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Business owners are on the verge of burnout: 3 warning signs and what to do about it

By Diane Amato

Published September 14, 2022 • 7 Min Read

According to a 2022 report from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) and Nexium Canada, two thirds of small business owners reported being close to burnout earlier this year, and 50 percent claimed to be struggling with their mental health.

Speaker and scholar Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe, a multi-award-winning psychology and education instructor who specializes in resiliency, navigating stress and change, leadership and personal wellness in the workplace, reveals her findings are similar. In a recent conversation, she notes business owners are experiencing high levels of stress and exhaustion, which can impact both wellness and performance.

Owners aren’t putting on their own “oxygen mask” first

“What I’ve noticed over the last few years with business owners is there is a continued propensity to put the needs of their staff and their teams ahead of their own emotional and mental health,” says Dr. Hanley-Dafoe. While such tendencies were true before, it leveled up during the challenging pandemic season. And today, as owners remain concerned about their people, Dr. Hanley-Dafoe is seeing the behaviour bubble up again. “It becomes a really challenging load to carry with just two hands,” she says, adding that because owners are shouldering the weight of their businesses and caring for their employees while depleted and tired themselves, they are running the risk of burning out.

Part of the problem is that putting employee needs ahead of one’s own is part of the narrative of being a business owner. “It is what is expected,” says Dr. Hanley-Dafoe. “Owners feel this sacrifice is necessary to do to be a good leader and a good business owner.” At the same time, she admits that there is also the reality that if owners don’t take on the work, pressure and responsibility, no one else will. “There is an enormous amount of pressure when you’re betting on yourself, your skill sets, your talents and your gifts,” she says. “No one will care about it with the same diligence as you, because you’re all in – you don’t have the option of taking a day off or stepping back.”

What happens when self-care slides

Unfortunately, there are several negative consequences to continuously prioritizing others’ needs – and the needs of the business – over one’s own. “The biggest takeaway is that your wellness will suffer – your physical health, emotional health and even relationships will start to suffer,” explains Dr. Hanley-Dafoe. “Your quality of life is deeply and negatively impacted when there isn’t time taken to recover, recharge and reset.”

This isn’t news to a lot of business owners, who understand the importance of taking care of themselves. “But there is often a gap between what we know and what we do,” shares Dr. Hanley-Dafoe, who has studied the phenomenon of knowing better doesn’t also mean doing better. “People are very aware of what it takes to feel healthy, but there’s a disconnect.”

One of the ways she helps business owners connect the dots between knowing and doing is to emphasize the impact to performance when they run the risk of burning out. “We see that errors increase when you start trying to do things in overtime,” she explains. “There is a connection between productivity and recovery – one of the things we talk about is understanding that recovery is actually part of high performance and being able to do your job well.”

3 warning signs you’re burning out

Dr. Hanley-Dafoe talks about three markers that she encourages business owners to watch out for, before health and performance are at risk.

  • Deep exhaustion. “If you’re going to bed early and waking up still tired, if you cannot hold energy, it’s a sign that your system is overworked,” she says. In this case, it can take longer to do tasks and there may be a significant lack of motivation.

  • Cynicism. “If you notice you’re getting a chip on your shoulder, becoming easily irritated and/or feel no one can do the job as well as you can, this is a sign you’re on a slippery slope to burnout.”

  • Making errors. “Missing things, dropping the ball and forgetting things more than you used to is a good cue that you need to take a mindful minute,” she says.

Advice for business owners: Find a balance to combat burnout

Following more than 17 years of teaching and research, Dr. Hanley-Dafoe has considerable experience coaching business owners and leaders on resiliency and workplace wellness. She offers practical, insightful tips to help recalibrate and avoid (or recover from) burnout.

Embrace vulnerability

“The signature strength of a leader is their ability to embrace vulnerability,” says Dr. Hanley-Dafoe. “There is an enormous amount of cognitive energy that goes into wearing masks or armoring up and we’re depleting our systems faster than we need to when we’re always trying to put a game face on,” she explains.

She adds that knowing when to share – and who to share with – is also key. “There is a season and a time to be able to disclose our vulnerabilities and we should do it with care. But we need to make sure we do, because it’s important for our ability to perform.”

Reach out

Having real conversations and feeling seen, heard and validated by others provides a sense of relief and a feeling that we’re not alone. In particular, if working in a remote environment, camaraderie is important. “Regardless of where you are in terms of physical space, ensure you’re making time for relationships and connections,” encourages Dr. Hanley-Dafoe. Because at the end of the day every business is a people business – relationships matter.”

Get grounded with self-care strategies

At the same time, she recognizes the need for solitude and the importance of having a few minutes to collect one’s thoughts. “Those mindful minutes are so important,” she says, adding that the absence of a commute has taken away this transition time for many. “For business owners who are working and living in the same space they occupy, they are missing moments of solitude they could previously count on.” For those working on premises, it’s still important to give yourself permission to take breaks throughout the day, especially when first returning. Any type of change to a routine requires an adjustment period. Be patient with yourself as you reacclimate to new routines. Another key idea is to schedule blocks or uninterpreted time in your calendar for self-care and respect this time with yourself, as you would with your most important client!

  • Discover the power of nature. “Simply going outdoors is an extraordinary way to recalibrate a tired nervous system,” says Dr. Hanley-Dafoe. She often tells leaders and business owners that when they don’t feel like they have time to go out for a walk, it’s in fact the time when it’s needed the most.

  • Use music to set the tone. “Music can give you energy, it can help you unwind,” she says. “It can set the mood and reregulate you when you’re feeling tired or overwhelmed.”

  • Re-establish healthy routines like prioritizing sleep, diet and exercise, and avoiding self-sabotaging behaviours.

Be grateful for the positives

Dr. Hanley-Dafoe encourages all business owners to practice gratitude and take time to think about what is going right and what is working. “Always being in a problem-focused mindset creates feelings of scarcity that there’s never enough time to get everything done – there are just too many problems.” When the lens is shifted to bring awareness of what is going well, and taking note of how far we have come, it makes us feel better.

Bottom Line

Business owners are by nature hard working, ambitious and willing to push themselves to their limits to take care of their businesses and their employees. Taking time for self-care, however, is essential not just for physical and mental health, but also for the ability to perform at a high standard, maintain essential relationships and run a productive business.

Adds Dr. Hanley-Dafoe: “Prioritizing self-care gives us a better return on our investment than running on empty ever will.”

Crisis Services Canada offers a directory of local support phone and text lines that are accessible 24/7.

This article is intended as general information only and is not to be relied upon as constituting legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. Information presented is believed to be factual and up-to-date but we do not guarantee its accuracy and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the authors as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada or any of its affiliates.

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