In a world where time is money, working professionals are more stressed out today than ever before. This phenomenon disproportionately affects entrepreneurs. While 7% of the general population experiences depression and some level of burnout, an overwhelming 50% of entrepreneurs report feelings of burnout. In recent years, many have used the term burnout to describe feelings of emotional exhaustion in the business world and academia. However, what does burnout really mean and why are entrepreneurs susceptible to this problem?

What is burnout?

An entrepreneur juggling their responsibilities.

Coined in 1974 by Herbert Freudenberger, burnout refers to “a depletion or exhaustion of a person’s physical or mental resources attributed to his or her prolonged, yet unsuccessful striving toward unrealistic expectations, internally or externally derived.” There are two main types of burnout: circumstantial and existential. The former is the result of challenges in the workplace, neglecting one’s personal life, not taking time off work. On the other hand, individuals with existential burnout struggle with a loss of meaning in their job, deteriorating relationships with colleagues and clients, and a lack of self-worth.

Why does burnout affect such a large number of entrepreneurs? Entrepreneurs often lack concrete safety nets and deal with high levels of uncertainty. Indeed, a common saying in Silicon Valley is that 90% of startups fail within the first two years. Furthermore, entrepreneurs can be obsessive and have a hard time separating themselves from their work, often conflating their failures with their self-worth.

In 2018, Harvard Business Review surveyed 326 entrepreneurs to determine their level of burnout. The survey measured participants’ job passion, job fit, beliefs surrounding work, and their level of burnout. The survey measured two types of passion: harmonious and obsessive. Individuals driven by harmonious passion work hard because their job brings them satisfaction. On the other hand, people motivated by obsessive passion work hard because they are worried about social acceptance, money, and status.

The link between passion and burnout

 Researchers observed a strong relationship between job passion and burnout.  Entrepreneurs who experienced high levels of harmonious passion reported being more focused and absorbed by their work, yet also likely to take breaks. Conversely,  obsessively passionate founders reported difficulty focusing because they were often preoccupied with the responsibilities they neglected in their dogged pursuit of money and social status.

Combatting burnout

Burnout is a major threat to the health of entrepreneurs and other working professionals. In addition to stress and emotional exhaustion, individuals suffering from burnout are more susceptible to illness and at a greater risk of developing heart disease. Therefore, knowing what we do about burnout, how can we prevent it?

When running a business, there are many steps a founder can take to alleviate burnout. One such measure is assigning and dividing up responsibility among employees to prevent any one employee from feeling overwhelmed. Another important step is for entrepreneurs to allow themselves and employees time off. Taking breaks and occasional vacations allows professionals to recharge and mitigate the effects of burnout. Lastly, to combat burnout it’s important to respect employees’ personal lives. Respecting employees’ boundaries can take many forms, whether that be flexible scheduling or no work emails after a certain hour. Together, these steps help to decrease the stress and exhaustion many working professionals confront on a daily basis.

Overall, to overcome burnout it is essential to reject the notion that we must work tirelessly and sacrifice our personal lives in order to be successful. This kind of thinking is counterintuitive and leads professionals to develop an unhealthy relationship to work. Although the idea of a work-life balance is not sustainable for many people, when running a business it’s vital to have a strong set of external values. Spending time with friends and family is equally important to the success of an entrepreneur as working hard. Having a social life and a strong support network outside of work helps entrepreneurs recover from setbacks and to not conflate their failures with their self-worth. Therefore, while there is no perfect solution to deal with burnout, by taking concrete action entrepreneurs can lessen its harmful effects and lead happier and more stress-free lives.

Do you believe burnout to be a good or bad thing? Leave a comment below with your thoughts!

This article was originally published on GREY Journal.