Naturopath, Sarah Valastro, this happens because high levels of the stress hormone cortisol affects the brain’s ability to encode information and retrieve it from the hippocampus. This part of the brain is super sensitive to high cortisol levels and as a result, long-term stress can cause loss of memory.

Ok so you’re getting my drift, but the list does go on – depression, easily losing your temper at those around you and feeling you are losing your sense of self.

Anything sounding familiar?

My Burnout Story

When my mother was terminally ill I was trying to do my best to look after her and somehow keep my business afloat. In that period of time, my adrenals were in complete overdrive and exhaustion from being on constant alert. However, once my mother had passed and I got back into my routine, even months later I just couldn’t physically get my body to receive the message that I was ok now and it was safe to relax. I was also taking on too much. Maybe it was a way to distract me from the grief but I was so busy. On top of running my own business, I decided to study and take a part-time job teaching yoga.

I guess if I stopped, I would have had to look at things I didn’t want to look at.

I didn’t know any other way to be other than busy!

But it gets to a point where you just know, that if you don’t do something to manage your stress that you will end up getting drastically ill and end up wasting this amazing life you were given! Who would run your business then?

I decided to take action. These were the steps that I took to lead me to a much healthier and happier place. See if anything resonates with you and give it a try. Everyone responds differently, so what works for some, doesn't work for others. But if you can at least put one of these steps into practice, you'll be on your way to much better health, or learning to avoid business burnout.

1) I Made My Health My Priority

The Merry Maker Sisters, Emma and Carla, put it perfectly in their podcast interview with WP Elevation. Gin asked them for their advice on dealing with the stresses of everyday life. Do yourself a favour and tune into the 34-minute mark of this podcast. This is where Emma asks “What helps you get rid of your stress? Do more of it! If you don’t have that one thing, then go and find it!” Carla says that we all think we don’t have time to do the things we love, but actually, it is all about what you value or prioritise. Can you say “It’s not a priority for me to be healthy?”

Until you make yourself the priority, then nothing will change.

Have you heard of the Cup Theory? Your “cup” is your energy and happiness. If your cup is full, you are able to then help fill other’s cups and you have enough energy to give to your work.

avoid business burnout

By way of example, here are two things of that happened to me last week. See if you can relate to the anxiety level, inaction or stiff neck!

  • On one day I had so much to do that I went into complete overwhelm. I couldn’t concentrate on just one task and I was so anxious that I don’t even know if  I got anything done. It was a waste of day spent stressing about how much I had to do.
  • A few days later I had even MORE to do. I was moving house, plus two deadlines, plus teaching two yoga classes in the afternoon which I hadn’t planned. I woke up with a stiff neck and a headache and I thought about everything I needed to do and I wanted to cry. I knew it was time to recalibrate (finally getting the message!) I thought “Screw everything! Nothing is worth me feeling like THIS!” So, the first thing I did was go and get a massage. It was amazing. As I relaxed in the massage, ideas for structuring the yoga class came to me. So that was sorted. Then I got home feeling so peaceful that I got into a zone and made my deadlines.

And that, my good people, is how you make yourself a priority!

2) I Learned to Say No

Making yourself the priority means that when you hear yourself say “I should…” or “I have to…” you realise that you don’t have to do anything you don’t want! Step away from the drainers in your life. Stop giving to everyone else when you are feeling depleted and give back to YOU!

Mark Manson, internationally celebrated author of New York Times bestseller The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck says that in order to live a better life, we need to be ok with being different and not always liked. Not giving a f*ck can be quite freeing! Save your f*cks for the important things otherwise, we waste so much of our precious time and headspace on stuff that doesn’t matter in the bigger picture of your life.

avoid business burnout

3) I Figured out How to Do Something Every Day to Fill My Cup

Every day I do something for me. It’s part of my commitment. I meditate, I do yoga, I write in my journal with a coffee, or I go for a run or walk in nature. At first, it was really hard to fit those things in because I was depleted and all I wanted to do was sleep. So I had to gradually build these things up and find times that suited me until it was a routine. There are so many ways that you can fit something into your day,  no matter how busy you are.

Try meditating before you go to sleep or waking up half an hour earlier to go for a bike ride. Whatever it is, it needs to be something that allows you to nurture yourself and show some self-care.

4) I Meditate

I know what you're thinking – “Blergh”. But just hear me out!

Psychologist and Mindfulness Meditation Mentor, John Barter, has helped many people who experience burnout. He says that an increasing body of evidence-based research from Brain Science and Psychology – Neuro Psychology, shows that we can train our brain to be both resistant and resilient to stress. 

He also says that as we exercise and develop our brain and mind through mindful meditation, we both increase our brain’s ‘neuroplasticity’ while also strengthening and increasing neural connections in the left prefrontal cortex. This means that we are less overcome by the primal stress responses of ‘flight or fight’ from the amygdala. We are therefore more able to be immune to other people’s stress as well. Double the benefits!

avoid business burnout

So how do we meditate? 

John uses the technique of switching off the mind through being completely in the moment, focusing on the breath and being the observer of our feelings rather than getting attached to the thoughts that surround it.

Sarah Wilson, famous for her “I Quit Sugar” program, struggled with anxiety for years and wrote about it in her book First We Make the Beast Beautiful. She says that when you’re an anxious type, meditation is non-negotiable. She found it difficult to meditate when she first started out, but she writes in her book “You can be crap at meditation and it still works. The mere intention to sit with yourself is an act of self-care as far as our brains are concerned, which voila, triggers the comfort system. And you know what? Even knowing it’s okay to be crap at meditation is comforting.”

Download an App!

There are some great free podcasts and apps which you can use to help you. Try these ones on for size:

There are so many free resources, so find one that works for you.

5) I Began a Regular Practice of Yoga

I had done yoga here and there over the years, but I didn’t actually understand the powerful benefits of yoga until I did a yoga retreat. Then, I was addicted! Carra Bolard runs yoga retreats for women experiencing burn out. She says that sometimes we need a “health intervention” as it can be hard to break habits in our everyday life when we are surrounded by bad foods, alcohol, family and of course WORK!  She explains that for us busy types, we can find our balance through a slower type of yoga.

Of course, you need money and processes in place for your business to run without you, but if you can take a week out to totally switch off and understand yoga and how it can benefit your body and mind, a retreat is really one of the best things you can do!

6) I Saw a Naturopath

We all know that when we are stressed, we tend to get sick. Sometimes, unfortunately like myself, I formed an autoimmune disease as a result of my stress – fibromyalgia. If you haven’t heard of it, it is like chronic fatigue with an aching body. So, I saw a naturopath who assisted me to cure my illness through diet and supplements.

So let’s get some advice from a profesh! Sarah Valastro, a naturopath at Beautifulme,  sees many people experiencing burnout. She says that “stress is the root cause of many modern day illnesses including weight gain.”

She explains it like this: cortisol is a very important hormone that stimulates fat and carbohydrate metabolism in order to release a quick supply of energy in the ‘fight or flight' response. This is great in short bursts like trying to meet a deadline (or running from a bear!) However, being in a constant state of stress creates high cortisol levels which can result in:

  • Feeling the need to eat more and you start storing fat particularly around your stomach region.
  • High levels of inflammation in the body which contribute to ageing and many illnesses.
  • Blood moves away from our gut and into our limbs for action and causes digestive issues as a result. Can you believe that 70% of your serotonin is made in your gut!! So, whatever is happening in our gut is also going to affect your mood and stress levels.
  • It affects our sleep, hormones, immune system and of course memory.

She says that stress also depletes us of B vitamins and magnesium. It’s important to ensure these levels are replenished by eating foods high in these nutrients, and in highly stressed situations supplements are recommended. Foods rich in Vitamin Bs include beef, brewer’s yeast, miso and wheat germ.

Magnesium food sources include pumpkin, sesame and sunflower seeds, whole grains such as quinoa, green leafy vegetables such as spinach, and cacao. If you are experiencing muscle pain, headaches or muscle cramps, a supplement can really help – but be sure to consult a professional before doing this.

It’s also important to ensure your vitamin C intake is high during times of stress as this potent antioxidant helps to protect the immune system from the damage caused by stress.

7) I Cut down on Alcohol and Caffeine

How amazing is it to open a bottle of wine/ beer after a hard day. Ahhh… I feel less stressed just thinking about it. Uh-oh. That’s a problemo… Sarah also says that we often use alcohol to help manage our anxiety levels. The irony is that the more we drink, the more stress it causes us when we are not under the influence. Yep, it also depletes us further of B vitamins and magnesium and compromises our gut health.

Caffeine causes our hearts to race, therefore, if you are an anxious person, caffeine negatively affects our adrenals and causes us to feel more anxious and exhausted. If this is you, start to wean yourself off and see if it makes any difference to your stress levels. But you know – everything in balance!

8) I Saw a Psychologist

Ok, this is a no-brainer. I just don’t understand why people think that it is weak to get help. It’s actually the opposite! You’re being brave enough to say there is something wrong and face it head-on. You get to dump your crap onto someone for an hour which lightens the load and they will help give you coping skills and understand the bigger picture. One tip though- keep shopping around until you find a psychologist who you actually look forward to seeing – one that “gets” you.

Don’t be that person that brings everyone down with their negativity! Or even be that person that gets that liiiiitle bit too drunk and social gatherings and gets cringey. Let it out with someone you’re paying not to be judgemental!  Your loved ones will thank you for it!

9) I Get as Much Sleep as Possible

Sarah Wilson did a sleep retreat at Gwinganna in Queensland and learnt how cell damage is repaired during sleep, but only once our bodies have attended to detoxing the crap we’ve put in it during the day. She says “Get at least 7-8 hours sleep so that the cell repair cycle has time to do its thing.”

If you have trouble sleeping, do the next best thing and meditate. This way you are still repairing your cells and switching out of your sympathetic nervous system (our fight or flight mode), knowing that you are still looking after yourself and going to feel fine the next day. The thing is, I find that as soon as I let go of this urgent need to sleep, I fall back SO much quicker.

10) Manage Your Workload

This is an important one for all of us business owners and freelancers. Firstly, figure out the reason why you are taking on too much work. Is it because you don’t know any other way to be except busy? What actually happens when you have time to be still and sit with yourself?

Perhaps it is because you have financial concerns. We need to make money! And what if I say no to this client and I have no clients next month? Taking time to sort out your finances is imperative. Remember that knowledge is power and once you have a financial plan in place, you will be able to feel more secure and perhaps be able to say no to clients when things are getting too much.

It isn’t as hard as you think to get your finances sorted. It just needs a little of your attention.

For some helpful business financial tips check out these WPE blogs:

Another option is to bring on extra staff, or maybe even a business partner – but you need to be ok with giving some control over to someone else. I know, your business is your baby and no one can look after it like you can, but trying to always control situations and outcomes can be EXHAUSTING!

Loosen the reigns a little and put your focus on enjoying life a bit more!

That’s All Folks!

So there you have it… this was my journey, but yours is different. I did things gradually and slowly and tried and tested things, read a lot of books and talked to experts. If you take anything from this post, I really hope it is the first step of committing to make your health a priority over everything else. Don’t let your wake-up call be burnout, or worse still, a serious illness. There’s no time like the present! Let me know in the comments what works for you, I'd love to hear your take on this.

Madeleine Keogh had been working in the corporate world of Marketing and Business Development for 7 years until she made the leap of faith to move to the ocean and start her own business – Your Marketing Solutions. Madeleine thrives on creating content and helping motivated business owners propel their business. Outside of work, she loves the beach and teaching yoga.