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Why Entrepreneurs Burn Out (And What To Do About It)

A conversation with psychotherapist Jade Barclay about her MBA thesis

Entrepreneurs and solo-preneurs burn out for different reasons than people who work for companies. Those reasons might surprise you. They did me when I reviewed a recent study out of the Australian Institute of Business. I recently spoke with its author and share the transcript below.

We take some pretty rich detours into the nature of language, time, decision-making, and more.

Here are highlights:

  • trends in our freelance society
  • the brain & body factors of entrepreneurship most people don't consider
  • differences between employee vs entrepreneur burn-out
  • how English-speaking languages center time & self
  • the challenges of self-efficacy for new entrepreneurs
  • the freedom of fewer choices
  • introverted entrepreneurs and extroverted entrepreneurs
  • pro-active preventions
  • why eating dessert first is best (my slant)

Almost every day I am in conversation with or working with people who risk feeling burnt out or wayward in their mission and vision. Anyone who ventures out on her or his own endeavors as creatives, entrepreneurs, solopreneurs, business owners risk getting overly stressed and ultimately burning out from their big ideas and our grand ideals.

Here to talk with me about her findings in stress and burnout specifically among entrepreneurs is Jade Barclay. Some of her findings about entrepreneurial burnout will surprise you.

Jade is a psychotherapist with an MBA - a rich combination. She recently completed her thesis on the subject of entrepreneurial burnout at the Australian Institute of Business. Thanks for joining me, Jade.

Jade Barclay: Thanks for having me, Jeffrey. It's wonderful to be here.

Jeffrey Davis: I keep up with trends in the workforce, especially in the United States. Some of the projections I've read predict that by 2020, 50% of the workforce will be freelancers in one way or another. What's further interesting is that most American companies now don't have paid employees. In 1995, it was a very different workforce landscape in which less than 10% of the U.S. workforce were freelancers. Now, by 2020, it's predicted that 50% of the U.S. workforce will be working for institutions or organizations.

I find these trends interesting in the context of your thesis. If I understand properly, your thesis shows that entrepreneurs experience burnout differently from company employees. Is that right?

Jade Barclay: Yeah, that was a very surprising finding for me as well. I wasn't expecting that. I was specifically looking at solo entrepreneurs because I thought that isolation would be a contributing factor to extra burnout, and that didn't show up. It was actually very, very different than what I was expecting, and there were a lot of surprises in the research.

Jeffrey Davis: There were a lot of surprises. Actually, that point about isolation not being a contributing factor was one of the surprises that I want to unpack, too. Before we dive into some of the specifics, tell us what led you, as a psychotherapist with an MBA, to this topic, and have you had any experience with burn out?

Jade Barclay: Well, I have had burnout experience as a freelancer, as a solo entrepreneur due to chronic illness because I had got first diagnosed with chronic fatigue back in 1992, so it's been a very, very long time with that myself. Basically, my body was allergic to 9 to 5 work. I would have a very strong IT career if I could actually do the hours, but instead it's writing and therapy and consulting that I've had to do because I've had to adjust.

Many people either have the opportunity or the obligation to work for themselves one way or another. They're looking at the work side of it, but they're not looking at the brain and the body side of it before they get in. What this kind of work does to your brain and body is so much of what the working for yourself experience is all about. Yes, I've had experience with that.

Burnout and chronic fatigue are kind of cousins, but they're not really related. I wanted to do something therapeutic even in a business study. When I worked with entrepreneurs on this project, what I found was in the mainstream media, there's a lot of talk lately about mental health, about burnout, about taking care of yourself, and about suicide risk in entrepreneurs. People are coming out and saying all of the things that are going on on the inside while they're trying to start a startup or take something public and things like that, and actually sharing a lot of these inner journeys.

Usually when there's a trend like that in mainstream media, it's piggybacked off a piece of research that's come out. This wasn't so. There's been almost zero research into burnout in the entrepreneur population. Burnout is usually studied in caring professions, in nurses, in therapists, in people who are spending all day everyday caring for other people in some way. That's where burnout research originated.

Then it moved from that to the organizational level going, "Okay. Well, if people in these particular helping professions are getting burned out, and getting depersonalized while they're in our employ, then that's a bit of an occupational health and safety risk." Research started to go on the organizational level.

As you say, more and more people are working for themselves. More and more people are becoming entrepreneurs. There are significant burnout risks happening in that side of the world that haven't been researched. It was actually really refreshing and surprising to be able to have a look at this understudied population.

Employee vs Entrepreneur Burnout

Jeffrey Davis: It's an interesting research field. It speaks to the sort of trends and cultural trajectory I find fascinating, too. Break down for us how employee burnout differs from entrepreneur or solopreneur burnout.

Jade Barclay: Typically with employees, the factors of burnout is depersonalization, and that word itself has various meanings in the burnout literature. It means that usually you feel like the person that you're connecting with is another person. With depersonalization, it becomes this is just another cog on the line. Just move it on. You stop having that human-to-human connection with others. It's just another number. Just get it done. There's also the loss of personal meaning in the work. That can show up in ambition and things like that.

With entrepreneurs, it's more likely to show up in the body than in the job which was very, very interesting. There were a whole raft of cognitive symptoms that would show up, so just not being able to focus and things like that, brain fog, that kind of thing. A lot of people actually had body symptoms. It was common to have people say, "My body just completely shut down. I couldn't work anymore."

There was often some kind of, not a one-off triggering experience, but there was a moment when they realized, "I can't do this anymore. I need to do something different." For a very small percent, it was about getting bored and having a lack of challenge.

People found their own ways of dealing with these things. What seemed to come out underneath these brain and body symptoms was entrepreneurs and employees have a different relationship to work.

Entrepreneurs and employees have a different relationship to time, decisions, and control.

Time, Language, & Self-Efficacy

Jeffrey Davis: Let's tap into that last one for a moment, too, if you don't mind. Time control and self-efficacy. People who work with me or follow me have all known I'm pretty time-obsessed. I've just just been obsessed with shaping time for 20-plus years.

Here's the thing, too, that I find really interesting. You have employees working for companies, and then they see entrepreneurs. They fantasize, "If only I could break away, and be free, and be this entrepreneur." They think, "I would have so much more freedom and control over my time and what I could pay attention to."

Those two things - freedom of time and freedom of attention - are, I think, a real lure and a real attraction for an employee wanting to become an entrepreneur.

As a side-note - but also a potentially germane one - in your study is this: I found this one marginal detail in your thesis which was you noted that although almost every participant said that he or she really sought more control of time, a solid third of your participants forgot when they scheduled an interview with you. On average you spent the first 8 to 12 minutes of a scheduled interview trying to track them down.

I make of that trend this: If a person has been working for 10, 20-plus years in a controlled time environment where she has been told how to spend her time, and what to pay attention to, suddenly she's free of that, but here's the thing: She hasn't built the skills of self-efficacy - concentration, discipline, time-shaping.

What's your take on that?

Jade Barclay: Managing your own time is definitely a developed skill. You're right. You haven't developed that.

I actually found it fascinating that so many people didn't show up in their appointments.

I think I was flexible and forgiving with that because I'm used to working with people with chronic illness, chronic fatigue. Cognitive symptoms from burnout such as brain fog affect our memory and attention. They affect our capacity to make decisions, our capacity to remember what decisions we already made.

Just the way that we relate to time, we don't think about particularly in English-speaking cultures because our language automatically gets us to think of time before we say anything because we have to choose what tense we're going to say with our words. Are we speaking present tense, future tense, past tense? It becomes really automatic the way that we think about time. It takes a little bit of extra effort to step back and have a look at, objectively, how am I relating to time, and how is that having an effect on me. When you combine time and control, it can change the entire world.

In an employee situation, your start time is set by someone else. Your end time is set by someone else. Usually the duration of your meetings is set by someone else within this hour by hour by our regimented world.

They were very specific about what aspects of their time they wanted to have more control over. One was, I believe, a translator and wanted to have control over when she took her breaks. It was all about nourishment. It was all about food and when you're feeling hungry being able to eat in those moments and not having to wait an extra two, three, four hours until the allotted scheduled time for your breaks.

So many of these things, they become relational about our relationship to time, our relationship to food, our relationship to people. When we don't have control like there's an urge to phone someone, but you can't do that until hours and hours or days later, or there's an urge to eat and you can't do that. In my case, there's an urge to take a nap, a need to do that. Some people were adamant about not wanting to have such a long commute and have more of that time to spend with your family was a big motivator that moved people into this entrepreneurial world and out of the employee world.

Jeffrey Davis: Can we go back for a moment and do a little hyperlink into something that made me really curious?

Tell us just a little bit more about what you meant by how in the English-speaking language we already speak so much about time that we're always thinking about it in sort of this default way that we never trip ourselves up out of, well, what is time?

Jade Barclay: It's not so much that we're talking about time, but the structure of the English language has time and self at its center. Many other languages don't have time at the center or have self at the center. Every time we speak a sentence, before it comes out of our mouths, we're determining, "Am I saying was, am or will be? That has to be constructed before. It's like that happens first and then we fit our thoughts into that structure.

When we orient ourselves, we are the center point, as reflected in our language, and I'm either looking straight or I'm looking to my left or to my right. That's how we tell our stories. Whereas in some other languages, the earth is the center point. We tell the stories in relation to northeast, west with the earth as the center of the compass. My favorite, favorite book on that is called The Geography of Thought.

English-speaking children tend to learn nouns first. It's very object-focused. In a particular study, Korean-speaking children learn relational words and verbs first. That structures how we think, and how we express, and how we relate to ourselves and our world forever.

Jeffrey Davis: I don't mind digressing on this at all just for a little bit more because actually, back in the '90s, I spent about seven weeks in Australia just walking by myself walking in all different parts. What I learned there was also learning more about some of the different aboriginal groups and the relationship to earth, and earth formations, and story. I was reading about how this American was learning from some of the indigenous people there. As they would take a walk, the fellow would tell a story about the way these rocks and crags were formed in conjunction with pace and rhythm as they were walking and so forth. Anyways, I'm kind of getting what you're suggesting, a whole different orientation.

Let's circle back around to your study. The digression though helps inform also your unique way of approaching some of these issues as a psychotherapist.

Jade Barclay: Thank you. It's interesting that you bring up the indigenous Australians because their language I find actually relates to the study because a lot of native languages have this. We have infinite numbers in our language, yes. They have one, two and many, right?

That's how the brain works. We can handle thinking about one, two. Then it flips over to "many".

When we're talking about entrepreneurs, in particular solo entrepreneurs and decisions - there's zillions of decisions. What time to wake up? Whether to bother getting dressed properly or not? What time we're going to eat? What project we're going to focus on now?

All of these decisions are taken out of your hands when you're an employee that are put back in your hands. There's big decisions and there's micro-decisions. It is overwhelming and it over-taxes and overloads the system. That's something that people had to become conscious of and to actively manage those things.

Jeffrey Davis: Exactly. This is all going back to self-efficacy. How do I actually learn how to use my mind in a whole different level that I've taken for granted for a decade or more that is basically how do I function everyday?

Nobody else is telling me how to think and make decisions.

The Freedom of Fewer Choices & Authority

Jade Barclay: There's also the balance between freedom and authority as well. A lot of the authority for our own choices has to be placed outside of us for a long time. All of the authority for our own choices is put squarely back on our shoulders when we're working for ourselves. We haven't really developed into that. It's just placed there all of a sudden, so that's a big learning thing.

Freedom to make choices. There's all of those influences. There's so much choice. It's like there's an overabundance of choice. Whenever I go to the States, it's overwhelming. I just eat whatever someone ordered before me because I can't look at the menus.

Jeffrey Davis: I know. You go to New York and you spend all day eating. There's so much.

Jade Barclay: Then you choose what you're going to have like which kind of fries, or salad, or veggies do you want and which of the seven different dressings do you want? How about 62 different varieties of cheese? Make another choice on top of another choice.

There's this concept of removing the burden of choice. Very, very common in some Asian cultures where the host removes the burden of choice from their guests by actually providing something that's going to be delicious and nutritious where they don't have to choose.

That's something that we need to do with ourselves as entrepreneurs is we think we've been craving all these extra choices and that will give us freedom, but it actually gives us more freeze response in the day. If we can do little things to remove that burden of choice and go, "Right. At this time, I do this. That decision is made. I don't make it everyday." It's already done. You know?

Jeffrey Davis: I could not agree more. Creativity thrives within constraints and often voluntary constraints. This is how prominent artists operate, too."I'm just going to work with black and white this year. Let me see what I can do with that." You place those constraints, and you learn to place those constraints. It's kind of this nuanced difference maybe between our perceptions of freedom being freedom of choice and liberation, being liberated from old patterns that aren't serving us.

Support & Isolation

Let's go back to support and isolation. You mentioned support earlier and isolation. This finding about isolation was maybe the biggest surprise for me because one of the cultural conversations I keep abreast of is the increased sense of isolation and how people are craving belonging, connecting, and so forth. Yet, once I reviewed your study, you found that more people in the workplace describe experiencing isolation more than entrepreneurs.

Unpack that for us. It seems so counter-intuitive.

Jade Barclay: I was very surprised by that, but it came up over and over again. Some of the people articulated it beautifully. It's like there's lip service support when you're in an organization. You're surrounded by all these people but you actually feel more alone. There's a policy document that says everyone can reach out for help, but everyone knows whoever goes and knocks on the HR department's door is going to get fired the next day. That kind of thing is what is spoken and what is unspoken.

Most of the people felt that sense when they were surrounded by people in a supposedly supportive environment but they felt that they couldn't actually reach out in their times of need, and that they had to maintain a brave face. They actually felt more isolated than than working solo, which I wasn't expecting to find at all. Because that was such a big factor in their employee experience, they've actively created the kinds of support that they need while designing their entrepreneur experience.

Jeffrey Davis: Like what?

Jade Barclay: There's people who connected with like-minded networks and they connect with them as they need. They connect with mentors and get the actual support of people who are in [the same field]. We had a broad range of entrepreneurs. There were people in healthcare, in coaching, in marketing, in sales, in translation services, and high tech, and low tech, and everything in between. Some had actively recruited supervision.

There was also physiological support. Water. Water was amazing. People mentioned the soothing and rejuvenating aspects of water that was really supportive whether they were walking around it or taking a shower, or swimming, just being on, in, or near water. It just spontaneously came up in some many interviews.

Jeffrey Davis: Let me go back to something else. Was there a correlation between the number of human interactions that people had in the day and how much isolation or rather how much burnout they felt or stressed? Was that correlation in your study?

Jade Barclay: There's correlations with that in employee research because that's for people who are spending a lot of time per day. What I found is there was a big difference between self-reported introverts and extroverts. The people who were extroverts, a lot of them said that they were working by themselves but they usually had a business partner. They were looking for another business partner right now. That was very interesting that they like to work with someone to bounce ideas of.

The introverts were really, really happy to work on their own and were not looking for a partner at all. The introverts actively had time on their own and they had deliberately isolating activities. If it's connected isolation, it feels more like solitude to me rather than ...

Jeffrey Davis: Versus isolation.

Jade Barclay: It's not when you're feeling alone. Introverts would experience alone time as solitude, as rejuvenating, as creative. They would fiercely protect that time because it was really, really, really important.

The entrepreneurs tended to connect with people on a daily basis. The work that they choose to do would be more engaging with people. Those two seem to be the most grounded and balanced. They seem to have a balance of both. They had some time on their own that didn't feel like isolation. It felt like solitude and it felt creative and rejuvenating. They had time with others where they could be completely present. Because of my therapy background, I was really interested in that with the therapists and the coaches that I interviewed.

They would actually balance their time - time when you're coaching or when you're in therapy, time with other people that's deep and intense but also having some levity, having some light carefree connected time and having some solitude that felt connected as well that enables you to actually be present in the times when you needed to be.

Jeffrey Davis: You just reminded me, too, of research that came out a few years ago, too, which wouldn't surprise you in your line of work that people who do have regular meaningful conversations report significantly greater levels of health, and happiness, and well-being.

Proactive Preventions

Jeffrey Davis: Let's get into, I'm sure what people are very interested in, too, which are some recommendations, maybe even some proactive prevention because your study gets into that as well.

Could you tell us some of those recommendations for avoiding burnout or reversing it if you're experiencing burnout?

Jade Barclay: It works for both. The first thing is to actually recognize that it's going on. One of the things that is really fascinating, nobody talks about burnout while they're in it. "Burnout is visible in hindsight" is what one of the participants said, and I have to agree.

We often override our feelings and override our bodily experience in order to get on with the task at hand. That is planting seeds for inevitable burnout. Every time you ignore what your body and your mind experiences, you kind of put a veil between you and yourself. Then you put another veil and then you put another veil. Then you don't know what's going on and everybody collapses one day. You don't even have any warning, but you did have warnings. You just weren't attuned to them anymore.

Have a daily attunement practice where you can actually connect in with yourself and notice what's going on.

In those moments where you feel hungry but you push on, or you feel tired but you push on, or you get an inspired idea to call someone, but you're in the middle of another task, just take a breath in that moment and acknowledge that impulse has arisen and then you can make a conscious choice about it going, "Okay. This has happened," so you're not blocking yourself off.

You can go, "Okay. I will do that now, or I'll finish this task and then I'll go do that." Rather than just get into the habit of ignoring that the impulse has arisen in the first place. That would be first because then you're not going to be planting the seeds for future burnout. You'll get early warning signs rather than having to have a Mack truck knock you over before you notice what's going on.

The second thing would be how you manage your time.

Manage your time by your energy, not your urgency.

Being an entrepreneur, we actually have the luxury of having more control over our time.

Removing a lot of those daily choices that don't have to be daily choices and say, "Okay. This is the food that I'm going to eat this week." Just have it pre-packed and pull it out at the time. You don't have to make a decision about breakfast, and lunch, and dinner, and snacks, and drinks. Do I have coffee or not today? Decide things in advance where possible. Then with your time, managing by energy rather than urgency is really, really valuable.

Everyone seems to be seeking work-life balance and they want to go "If only I had 20 weeks of holiday". If you only had 20 minutes of actual rejuvenation today, you'd be okay.

We don't need work-life balance, particularly entrepreneurs. We love our work. Work is life. We need brain-life balance. We need the way that we are managing our time, the way that we manage our communication with ourselves and others to actually be friendly to our brain and our body. In the interest of brain-life balance, when you're well-rested so usually this is within the first few hours after waking, that's when to make decisions and to do big creative things.

Get your best, most burning things created when you're well-rested.

When you have medium energy, that's when you do slow burn things like learning or researching, things that require a longer concentration, but you don't actually have to be evaluating and deciding. You're taking in rather than making decisions.

Then we have low energy. That's admin repetitive, rhythmic tasks. Rhythmic things are actually really, really soothing. I integrate rhythm into the kid's study schedules because when you do something that's rhythmic, it connects things inside the brain, particularly if you can do something rhythmic with another person. We play table, tennis, and handball and things because both the nervous systems get in sync, and then that actually helps you to be more in sync within yourself as well. Rhythmic things like filing paperwork and deleting emails out of your inbox and things like that. Finding rhythmic rejuvenating things that aren't taxing when you have low energy.

Jeffrey Davis: I appreciate the way you divided the high, medium, and low, too, that is similar ways that we work as well with people in our community but not quite that distinct. This does go back to self-efficacy and intentionality with shaping time.

There's something also that I call deliberate daydreaming. When your energy is really low - I love what you say about rhythmic activities when energy is low because when energy is low - we know the frontal cortex kind of goes to sleep.

Our decision-making process just gets sucked into something that's really distracting. We get stuck on social media or something like that that's really distracting. Usually, it's not helping us move anywhere.

There's something I call deliberate daydreaming. When you're tired, this is actually a great opportunity to recline or go for a walk with maybe an idea just in the back of your mind somewhere. It's in those moments quite often that we do get the sort of aha moment. It's sort of the lazy element of creativity. It's like the back burner of creativity.

Is there another recommendation?

Jade Barclay: Yeah. One of the huge things for entrepreneurs is that they're always on. They're always thinking about the business. They're always thinking about what's next. So many people reported that when they were an employee, they left work at work at 5 PM. They actually switch off and had a life. As an entrepreneur, they didn't have that.

Every now and then, they do something to step away completely from work to actually take their mind somewhere else. Everybody said that they didn't do it as often as they'd like. Ideally, twice a day.

Stepping away, some people would use the Pomodoro Technique, so they actively step away for five minutes every hour or half hour. Others, it would be at the end of the day. Having something where you consciously step away. I say step away twice a day and step away in a big way once a week. Actually connect with nature. Get away from your usual work environment and step completely away from your work twice a day a little bit and once a week a big bit. It's really, really, really important.

Stepping away is often getting into your body. If you need to schedule some thing, go surfing. We go to the trampoline park a couple of times a week and do back flips and things. It's wonderful.

Jeffrey Davis: It's a whole other part of being human that we forget about. We get surprisingly sedentary as entrepreneurs.

Jade Barclay: As entrepreneurs, we have the luxury to be able to take a walk whenever we feel like it, to be able to go surfing whenever we feel like it. We can schedule that in.

One thing that I found in particular, entrepreneurs and solo entrepreneurs tend to save their favorite activities as a reward for when they've accomplished something. That's like putting your gas all over the windscreen over your car.

Jeffrey Davis: I always eat dessert first.

Jade Barclay: Yeah, it's fuel. The things that you love, they are fuel, not rewards.

Jeffrey Davis: Right, right.

Jade Barclay: We don't live in a rewarding or punishing universe but somehow we set up this reward and punishment system with ourselves. The things we love and that lights us up, they are fuel. You do them first and then everything else that you do, you bring more of yourself to it when you've actually awakened more of yourself first by doing those things that light you up.

Jeffrey Davis: Complete agree. I have tested this out with myself for a long time. It alters how you approach everything else for the rest of the day. Then what you perceive as dredge work or whatever, it has a whole different lens.

Well, I really appreciate your spending your time with us, and your knowledge. Jade, thanks so much.

Jade Barclay: Thank you so much, Jeffrey.

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