Succeed or Burnout Trying? We Can’t Work Like This.

November 12, 2013

11:00 am

It's incredibly easy in a startup to just keep working, working, working. Days turn into nights and late nights turn into weekends. The to-do list and the queue of emails in the inbox just get longer the more time you spend with them. If you're not careful, burnout can creep up on you really easily, and in my experience, whether you’ll succumb is closely aligned with the philosophy you have about work and your work habits.

Be warned: it will NEVER all get done. Spending so much time in your inbox and with your to-do list is actually part of the reason why you have so many emails and other things to do.

Enter the Burnout Culture

Back in 1983, the software developers at Macintosh were often found at their desks at 11pm at night. To acknowledge the extra work, the company’s finance team famously had sweatshirts made up with “working 90 hours a week and loving it” emblazoned on the back. The team was a young bunch with few family responsibilities and were happy to work these hours for a while, says Andy Hertzfeld.

Twenty years have now passed and it doesn’t seem as if everyone is loving these long hours as much as those developers in the Eighties. Many working in the startup world have buckled from exhaustion and pressure while getting a new company up and running, or just trying to sustain momentum and grow. Not only are the working hours long, but because the technology has allowed us to take work anywhere, we’re always just a click away from our never-ending projects.

The paradox of freedom and flexibility that comes with mobile technology is that it also keeps us trapped and unable to disconnect. Smartphones on the beach and iPads by the pool are becoming an all-too-common part of the business person’s so-called “off time.”

Danish entrepreneur Richard Blackham has an attitude common to founders of new companies:

“If you're a startup, holidays don't matter. The life of an entrepreneur is a constantly evolving path of commitment and focus. No one takes time off. They take it with them. Who on earth has time to be away from opportunity? Only public sector workers, so far as I can see!”

For many people, the idea of work-life balance is a myth that bears no reality to their situation.

Signs of Burnout

Burnout comes in all shapes and sizes, and not all symptoms are visible.

Exhaustion: One of the more obvious reactions to an enormous amount of stress. It exhibits as a chronic lack of energy, whether that’s physical, emotional or mental. Exhaustion, with all it’s symptoms, like weakened immune system and sore eyes, can still creep up on us and knock us right off our feet. Our inability to perceive just how hard we are pushing our limits is how we completely lose balance.

Cynicism: You begin to think that it doesn’t matter how much you do – you’ll still get nowhere. You find it difficult to think outside the box and begin to doubt what you and your team are capable of. This pessimistic attitude can start to leak into other areas of your life.

Lack of concentration: Stress makes it harder for you to concentrate on the task at hand, leaving you unable to work at the level you used to be able to. You’ll notice that it becomes increasingly hard to focus on any one thing. Without realizing it, you have three half-tasks finished, 20 tabs open on your browser while you’re scrolling through Instagram photos on your phone. Trying to refocus becomes increasingly more difficult.

Bad habits: You pick up new ones, or existing bad habits get worse. You’re drinking or smoking more; or you find yourself living on rubbish food eaten while sitting at your desk 18 hours a day.

False sense of busyness: You find yourself constantly responding how crazy your life is when someone asks you how you’re doing. Are you attached to how busy you are or making others believe you are busier than you actually need to be?

Guilt: Because you don’t feel that you’re getting all your work done despite all the hours you’re working, you become guilty. That may be because you’ve been given too much to do, or because you’re not functioning as well as you should. Whatever the reason, in the end it adds up to even more guilt.

(Read these Forbes and Inc articles for even more examples).

Effects of Burnout

How will this affect your business? Burnout leads to missed deadlines, frustrated clients and an increasingly unhappy workforce who are left to take the strain. Increased levels of stress and burnout can eventually lead to depression or heart problems, meaning time off to recover.

“In the future, the greatest challenge to the global health system will be stress-related diseases,” said Heinz Schuepbach, director of the school of applied psychology at the University of Northwestern Switzerland, as reported in The Raw Story.

Those who don’t take time off to recover can negatively affect the team’s efforts. People can sense confidence and anxiety. If symptoms of burnout are bubbling to the surface, this can cause a ripple effect as employees begin to emulate these behaviors exhibited by colleagues, and especially their leaders.

The effects of burnout are not just a local issue. It will inevitably take its toll on the world’s already shaky economy if we don’t take the time to prevent or recover from burning out.

Recovering from Burnout

Thankfully, there are ways to recover from burnout and, if implemented our daily routines, these tips can also help prevent going too far over the edge. Here are a few ways to start to recover your well-being:

Deal with your most important, highest-leverage projects FIRST. Doing this when you're at your best will mean that all of the other little things will eventually fall into place, and even if some of them slip, at least you know you haven't traded what was most important for lots of little things that aren't AS important.

Take a rest. Time off will give your mind and body a chance to recover and regroup itself.

Spend time on a hobby. Quality time on something other than work is a must-have for a healthy psyche. Devesh Dwivedi of gets his kicks from reading books in the library. I go kiteboarding. What do these hobbies have in common? They make us concentrate on something other than work and metaphorically transport us to another world, which is a great escape. (Get more tips from entrepreneurs in this article that appeared in HuffPost Business).

Switch the phone off. Check your emails only at certain times of the day and don’t have yourself connected 24/7.

Take a vacation. And choose activities that will engage your mind, like a rigorous hike, that force thoughts of work to the back of your mind so you can attack that trail and enjoy the release of endorphins and serotonin. This time for reflection can help give you new perspective and allows room for creative and new ideas to form in our relaxed minds.

Resign. If there’s a problem at work that isn’t going away, don’t keep banging your head against a brick wall. Get out of there – before you’re hospitalized for exhaustion.

Gain Without the Pain

Burnout does not have to be the only route to the top. And who wants to feel like a pile of rags when they reach their summit? The road to success should not come at the expense of your health and personal life. Your best work will come when you optimize your energy and feel fulfilled.

Sure, there will be hard days and it won’t be easy. Just remember that the fire in your belly is the fuel that will drive you forward. And like any flame, it will need oxygen to keep burning — please don’t forget to take a deep breathe now and again.

What do you do when you feel on the brink of burning out? Share your stories with us in the comments below.

Guest author David Hassell is a serial entrepreneur and presently Founder & CEO of 15Five, a SaaS company focused on helping individuals and organizations reach their highest potential. Hailed by Fast Company as the “15 Most Important Minutes of Your Work Week” 15Five creates an internal communication process that enables the most important information to flow seamlessly throughout an organization, to surface issues before they become problems, to celebrate wins, discover great ideas and stay tuned in to the morale of the team. David formerly served as President of the San Francisco chapter of Entrepreneurs' Organization and was named “The Most Connected Man You Don't Know in Silicon Valley” by Forbes.

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