Understanding burnout

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Something I believe all entrepreneurs must face every day as they push to build something from nothing is the spectre of burnout. Put simply, burnout is physical and/or/as-a-result of mental exhaustion. Everyone can suffer from it from athletes to stay at home parents to big company executives. People want to do the best they can at whatever they are doing but at some point they hit a wall.

The idea of burnout is not something far from people’s minds as we enter the final push before the holidays. This is a stressful time of year where people joke about shopping or family fatigue. That makes burnout particularly newsworthy this month as well. For example:

What makes the problem a very complicated one is that Doctors don’t think they can diagnose burnout. It could be the diversity in how burnout shows itself that leads to the inability to recognize it in themselves or others. Upon some self-reflection I believe I might have some personal experience to offer that may help others.

Recognizing burnout in myself

Over the last 4 months I have struggled to come to terms with why I was so unhappy given I have so many positive things in my life. In general I could see some odd things that I didn’t like about myself:

  • I didn’t remember the last time I had a dream that I could remember. I was sleeping so badly that I don’t think I did dream.
  • Short tempered.
  • I didn’t take care of my house – I really use to enjoy working around the house, keeping the back yard clean, growing tomatoes, etc.
  • I didn’t go fishing hardly at all last summer, I haven’t been snowboarding in years!
  • I never felt like I was getting anything done even though I managed to attract some significant capital to the two projects close to my heart and see steady growth in both.
  • I didn’t believe anyone thought what I was doing mattered or that anyone cared.
  • Overall I was a grump.
What disguised it is that I had a creative outlet that I was able to find joy in and focus. The downside was that I used any recharge time I had towards it.

I knew something was up in August of this year but I struggled to find a way to deal with it. My first thought was to just step back a little, look forward to bringing on some amazing new staff, and try to start a new term with a new attitude. What I failed to realize was that I was circling around the total burnout toilet bowl.

The first self-realization moment of things needing to change was when my son started hockey; he couldn’t skate and he didn’t want to learn. As a Canadian and a parent I felt like I failed my son as I didn’t take the time to teach him how to skate and have fun while doing it. I decided there and then to buy skates, helmet, and a stick. I then found any open ice time I could and took him out. My kids had to be more important than any work I felt I needed to do. The boy now loves hockey and the fun we have on Saturday mornings at the rink is something I truly cherish.

Around the same time something happened to a good friend and my co-founder (startup spouse): his wife gave birth to his son at 26 weeks in San Jose while on a business trip. At first it had an impact but then in mid-October I went down to see how they were doing and see if I could help. At that point nothing else mattered but the health of that tiny baby that was fighting to some day face burnout himself. He is doing really well now.

Those situations, along with my family and a number of conversations with people I deeply respect helped me start to realign my priorities and thinking. It wasn’t an instant fix. It is something I need to work on. I am lucky though, I didn’t collapse and hit a debilitating stage of burnout.

Looking back and times of high stress

In the last 10 years I can think of three different occasions when I was in a similar situation. The first time I started doing my Msc to find value and purpose in my work. The second time I had a very different kind of manager that recognized the signs early and did something about it. I also had a ton of positive re-enforcement from my family and the community to bounce back. This third time though, I let myself be isolated from coworkers and others for close to the last year. I thought that if I stopped doing the things I enjoyed but were time-consuming (like participating in the community) it would help, it didn’t. It made it far worse.

Next time (and there could be a next time although I am going to put more effort in to avoid it), I need to keep my perspective and make sure I find joy in what I am doing. I also need to take more time for the people in both my personal and professional life. Throwing myself at my work does result in achieving amazing things but at the same time, balance is needed in order to enjoy those accomplishments.

In trying to understand burnout my message to entrepreneurs is that you need to recognize when your behaviour or attitude changes. No one is immune to it and just because you haven’t hit physical exhaustion yet you might be reaching the point of mental exhaustion. Encourage feedback from your friends and family just like you would from customers or advisors on your startup. Listen, adjust based on the feedback, and grow.

Further reading

How to avoid or deal with burnout, collection of articles that are worth a read.

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