A guide to burnout for the self-employed

Subira Jones
Subira Jones, aka The Corporate Hippie

Entrepreneur and founder of MPWRD Consulting

Subira Jones was named the Young Business Person of the Year at the SME London Business Awards 2023. Here, she shares her experiences of burnout, and offers tips and advice on avoiding and recovering from it.

Mental Health at Work has partnered with Simply Business to support the UK’s self-employed with their mental health and wellbeing. Together we surveyed more than 700 small business owners to understand their challenges. Now we want to start a conversation and break the stigma surrounding mental health at work

Let’s be honest, many of us left full time employment in the hope to escape the “rat race”, and discover the promise of greater freedom, mental wellbeing, and fulfilment, that we heard was promised to us if we “became our own boss”.

But the truth is, being self-employed brings its own unique pressures​Pressure versus stress Video This two-minute video explains the relationships between performance, pressure and stress – and how stress can cause and worsen existing mental health problems.Free By: Mind View resource that can feel like living on a rollercoaster. After all we are financially reliant on ourselves; can become overwhelmed with all the ideas we have, and we are genuinely passionate about the work we do.

It’s easy to feel like you're constantly on the go

As an award-winning entrepreneur and burnout expert, I am not exempt from these experiences. At times I have cried tears of frustration, or felt the elation of partnering with a new client, and at other times, been so inspired by a new idea, it has left me tired before I even begin working on them!

Being a business owner, it’s easy to feel like you’re constantly on the go, naturally leaving you feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. Therefore, it is important to understand the difference between being rundown and burnt out.

A man looks at his tablet computer, deep in thought.

Although they have similar presentations, such as exhaustion, lack of motivation​Focus PDF This one-page PDF from Unilever explores ways of helping you to regain your focus, allowing you to give tasks your undivided attention.Free By: Unilever View resource, irritability, reduced productivity, and physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach problems, they have very different causes, which means they need a different approach to prevent and recover from it.

Being run down typically refers to a temporary feeling of physical or mental fatigue that arises from overexertion, working intensely, or living under high pressure​Making decisions under pressure Web page This web page from the NHS is designed to help team leaders working in healthcare to understand the impact of difficult decision-making while under pressure, and offers ways you can help to ease that strain.Free By: NHS England and NHS Improvement View resource. Despite feeling tired, achy, or moody, you can still function relatively well in your day-to-day life and at work.

Burnout is caused by chronic stress

In contrast, burnout is caused by chronic stress exposure resulting in a state of emotional​Emotional resilience support forum Web page This training session from the Hummingbird Project is designed to help your staff to focus on their emotional wellbeing, encouraging the group to identify their own barriers and difficulties and thinking of solutions that work for them as individuals.Paid forRequires pre-booking By: The Hummingbird Project View resource, physical, and mental exhaustion, rendering you unable to perform even the simplest of tasks.

Stress is just like fire. It can be productive and constructive when well-managed, or disastrous and catastrophic when mis-managed – or worse, if we don’t know it’s occurring.

A woman is exhausted on the train.

If stress is like fire, then burnout is like a housefire where the levels of stress we experience becomes so overwhelming we lose your sense of control and purpose​Purpose PDF This guide can help you and you colleagues discover your purpose, and ensure you are working towards it every day.Free By: Unilever View resource.

The only way to deal with a housefire is to put out the fire.

The fires that need to be put out are the unnecessary stress in our lives, categorised as a stressful situation that do not bring us closer to the personal/professional goals we want to achieve and experience!

Ask yourself these two questions

A quick way to identify if you are “rundown” or “burnt out” is to ask yourself these two questions:

  1. Do you feel like you have control over your life?
  2. Do you have a clear sense of purpose and vision for your life?

If you can answer “yes” to both questions, you are most likely “rundown’ not “burnt out”.

If you answer “no” to one of the questions, it’s important to begin creating a solution to prevent burnout.

If you answer “no” to both questions, it’s important to begin creating a plan to recover from burnout.

A to-do list

Recovering from being rundown requires rest, just like a laptop that needs charging. We too need to allow ourselves to recharge through both passive and inactive rest that meets the needs of the eight dimensions of wellness, including physical, intellectual, emotional, social, environmental, spiritual, financial, and occupational wellness.

Here are some tips to help you recover if you’re already feeling run down:

  • Take breaks: It’s essential to take regular breaks throughout the day to give your mind and body a chance to rest and recharge from being rundown.
  • Set boundaries: Establish clear boundaries with your clients or customers around work hours, deadlines, and expectations so you don’t overwork yourself and so you are not always rundown.
Don't be afraid to reach out to friends, family, or a mental health professional
  • Prioritise self-care: Make time for exercise, healthy eating, and other activities that help you to relax and recharge so you can recover from being rundown.
  • Seek support: Don’t be afraid to reach out to friends, family, or a mental health professional for support if you’re struggling or begin to delegate work to your team or freelance experts.
  • Practice mindfulness: Incorporate mindfulness techniques, such as deep breathing, meditation, or yoga, into your daily routine​Maintaining team routines Web page Routines have proven psychological benefits. In times of high stress and high uncertainty, such as the coronavirus pandemic, establishing a degree of stability can be an effective way for managers to protect wellbeing in their teams.Free By: NHS England and NHS Improvement View resource to help reduce stress and improve mental clarity.
A woman meditates outside.
Rest does not prevent Burnout

Recovering from burnout requires a more structured approach that involves seeking professional help in changing your lifestyle, and creating a career that aligns with your values and personal goals.

In conclusion, being self-employed can feel like living on a rollercoaster. It can be demanding, overwhelming, and exhausting.

However, by understanding the difference between being rundown and burnt out; periodically conducting an audit of your life and career to identify any potential fires; and incorporating a robust “rundown recovery” plan as part of our lifestyles, we can create a sustainable and fulfilling life as an entrepreneur or business owner.

Visit Simply Business to find out more about the challenges facing the self-employed and small business owners, along with practical resources to support you.

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