Entrepreneurs are renowned for their drive and determination to see things through against all the odds, but the pressure that results can be relentless and lead to physical and mental burnout.
The early days of starting are particularly stressful, when working out a business strategy, raising funds, and trying to hit targets can be nerve wracking. It’s an experience that Virgin Group founder Richard Branson remembers only too well from the days when he was building his global brand.
“I can’t count the number of stressful situations I’ve found myself in since I launched my first business over 50 year ago,” he says. “Stress and business go hand-in-hand, and that’s not a bad thing; high pressure situations can certainly be motivating, but too much pressure can be emotionally and physically damaging.”
He has always found the best way to manage stress is to strike a good work life balance and to look after his health. He starts his day with exercise every morning and strives to eat healthily even when he’s traveling.
“I’ve definitely got better at treating my body better through diet and exercise as I’ve got older, and I feel the benefits every day,” he says. “Having fun is also really important; you’re far more likely to succeed and do a good job if you’re enjoying yourself.”
Eight years into her entrepreneurial journey Jenny Griffiths, founder of Snap Fashion, says avoiding burnout is what she still struggles with the most. But she has found ways of tackling it, for example, through music. She plays piano and cello to chill out and has taken up drumming, which switches her brain to a completely different context.
“I also try to avoid stress in other areas of my life,” she says. “For example, I’m a massive introvert and so I’ve accepted that I’m going to see people less than they’d like as that’s what’s best for me. If recharging means having some alone time, there’s nothing wrong with it.”
Learning to say no and turning down opportunities are also key to keeping burnout at bay. “If they are things that don’t bring me joy, aren’t of any personal interest and aren’t useful to my business I’ll say no,” says Griffiths. “There’s going to be plenty of time to give back in the future.”
Chris Kelly launched his career coaching business With Chris Kelly almost a year ago and admits that the ensuing steep learning curve and challenges put him under enormous pressure. “When you’re in that start up phase and it’s your business you’ll naturally work around the clock and the weekends to try to reach that next goal, whatever it may be,” he says.
He has discovered ways of easing the pressures, and one of them is to mix up his work environment. “Working from home all day, every day, can be tough, so I’ll also work from a coffee shop, the spa reception area or from co-working environments,” he says. “We all get energy from different kinds of places, and your needs may be different from day to day.”
Having a good support network, made up of people who can empathize and provide a sounding board or just an ear for vented frustrations, without making judgments, is also of huge value.
“Usually it’s other entrepreneurs who ‘get you’ and understand the challenges, but it could be others. A problem shared is a problem halved,” says Kelly.
Building a strong and sustainable management structure can help reduce the risk of burnout; when the business is experiencing challenging times the pressure doesn’t all fall to one person.
“Companies used to be largely personality-led, with one person carrying the weight of the business,” says David Fort, managing director at accountancy firm Haines Watts, Manchester. “But this is a restrictive approach that can lead to personal stress and burnout.”
Entrepreneurs and startup founders should plan their management structure and ensure that it’s solid from the start. “This not only makes the business more dynamic, but also helps to attract talent of a higher standard,” adds Fort.
As Richard Branson pointed out, a good work life balance can help to offset the physical and mental challenges of starting and running a business. However Angelica Malin, founder of About Time Magazine and the About Time Academy, believes that the focus should be on work-life harmony and integration.
She says: “We put a lot of stress and pressure on ourselves to try and balance apparently ‘competing priorities’, but if you need to work longer and harder because you are starting your own business, it’s best to relax the rules of how and when you work.”
Malin gives herself one day a week to work in whatever manner that she feels like on that day. “If that’s being on my sofa, wrapped up in a duvet, that’s ok,” she says. “The important thing is to be kinder to yourself when it comes to the way you work.”
It’s also important to be aware of the signs of stress and potential burn out, such as physical and mental fatigue, anxiety dreams, and broken sleep patterns, and to address them quickly.
According to speaker and business coach Dexter Moscow, the solution lies in simple meditation and visualization. “Before you go to sleep at night use Headspace or a similar app to relax you and clear your mind,” he says. “In the morning before you are fully awake, with your eyes closed, take three deep breaths and visualize your day, the challenging issues or people you are going to face and visualize a positive outcome.”
In essence, he says, you are mental preparing for these encounters and actually practicing what you will be doing and saying. It’s a technique used to great effect by many athletes and sports people and there is evidence to support the beneficial impact.
He also cites Dale Carnegie’s book ‘How to Stop Worrying and Start Living’, which advocates putting worries in ‘day tight compartments’. In it he writes, ‘If you want to avoid worry, do what Sir William Osler did, don’t stew about the futures, just live each day until bedtime’.
“In these uncertain times,” says Moscow. “the only thing we can control is our attitude and how we react to our situation.”